St. Simons Island
Beginning in 1568, the Spanish attempted to create missions along the Georgia coast. Catholic missions were the primary means by which Georgia's indigenous Native American chiefdoms were assimilated into the Spanish colonial system along the northern frontier of greater Spanish Florida. In the 1600s St. Simons became home to two Spanish missions: San Buenaventura de Guadalquini, on the southern tip of the island, and Santo Domingo de Asao (or Asajo), on the northern tip. Located on the inland side of the island were the pagan refugee villages of San Simón, the island's namesake, and Ocotonico. In 1684 pirate raids left the missions and villages largely abandoned.
Between 1736 and 1749 Fort Frederica was the hub of British military operations along the Georgia frontier. A town of the same name grew up around the fort and was of great importance to the new colony. By 1740 Frederica's population was 1,000. In 1736 the congregation of what would become Christ Church was organized within Fort Frederica as a mission of the Church of England. Charles Wesley led the first services. In 1742 Britain's decisive victory over Spain in the Battle of Bloody Marsh, during the War of Jenkins' Ear, ended the Spanish threat to the Georgia coast. When the British regimen disbanded in 1749, most of the townspeople relocated to the mainland. Fort Frederica went into decline and, except for a short time of prosperity during the 1760s and 1770s under the leadership of merchant James Spalding, never fully recovered. Today the historic citadel's tabby ruins are maintained by the National Park Service.
By the start of the American Revolution (1775-83), Fort Frederica was obsolete, and St. Simons was left largely uninhabited as most of its residents joined the patriot army. Besides hosting a small Georgia naval victory on the Fort Frederica River, providing guns from its famous fort for use at Fort Morris in Sunbury, and serving as an arena for pillaging by privateers and British soldiers, the island played almost no role in the war.
Following the war, many of the townspeople, their businesses destroyed, turned to agriculture. The island was transformed into fourteen cotton plantations after acres of live oak trees were cleared for farm land and used for building American warships, including the famous USS Constitution, or "Old Ironsides." Although rice was the predominant crop along the neighboring Altamaha River, St. Simons was known for its production of long-staple cotton, which soon came to be known as Sea Island cotton.
One of the largest owners of land and slaves on St. Simons was Pierce Butler, master of Hampton Point Plantation, located on the northern end of the island. By 1793 Butler owned more than 500 slaves, who cultivated 800 acres of cotton on St. Simons and 300 acres of rice on Butler's Island in the Altamaha River delta. Butler's grandson, Pierce Mease Butler, who at the age of sixteen inherited a share of his grandfather's estate in 1826, was responsible for the largest sale of human beings in the history of the United States: in 1859, to restore his squandered fortune, he sold 429 slaves in Savannah for more than $300,000. The British actress and writer Fanny Kemble, whose tumultuous marriage to Pierce ended in divorce in 1849, published an eyewitness account of the evils of slavery on St. Simons in her book Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839 (1863).
The center of life during the island's plantation era was Christ Church, Frederica. Organized in 1807 by a group of island planters, the Episcopal church is the second oldest in the Diocese of Georgia. Embargoes imposed by the War of 1812 (1812-15) prevented the parishioners from building a church structure, so they worshiped in the home of John Beck, which stood on the site of Oglethorpe's only St. Simons residence, Orange Hall.
The first Christ Church building, finished on the present site in 1820, was ruined by occupying Union troops during the Civil War. In 1884 the Reverend Anson Dodge Jr. rebuilt the church as a memorial to his first wife, Ellen. The cruciform building with a trussed gothic roof and stained-glass windows remains active today as Christ Church.
Civil War and Beyond
After the Civil War the island never returned to its status as an agricultural community. The plantations lay dormant because there were no slaves to work the fields. After Union general William T. Sherman's January 1865 Special Field Order No. 15—a demand that former plantations be divided and distributed to former slaves—was overturned by U.S. president Andrew Johnson less than a year later, freedmen and women were forced to work as sharecroppers on the small farms that dotted the land previously occupied by the sprawling plantations.
The island's resort industry was thriving by the 1880s. Beachfront structures, such as a new pier and grand hotel, were built on the southeastern end of the island and could be accessed by ferry. Around this time wealthy northerners began vacationing on the island.
In 1926 automotive pioneer Howard Coffin of Detroit, Michigan, bought large tracts of land on St. Simons, including the former Retreat Plantation, and constructed a golf course, yacht club, paved roads, and a residential subdivision. Although the causeway had brought large numbers of summer people to the island, St. Simons remained a small community with only a few hundred permanent residents until the 1940s.
Due in large part to the military's improvement of the island's infrastructure during the war, development on the island boomed in the 1950s and 1960s. More permanent homes and subdivisions were built, and the island was no longer just a summer resort but also a thriving community. In 1950 the Methodist conference and retreat center Epworth by the Sea opened on Gascoigne Bluff. In 1961 novelist Eugenia Price visited St. Simons and began work on her first works of fiction, known as the St. Simons Trilogy. Inspired by real events on the island, Price's trilogy renewed interest in the history of Georgia's coast, and the novelist herself relocated to the island in 1965 and lived there for thirty-one years. St. Simons is also home to contemporary Georgia writer Tina McElroy Ansa.
Several coastal organizations have formed in recent years to save natural areas on the island. The St. Simons Land Trust, for example, has received donations of large tracts of land and plans to protect property in the island's three traditional African American neighborhoods. Despite its rapid growth and development, St. Simons remains one of the most beautiful and important islands on the Georgia coast.
Malcolm Bell Jr., Major Butler's Legacy: Five Generations of a Slaveholding Family (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987).
Margaret Davis Cate, Our Todays and Yester days: A Story of Brunswick and the Coastal I slands (Brunswick, Ga.: Glover Bros., 1930; reprint, Spartanburg, S.C.: Reprint Company, 1972).
Barbara Hull, St. Simons, Enchanted Island: A History of the Mos t Historic of Georgia's Fabled Golden Isles (Atlanta: Cherokee, 1980).
Frances Anne Kemble, Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839, ed. John A. Scott (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1863; reprint, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1984).
Anna Matilda Page King, Anna: The Letters of a St. Simons Island Plantation Mistress, 1817-1859, ed. Melanie Pavich-Lindsay (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2002).
Burnette Vanstory, Georgia's Land of the Golden Isles (1956; reprint, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1981).
Mary Bray Wheeler, Eugenia Price's South: A Guide to the People and Places of Her Beloved Region (Atlanta: Longstreet Press, 1993).
John E. Worth, The Struggle for the Georgia Coast: An Eighteenth-Century Spanish Retrospective on Guale and Mocama (New York: American Museum of Natural History, 1995; distributed by University of Georgia Press).
Mary Downing Koon, New Georgia Encyclopedia
A project of the Georgia Humanities Council, in partnership with the University of Georgia Press, the University System of Georgia/GALILEO, and the Office of the Governor.