The second-largest and most developed of Georgia’s barrier islands, St. Simons is approximately twelve miles long and nearly three miles wide at its widest stretch (roughly the size of Manhattan Island in New York). The island is located in Glynn County on Georgia’s coast and lies east of Brunswick (the seat of Glynn County), south of Little St. Simons Island and the Hampton River, and north of Jekyll Island.
The resort community of Sea Island is separated from St. Simons on the east by the Black Banks River. Known for its oak tree canopies and historic landmarks, St. Simons is both a tourist destination and, according to the 2010 U.S. census, home to 12,743 residents.
The earliest record of human habitation on the island dates to the Late Archaic Period, about 5,000 to 3,000 years ago. Remnants of shell rings left behind by Native Americans from this era survive on many of the barrier islands, including St. Simons. Centuries later, during the period known by historians as the chiefdom era, the Guale Indians established a chiefdom centered on St. Catherines Island and used St. Simons as their hunting and fishing grounds. By 1500 the Guale had established a permanent village of about 200 people on St. Simons, which they called Guadalquini.
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.
As early as 1670, with Great Britain’s establishment of the colony of Carolina and its expansion into Georgia territory, Spanish rule was threatened by the English. The Georgia coast was considered “debatable land” by England and Spain, even though Spain had fully retreated from St. Simons by 1702. Thirty-one years later General James Edward Oglethorpe founded the English settlement of Savannah. In 1736 he established Fort Frederica, named after the heir to the British throne, Frederick Louis, Prince of Wales, on the west side of St. Simons Island to protect Savannah and the Carolinas from the Spanish threat.
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 farmland 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.
Between the 1780s and the outbreak of the Civil War (1861-65), St. Simons’s plantation culture flourished. The saline atmosphere and the availability of cheap enslaved labor proved an ideal combination for the cultivation of Sea Island cotton. In 1803 a group of enslaved Africans who survived the Middle Passage and arrived on the west side of St. Simons staged a rebellion and drowned themselves. The sacred site is known today as Ebos Landing.
One of the largest owners of land and enslaved laborers on St. Simons was Pierce Butler, owner of Hampton Point Plantation, located on the northern end of the island. By 1793 Butler worked more than 500 enslaved people, 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 bondsmen 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).
Another large owner of land and enslaved workers on St. Simons was Major William Page, a friend and employee of Pierce Butler Sr. Before purchasing Retreat Plantation on the southwestern tip of the island in 1804, Page managed the Hampton plantation and Butler’s Island. Upon Page’s death in 1827, Thomas Butler King inherited the land together with his wife, Page’s daughter, Anna Matilda Page King. King expanded his father-in-law’s planting empire on St. Simons as well as on the mainland, and by 1835 Retreat Plantation alone was home to as many as 355 enslaved people.
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
The outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 put a sudden end to St. Simons’s lucrative plantation era. In January of that year, Confederate troops were stationed at the south end of the island to guard the entrance to Brunswick Harbor. Enslaved laborers from Retreat Plantation, owned by Thomas Butler King, built earthworks and batteries. Plantation residents were scattered—the men joined the Confederate army and their families moved to the mainland. Cannon fire was heard on the island in December 1861, and Confederate troops retreated in February 1862, after dynamiting the lighthouse to keep its beacon from aiding Union troops. Soon thereafter, Union troops occupied the island, which was used as a camp for the formerly enslaved. By August 1862 more than 500 freedpeople lived on St. Simons, including Susie King Taylor, who organized a school for freed children. But in November the freedpeople were taken to Hilton Head, South Carolina, and Fernandina, Florida, leaving the island abandoned.
After the Civil War the island never returned to its status as an agricultural community. The plantations lay dormant because there were no enslaved laborers 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 formerly enslaved workers—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.
By 1870 real economic recovery began with the reestablishment of the timber industry. Norman Dodge and Titus G. Meigs of New York set up lumber mill operations at Gascoigne Bluff, formerly Hamilton Plantation. The lumber mills provided welcome employment for both Blacks and whites and also provided mail and passenger boats to the mainland. Such water traffic, together with the construction of a new lighthouse in 1872, designed by architect Charles B. Cluskey, marked the beginning of St. Simons’s tourism industry. The keeper of the lighthouse created a small amusement park, which drew many visitors, as did the seemingly miraculous light that traveled from the top of the lighthouse tower to the bottom. The island became a summer retreat for families from the mainland, particularly from Baxley, Brunswick, and Waycross.
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.
The opening in 1924 of the Brunswick–St. Simons Highway, today known as the Torras Causeway, was a milestone in the development of resorts in the area. St. Simons’s beaches were now easily accessible to locals and tourists alike. More than 5,000 automobiles took the short drive from Brunswick to St. Simons via the causeway on its opening day, paving the way for convenient residential and resort development.
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.
The outbreak of World War II (1941-45) brought more visitors and residents to St. Simons. Troops stationed at Jacksonville, Florida; Savannah; and nearby Camp Stewart took weekend vacations on the island, and a new naval air base and radar school became home to even more officers and soldiers. The increased wartime population brought the island its first public school. With a major shipyard for the production of Liberty ships in nearby Brunswick, the waters of St. Simons became active with German U-boats. In April 1942, just off the coast, the Texas Company oil tanker S. S. Oklahoma and the S. S. Esso Baton Rouge were torpedoed by the Germans, bringing the war very close to home for island residents. The World War II Home Front Museum, dedicated to preserving coastal Georgia’s contributions to the war effort, is now located on the island.
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.
Since 1980 St. Simons’s population has doubled. The island’s continued status as a vacation destination and its ongoing development boom have put historic landmarks and natural areas at risk. While such landmarks as the Fort Frederica ruins and the Battle of Bloody Marsh site are preserved and maintained by the National Park Service, and while the historic lighthouse is maintained by the Coastal Georgia Historical Society, historic Ebos Landing has been taken over by a sewage treatment plant.
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.