I feel as saucy as ever—not only because I am independent but because I have gained complete triumph...ah how sweet is revenge.—Catherine Greene Miller
Twisting oaks, feral horses, spiny saw palms, coasts rich with turtles’ nests and the grand ruins of Carnegies: part national seashore, part private property, Cumberland harbors more than a rare landscape and glamorous past. It has a history of strong women.
Carol Ruckdeschel, a self-trained naturalist, has lived on Cumberland since 1973. She had a romantic relationship with Louis McKee, a respected surveyor of the island, who promised her some land. Later, when Carol was entertaining a backpacker in their cottage, McKee attempted to break in and she shot and killed him with an illegal sawed off shotgun. Charges were dismissed on grounds of self-defense; a long and complex property battle ensued; eventually, she inherited his estate (contrary to the current laws on the issue), where she catalogues the hurt, dying, or dead animals of the island, dissecting their carcasses and collecting their bones. Her favorite meats are raccoon and bobcat and it is said she cut the heart out of a beached whale to relieve its suffering. Bones and severed turtle heads line her yard; she has an egret preserved in a jar. She is her own electrician.
In his book Untamed: The Wildest Woman in America (just out last April from Grove Press), Will Harlan tells his version of her story, followed by a sentimental explanation of the environmental lesson he finds there. His work carries forward the tradition of Charles Seabrook’s book Cumberland Island: Strong Women, Wild Horses published ten years ago; the unflattering parallel of which can be felt in his own title. Untamed (def: not cultivated, domesticated, or controlled; syn: savage, unbroken, untrained, barbarous, virgin)—a word typically used to describe places or animals. The long and torpid tradition of conflating women with property, and more particularly, of marginalizing strong-willed resourceful women as rare and dangerous anomalies (sirens if young, witches if old) lives on.
The other woman Seabrook refers to in Strong Women, Wild Horses is Catherine Greene Miller, “Caty”; born on Block Island in 1755 and raised by her feisty aunt, as her mother died when she was ten. She married Nathaniel Greene at 24 and regularly visited him at battle sites. When he died of sunstroke after the war she was thirty with five children and left to run Mulberry Grove, the plantation granted them from Georgia for his service to the South. She did so with great success, but her husband’s vast debt (acquired in faith when he purchased food and clothing for his soldiers at his own expense) were not reimbursed by Congress. Her resources both social and financial ran thin, her furniture taken by creditors. To visit Jeremiah Wadsworth (her late husband’s accountant, with whom it is rumored she had an affair) to borrow money and ask for help, she sold her carriage to fund her trip. She filed a formal claim against the government, sailed to Philadelphia with a trunk load of supporting documents. In a letter at the time she writes, “It shall never be told of me that I sat myself quietly down and waited for my ruin.” When he became president, she appealed directly to her friend George Washington.
At length Caty’s debts were forgiven. A year later her eldest son, George Washington (recently returned from his education in Paris, all expenses paid by the Marquis de LaFayette) drowned in the Savannah River. It is said this is the one catastrophe from which she never recovered. She remarried Phineas Miller, her childrens’ tutor, after living with him several years. They would have married sooner, but had they done so she would have lost all chance of winning her case against Congress as a widow. She collaborated with he and Eli Whitney to invent the cotton gin, suggesting wire rather than wooden teeth. They overinvested in the manufacturing of the contraption and had to sell Mulberry Grove, moving to the gorgeous but isolated Dungeness on Cumberland Island, where they would live until their deaths. Mulberry Grove was burned by Sherman in the Civil War; Dungeness was also destroyed by fire in the mid-1800’s—but a 59 room mansion by the same name would thirty years later be raised in its place by Thomas Carnegie. Caty Greene Miller’s remaining children lived fruitful lives and inherited the property on Cumberland that would one day be enjoyed by Carol Ruckdeschel and many others.
By inhabiting borderlands both real and abstract, these women not only defied failure in the face of debt and death, but thrived: living as they chose against convention and luck. And both fought legally and personally for the land on which they built those lives. They share with the island an unclassifiable resilience paired with a capacity for charm special to those who build their agency from scratch. Their lives give assurance to some and pause to others. Fortunately their examples are not as rare as some may think, and we need not go as far as Cumberland to find women who can split a wire, challenge a law, tend their land, and when necessary, use a gun.