The history walk offers education beyond the classroom on a 600-foot walking trail where 24 interpretive panels outline the history of the area. As you begin your self-guided tour, you’re drawn into our history and culture. Located at the corner of Bartlett St. & W. St. Marys Street.
Prior to European settlement, Southeast Georgia was populated by Timucua Indians known as Mocama. Severely diminished by the 17th Century due to infectious diseases and conflict, the Mocama were evacuated to Cuba by the Spanish in 1763, prior to extinction.
From roughly 1568 through 1684, 12 Spanish missions were established from St. Augustine to what is now coastal South Carolina. On Cumberland Island the Franciscan mission San Pedro de Mocama ministered to the Native Americans.
Plans for the city of St. Marys, originally known as Buttermilk Bluff, were conceived by the British in 1767. The Articles of Agreement were signed on Cumberland Island in 1787 when the first American owner, Jacob Weed, sold 1,620 acres to 19 other men for $38 each.
These French-speaking refugees were forced to leave their homes in Nova Scotia by the British during the French & Indian War. The oppressed Acadians ultimately sought refuge in St. Marys in the late 1790’s after fleeing the slave revolt in Santo Domingo, after a slave revolt in nearby Haiti.
St. Marys’ fresh drinking water was provided by six original wells, one in each city square. The last working well, located in the median in front of Orange Hall, was polluted by the "tidal wave" of 1818.
The St. Marys River is the border between Georgia and Florida. During much of its history, St. Marys was the southernmost community to separate two nations (Spanish Florida). Thus Georgians closely watched their neighbors to the South.
Pre-Colonial St. Marys saw visits by European maritime powers in caravels, carracks and galleons. It has been said that, at one time, 300 such ships lay at anchor in the St. Marys River.
In the 1790’s, Col. John Patterson, a master ship-builder from Philadelphia, established a shipyard in St. Marys. In 1798, the U.S. Galley, St. Marys, was launched from the Patterson shipyard, followed by The General Oglethorpe in 1801. By 1837 “more boats had been built in St. Marys than in any other port in Georgia” (The Savannah Georgian).
A naturally deep river, the St. Marys was utilized by Native Americans long before European explorers documented its existence. Slavers, smugglers and pirates all plied the river in their tall ships and river craft, industrious in their illicit trades. In 1785, the importance of St. Marys as a shipping point was recognized by the appointment of Henry Osborne as U.S. Customs Agent.
Gullah (the name given to the Islanders of South Carolina) and Geechee (the name given to islanders of Georgia) culture is linked to West African ethnic groups enslaved on island plantations to grow rice, indigo and cotton as early as 1750.
Just seven miles by water from this site, Cumberland Island National Seashore is home to a rich mosaic of historic sites: The home of American Revolutionary War hero Nathaniel Green, sea island cotton plantations tended by enslaved Africans and Dungeness, vacation getaway for the Carnegie’s, one of the nation’s most prominent industrial families.
Prior to the 1860’s, commercial logging occurred primarily along navigable streams where logs could be floated to downstream ports. Johnstone Mills were clearly marked on a 1790 map of the local area and, in 1802, Archibald Clark built his mill on the St. Marys River.
The 1870’s saw a county-wide boom in the production of turpentine, a resin distilled from the gum of pine trees. The labor was intensive, back-breaking and conducted during the hottest most humid time of year when gum was harvested from the trees.
St. Marys hosted several canning plants specializing in the preservation of local shrimp, beans and sweet potatoes. In 1917, a pogy (fish) processing plant was located on the east side of downtown.
Trains were slow to come to St. Marys arriving only in 1908, although Captain Lemuel Johnson founded the St. Marys Kingsland Railroad in 1865. A wood-fired locomotive departed from the depot at the Osborne Street waterfront, circled downtown then headed to Kingsland.
President Harry S. Truman called it “the silliest damned war we ever fought. It should have been resolved through diplomacy,” but… Declared by the U.S. Congress against Great Britain on June 18, 1812, the war was mainly waged in the north and at the Canadian border until May 1814 when Britain extended its blockade of the East Coast to include Georgia.
Put in place in 1810, U.S. Navy Gunboats, small row-able riverboats placed in service by President Jefferson to defend home waters of the U.S., were stationed at Naval Station St. Marys/Pt. Peter. In September 1813, a Category 3 hurricane hit St. Marys, severely damaging nine of them. Every ship in the harbor except one sank or ran aground wiping out U.S. Naval defenses in the region.
Even though the Treaty of Ghent ending the War of 1812 had been signed on December 24, 1814, and the British had sustained a stunning defeat at the Battle of New Orleans, the war still came to St. Marys. On January 13, 1815, an amphibious assault launched by Admiral Cockburn’s forces resulted in the capture of the garrison at Pt. Peter and the occupation of St. Marys.
In April, 1814, British Vice-Admiral Alexander Cochrane issued a Proclamation encouraging any person who wished to withdraw from the United States to board British ships ‘as freed men’ bound for British colonies. Hundreds of black slaves from southern plantations escaped to Admiral George Cockburn’s ships anchored off the Georgia coast and Cumberland Island.
In November 1862, the steamer Neptune and gunboat Mohawk, under the command of Col. Ritch with the 9th Maine Regiment descended upon St. Marys. They were immediately fire upon by local forces and they fired back in retaliation. Firing continued until the Seal sisters came toward the waterfront offering surrender. A Captain Hughes had decided to leave town but when shots were fired, Union forces descended and much of the town was left to ashes.
Moses Dallas was a slave from St. Marys when he began working for the Confederate Navy. He was riverboat pilot of the ironclad CSS Savannah. On June 3, 1864, Moses piloted over 120 men in seven boats safely through the sound near Savannah to ambush a prized Federal side-wheel gunboat, the USS Water Witch.
Methodist Chapel – Circa 1856, was used as a slaughterhouse by Union troops. Church records state, “the town was in possession of the enemy- the church closed- the flock scattered.”
Many downtown historic homes showcase the architecture and lifestyle of the south. The oldest home in St. Marys (1801), the Archibald Clark House, was occupied by British forces during the War of 1812. Circa 1830, Orange Hall, a stellar example of Greek Revival architecture, was originally built for the family of Horace Pratt, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church.
By 1740, English General James Oglethorpe had established two forts (Fort St Andrews and Fort William) on Cumberland Island to monitor the Spanish to the south. When the St Marys River separated nations, America’s military had an important strategic presence. Fort Tammany, built in the early 1790’s, near the corner of St Marys and Wheeler Streets, was staffed with Federal Dragoons and in service for about 20 years.
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