Savannah NWR was established by Executive Order 4626 on April 6, 1927, in Jasper County, South Carolina, on 2,352 acres of land owned by the United States near the Savannah River. Originally called the Savannah River Bird Refuge, these lands were reserved for use by the Department of Agriculture as a preserve and breeding ground for native birds.
On November 12, 1931, President Herbert Hoover signed Executive Order 5748 adding 207 acres to the original refuge area and renaming the unit the Savannah River Wild Life Refuge.
Executive Order 7391, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on June 17, 1936, increased the acquisition boundary of the refuge to include an additional 22,870 acres of land either acquired or to be acquired by the federal government. Between 1935 and 1938, a total of 9,980 acres of land were either transferred to or purchased by the Service to be added to the refuge, and on July 30, 1940, Presidential Proclamation 2416 renamed the refuge the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge.
In 1956, a 5-acre tract was purchased from an individual landowner, and in 1964, 459 acres were added when the fee title to Hog Marsh Island and adjacent lands to the north were acquired through an exchange of spoilage rights with Chatham County, Georgia. That same year, Savannah Electric and Power Company deeded 34 acres to the refuge in exchange for a power line right-of-way under the Fish and Wildlife Act of 1956.
South Carolina landowner Donald Livingston donated 37 acres to the refuge in 1968, and in 1974, 24 acres were acquired from the Seaboard Coast Line Railroad Company. The 12,493-acre Argent Swamp tract was purchased from Union Camp Corporation in 1978 using Migratory Bird Conservation Act funds, and years later, 54 additional acres were added to the tract to straighten out the refuge’s east boundary.
In 1983, a land exchange with David C. Barrow III resulted in the acquisition of 18 acres. Mr. Barrow later sold a 432-acre tract to the Service in 1998. In Effingham County, Georgia, 712 acres known as Bear Island were purchased in 1993 from William Bradley, et. al.
In 2000, 887 acres known as the Solomon Tract were purchased from Oak Grove Bluff, Inc., and in 2001, 401 acres were purchased from John C. Wylly Jr. (both tracts located in Chatham County, GA)
In 2002, the Service entered into an agreement with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, thus assuming management authority over an 840-acre tract located in Effingham County. Later that year, a 240-acre tract was purchased from Joseph H. Harrison.
Through mitigation from the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project (SHEP), the refuge acquired 276 acres along the eastern boundary of the refuge from the owners of the Riverport Development. These 276 acres were purchased in two phases, one in 2013 and one in 2014, and helped secure one of the remaining inholdings within the Refuge’s acquisition boundary. It also provides approximately two miles of walk-in access for hunters and other refuge users
In July 2017, also through SHEP mitigation, 2,100-acre Abercorn Island was acquired. The total current refuge acreage is now 31,551.