Today as visitors and residents sit at the pier on St. Simons Island, watching huge container ships cross the sound to the various terminals in Brunswick, the distant past does not come easily to mind. Occupation by Timucan and Guale Indians, as early as 3000 B.C. and later by Jesuits and Franciscan priests in the 1500s does not readily reveal itself. So where can visitors find evidence of St. Simons Island's unique history?
A ride to the north end of St. Simons Island with a visit to Fort Frederica provides visible evidence of the English occupation that followed. Having laid out the town of Savannah in 1733, Oglethorpe realized the importance of protection from the Spanish to the south. A bend in the Frederica River provided a perfect place to locate a fort and town. The Anglican Wesley brothers, who accompanied Oglethorpe, first preached under the oaks at Frederica (current site of Christ Church, Frederica) in 1736. After returning to England, the brothers established the Methodist Church.
Following the defeat of the Spanish at the Battle of Bloody Marsh, the fort fell into disuse. The ruins yielded chunks of tabby to build plantation houses in the late 1700s. At that point the era of plantations that grew Sea Island cotton began. Timber for the country’s first navy came from St. Simons, with the mast post of the Constitution, cut in John Couper’s yard.
The planter families built Christ Church on the north end of the island near the old fort and cultivated the island up until the Civil War. Today only a few tabby slave cabins attest to that era, while the families rest in quiet of the cemetery behind Christ Church. The cemetery also bears witness to sons lost in the Civil War.
The slave cabins of Hamilton Plantation at Gascoigne Bluff, now maintained by the Cassina Garden club and open to the public, give little evidence of the number of board feet of timber milled there following the Civil War. The mills provided jobs for both the planters and freed slaves. It also brought Anson Green Phelps Dodge, Jr. to the island. His rebuilding of devastated Christ Church and the sadness in his life became the story of the late Eugenia Price’s novel, Beloved Invader.
[Photograph of group at the beach, Saint Simons Island, Glynn County, Georgia, ca. 1910 I Vanishing Georgia collection]