Georgia’s Oatland Island Residents at Risk of Fighting for their Properties

Little Goette Island

Is This Land Your Land?


Tybee Island, GA: To the locals on Richardson Creek, the well known islands referred to as Big and Little Goette may be the target of confiscation by government entities challenging their historical legitimacy as private land. 

Homeowners on Oatland Island share concerns with their neighboring islands due to a dispute with Deputy Attorney General Isaac Byrd as to proof the lands were granted lands. Mr. Byrd has been unavailable for comment according to Tybee Island’s attorney Bubba Hughes.

The concern stems from a Georgia State Code 50-16-1 being interpreted to require property owners to prove the land they hold deed to, is granted, by the State of Georgia or the King of England. About 300 years ago Europeans were trying to settle in what is current day Savannah.  A group of British got together and formed a trust to fund and manage the endeavor, they sailed over a boat full of people, then negotiated a treaty with the indigenous inhabitants for their land, and then, granted the land how they saw fit to adventurers and taxed them on property they were required to improve. 

Oatland Island is believed to be named by the McQueen family after the American Revolution and remained in the family for nearly one hundred years. Both McQueen Island and Oatland Island were unrecorded acquisitions of famed “Don Juan” McQueen in the 1780’s during the reconstruction period following the war. Farris Cadle, the one known surviving land grant researcher, believes most of McQueen Island was never granted and ultimately remained in government hands. 

If you have been to Tybee, Wilmington, Talahi or Whitemarsh islands in Georgia’s Sea Island District, you may have crossed Oatland Island on the Expressway where the well known Wildlife Education Center is located.

The states highest legal entity maintains the position, if the land was not granted, it is the property of the government regardless of hundreds of years of private transfer of title. The current deed holders of Little Goette (named after owners from the 1920’s) have been in a terminal holding pattern for years after applying for a dock permit due to the challenge of legitimacy of their title to the property. Neighboring Big Goette Island, owned by local restauranteur Ansley Williams, purchased his property from the Goette’s many years prior.

According to co-owner Lee Taylor, Little Goette’s land grant search found legitimate Trustee grants recorded as far back as 1748. Awarded to possibly indentured Swiss immigrants Alther and Hoffstater, a butcher and a boat builder who arrived on the second ship with Savannah’s founder James Ogelthorpe, and re-granted under the Crown in Colonial 1756 by Mr. Alther’s son Joseph. These documents are preserved for the public in the Georgia State Archives and are available online for review. The grant describes the then “un-named” island to be located 8 miles east, south-east of the Savannah settlement across from Whitemarsh Island.  

A Trustee Grant was given by that group of British that James Ogelthorpe belonged to. The Crown Grant was created when the Trustees turned their charter over to the King of England 19 years later. The State Grant came into existence after the revolution. Both Crown and State grants exist in the state of Georgia. Simply, if the land is not granted, sold or disposed of, it is considered the property of the government. 

“Just because you pay taxes and maintain the land does not mean you have legal title to the land unless you prove it was granted,” Kevin Brady from Georgia Coastal Department of Natural Resources told  Mr. Taylor. “The burden of proof belongs to the deed holder.” 

Mr. Taylor has compiled the research in a yet to be published book named The Lost Island of Oatland. “Though I was very interested in the history of the islands and its inhabitants, I never would have anticipated to be required to produce the proof of land grant in order to obtain permission to build a residential dock to access our property where the only means of access is by boat. We literally had to produce an abstract of title for 270 years of conveyances from 1748 to our purchase over three years ago. As impossible as it seemed to accomplish, we provided this information and still have not been able to get further in our application. The irony is, if a boat builder owned this island, I bet he had a dock to contend with the tides.” Mr. Taylor plans to use the book sale proceeds to defray the cost of legal and research fees. 

The land grant research for Oatland Island has yet to be formally accepted, leaving the argument open as to the legitimacy of the residents claims to their properties. Little Goette Island is really part of current day Oatland Island. The waterways such as the Wilmington River, St. Augustine and Richardson Creeks are the defining boundaries of Oatland Island. It is suspected another portion of Oatland Island original grants may have been given to boat builder John Penrose in 1749, whose name is remembered on a street sign on Whitemarsh Island’s north side community. The larger inhabited portion of Oatland Island may have been called Penrose’s Island 269 years ago. Henry Younge, the prominent surveyor of the time, also claimed portions of the land for himself and his son around 1756. His plat survey appears to be the only surviving sketch of the islands across from Causton Bluff. Only 24 percent of those sketches remain from that period in the archives. 

This has stimulated an unsettling concern among residents left wondering if they will also be burdened with lengthy and expensive land grant research and attorney fees to prove they have title to the land they have been paying taxes on for all these years. Mr. Taylor remains confident the lands were granted, and the laws to protect their interests will be examined soon. The property was purchased with a title search and settled by a reputable real estate attorney. 

While most private property in Georgia is clearly accepted as such by real estate law, the government has the ability to exercise eminent domain if it serves to benefit the greater public. Currently there are no known plans in the records to explain a need to relieve these residents of their properties and their right to peaceful enjoyment. 

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