History of Tybee Island, Georgia

Tybee Island, known as a ‘laid back beach town," Savannah's Beach, located 20 minutes from historic Savannah, is the first barrier island in Georgia and has a history uniquely its own.

The origin of the name "Tybee," like the history of the Island itself, has many interpretations. Most historians believe "Tybee" derives from the Native American Euchee Indian word for "salt," which was one of many natural resources found on Tybee.

Those resources have played an important role throughout the Island's history, including Spanish exploration for riches from the new world in 1520 by Lucas Vasquez de Ayllon who laid claim to Tybee as part of Spain's "La Florida," which extended from the Bahamas to Nova Scotia.

In 1605, the French were drawn to Tybee in search of Sassafras roots, which at the time were considered by Europeans to be a miracle cure. The Spanish would fight the French in a naval battle just off Tybee's shore to regain control over the area.

For many decades, pirates visited the Island in search of a safe haven and a hiding place for treasure. Tybee and remote islands like it would also be a source for fresh water and game to replenish supplies.

Spain would be forced to give up their claim to Tybee and other extremities due to superior French and British settlements. In 1733, General James Oglethorpe and a handful of settlers came to the area. They called it Savannah, because of the vast marshlands and tall grass. Here they established the new colony, which would be named to honor King George. Tybee was considered to be extremely important to the development and future of Savannah and the colony because of its location at the mouth of the Savannah River. General Oglethorpe ordered a lighthouse constructed to mark the entrance to the river in 1736 and a small fort to be constructed to insure control over access to the river. In 1736 John Wesley, the "Father of Methodism," said his first prayer on the American Continent at Tybee Island.

Tybee Island would play a significant role throughout Georgia and U.S. history, including the Revolutionary War, when Tybee served as the staging area for French Admiral D'Estaing's ill-fated 1779 "Siege of Savannah" during which combined multinational forces attempted to defeat the British-held Savannah.

During the War of 1812, the Tybee Island Lighthouse, the oldest and tallest in Georgia, was used as a signal tower to warn Savannah of possible attack by the British. Though no such attack took place, a "Martello Tower" was constructed on Tybee to provide protection in guarding the Savannah River. On the western end of the island, an area known as a "lazaretto," a variation of an Italian word meaning ‘hospital for the contagious,' was established to quarantine slaves and other passengers who might be carrying diseases. Mass burial on Tybee would be the final port of call for many of those quarantined there.

By the outbreak of the American Civil War, Tybee would again play an important military role in U.S. history. First Confederates occupied the Island. In December of 1861, the Rebel forces would withdraw to Fort Pulaski under orders from Robert E. Lee to defend Savannah and the Savannah River. Union forces under the Command of Quincy Adams Gilmore took control of Tybee and began constructing cannon batteries on the west side of Tybee facing Fort Pulaski about one mile away. On April 11, 1862, those cannon batteries would fire a new weapon called "Rifled Cannon" at Fort Pulaski and change forever the way the world protected its coastal areas. Within 30 hours, the rifled guns had such a devastating effect on the brick fort that it was surrendered and all forts like Pulaski were considered obsolete.

After the Civil War, Tybee began to grow as a resort area for local Savannah residents who wanted to escape the heat of downtown for the cooling breezes of Tybee Island. There were very few year-round residents before the 1870s, but by the 1890s there were over 400 beach cottages, known as Tybee raised cottages, and other buildings built for the "summer" residents.  A typical feature of the beach cottage was its wraparound porches and large windows and doors that worked together to provide natural air conditioning.


In 1855, Fort Screven was ordered built on the north end of Tybee to provide a more modern system of seacoast defenses. Six poured-concrete, low-profile gun batteries and a minefield were ordered for Tybee along with hundreds of other military buildings.  From 1897 to 1947, Fort Screven would be an integral part of America's coastal defense system. Troops would train and stand guard on Tybee through the Spanish-American War of 1898, World War I, and World War II. In 1947, the Fort was closed and sold to the Town of Tybee, and tourism returned as a major part of Tybee's history.

In 1900, to encourage people to come to the island, The Central of Georgia Railroad built a large pavilion called Tybrisa. The pavilion was the largest building on Tybee and featured verandas with rocking chairs, a bandstand, men's and women's bathhouses, a dining room, a cafe, and a bar.  All of this was located directly behind the pavilion on 16th Street making Tybrisa the center of Tybee for the next 60 years. The invention and mass production of the automobile and the opening of the Tybee Road in 1923 gave beachgoers an alternate means to travel to Tybee Island.

Tybee's popularity as a seaside resort was never greater than during the Roaring 20s and early 1930s.  Those were the days labeled as the Jazz and Big Band Era. Bob Crosby, Tommy Dorsey, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington all traveled to Tybee to play at the Tybrisa Pavilion, which featured a crystal ball that reflected light off of glass panels. The most popular way to travel was still the train, even though there were groups that would pool their money for gas, so that they didn't have to rush to catch the last train.

16th Street developed quickly due to the high volume of people moving through the area.  All kinds of Tybee Island hotels, eateries, and boarding houses popped up to serve the people traveling to enjoy the beach.  Tybee was trying to accommodate as many travelers to the island as possible.

Yesteryear is alive and well in today's Tybee.  Annually, travelers from around the world visit this special island paradise to enjoy what the locals call "Tybee Treasures."  Come experience the people and places that make us a romantic getaway destination.