A CAPSULE HISTORY
On the land along the Southern coast of the beautiful Atlantic Ocean, hundreds of miles south of the English settlements of Jamestown and Plymouth, roamed tribes of Indians. They were Guale, Timucan, Creek, and Yamacraw--who possibly were renegade Creeks. They hunted for wild game among the pines and live oaks, fished the rivers and waded the sloughs for clams and oysters. It was for this stretch of land, a mere 100 miles in length, that James Edward Oglethorpe, fresh from the British Parliament, set sail on the frigate Ann in the year 1732. Armed with a charter for a new colony to be called Georgia after King George II and a boat load of British subjects complete with provisions, he founded the last of the thirteen colonies. On a high sandy bluff on the Savannah River, General Oglethorpe and the new colonists established Georgia 's first permanent settlement in 1733. This was long after South Carolina had been colonized and long before the wilds of Florida would be tamed.
Georgia's prime purpose was to become a haven for England 's unfortunates, described as "middle poor." English publications also promoted the colony's establishment to provide fine wines, silk, spices, naval stores and other products needed in the motherland. Georgia's military importance was realized as a buffer between her sister colonies and Spanish Florida.
Concerned both with Indian attack and Spanish invasion, General Oglethorpe went south from Savannah. His aim was to provide protection for the new settlement on the river as well as that of the German Salzburgers who had settled just north of Savannah. It was 1736 when Oglethorpe settled a band of Scottish Highlanders, "the world's finest fighting men," on the Altamaha River. This same strategic site had been guarded originally by the old Fort King George built by South Carolinians in 1721. He went farther south that same year to the island of St. Simons where he built two forts and established the village of Frederica. Still concerned for the new colony's safety, he moved farther down to Cumberland Island and established two forts just across the sound from Spanish Florida. Other towns and forts followed, such as Fort Barrington in 1751, Midway in 1752, Sunbury in 1758 and Brunswick in 1771. It was not until 1787, however, that a permanent settlement was made at Buttermilk Bluff on the winding St. Mary's River. We know it today as St. Mary's in Camden County. In November of 1787, nineteen men agreed to pay the owner of Buttermilk Bluff the sum of $38 each for a share in the property to be developed into the town of St. Mary's. Jacob Weed, the grant-holder, prepared Articles of Agreement for these prospective lot owners to sign. The county surveyor then mapped out the public squares and streets. Even today the street names in the original part of St. Mary's remind one of Mr. Weed, Simeon Dillingham, Stephen Conyers, Langley Bryant and the others. Camden County itself had been formed in 1777 as one of the original eight counties in Georgia. It reached almost to the Okefenokee Swamp on the west, to the Little Satilla River on the north, the Atlantic Ocean on the east, and the St. Mary's River to the south. Settlers had come earlier than this. They built plantations and developed timber and naval stores interests. Thus, the potential for a market place and port city in the southernmost corner of the New World 's newest colony was noted. St. Mary's become the county seat of Camden and was on its way. The small town had much the appearance of a frontier town with fewer settlers than transients. St. Mary's was active with smuggling and illicit slave trade. It also offered a place of refuge from the Spanish courts and a retreat for those threatened by Indians on the western border of the county. Despite all this, a writer of the time described early St. Mary's as " ....small, agreeable to all and with many respectable characters." At the turn of the century, the town had a population of less than 200 whites, 73 slaves, and 5 free persons. Then in 1802, St. Mary's was plagued with an epidemic of yellow fever, decreasing the population of the struggling town. Only 7 years later another siege of the dread fever left 85 of the little town's residents dead.
A visitor to the town about this time wrote, " ...provisions extremely scarce and no fresh meat. Fish, hominy, salt, beef, and pork, but not sufficient grease to fry a pancake. No milk, butter, corn, potatoes, even though the county is capable of producing all necessities and most luxuries." He also wrote that he was plagued with "....ten thousand million sand flies."
St. Mary's was the only town in the county of any size. Jeffersonton had been established in 1801 to be the new county seat, it being more centrally located. There were other small settlements at river crossing, but the county was mainly populated by planters and timber men. Progress was slowed when the reality of the War of 1812 reached the southern coast. According to a family Bible of the period, "The British took possession of St. Mary's and staid (sic) 10 days." Letters written at this time tell of soldiers raiding the homes of the townspeople, taking what they wanted, destroying what they didn't. By the 1820s, the Georgia coastal region had begun to grow with southward migration from upper Georgia and from the Carolinas. In the 1830s, St. Mary's was described as "one of the most pleasant and healthy seaports in the southern States. The town at present contains near 1000 inhabitants who are distinguished for their industry and hospitality." It was also told of the commerce "...Fish are sold at the rate of ten cents a dozen; fat hens at $1.15 a dozen; eggs at twelve cents; superior beef at 3 1/2 cents per pound; smoked or jerked beef is furnished in abundance at three; fresh pork at six and seven and a great variety of fruits and vegetables." The 1840s brought new business ventures to St. Mary's. With the growth of lumbering in the county, crowded wharves and warehouses lined the waterfront. A new town called Centerville had sprung up on the county's western edge drawing some of the St. Mary's population. Still, one historian reported that the town of St. Mary's boasted nine stores, 5 churches, and 3 schools. The decade of the 1850s, has been described as a prosperous one for all of Georgia with manufacturing and trade flourishing along with agriculture. And then the whole coastal region was once again scourged with the deadly fever. In the 1860s, as the War Between the States broke out, many of the St. Mary's townspeople fled, leaving only a few obstinate souls behind. Camden County men went off to fight. They joined either the 26th Georgia regiment or Clinch's 4thCalvary. Foraging parties from the Federal boats in the waterways looted St. Mary's. The 9th Maine regiment set fire to the town and left a desolate place behind. One report said that Federal forces gutted every house abandoned by its owner, carried off everything moveable and destroyed the rest. The war finally ended and with it came a slow revival of the area. Families trickled back into what had been a busy port city to find "dog fennels a head high." Friends were scattered to Trader's Hill far up the St. Mary's river, to Ware County or much farther. Of curse, they found their homes looted. Gradually businesses reopened. Church doors were unbarred and city hall became active once again. At first civic affairs were under Federal supervision, thenthey were restored to local leadership. In the 1880s, St. Mary's came to life once again as huge stands of yellow pine throughout the county were cut for shipment. Schooners were tugged past to new towns springing up along the rivers or tied to the wharves at St Mary's to be loaded from the rafts of logs that were floated downstream. Economic conditions improved when the townsfolk began finding employment either in the timber business or in supplying those who were. Waterways and dirt roads offered the only means of transportation for St Mary's citizens until 1908 when Lemuel Johnson had the vision and the finances to build a railroad connecting St Mary's with the Seaboard Line in Kingsland. With another means of transportation, new industries became possible. Shrimping now had more than a local market and iced shrimp were soon going out by rail Northern markets. An ice plant became a necessity. Canning plants for processing both shrimp and vegetables opened. These new industries created jobs for the local people. A pogy plant was soon operating full time, shipping out carloads of fish oil used in soap making and fish scrap for fertilizer processed from the Menhaden fish brought into St. Mary's by the boat load. The timber business was still valuable, both as naval stores and lumber. One writer commented on the hundreds of thousands of crossties cut and shipped annually." Many of those were sent from St. Mary's directly to Panama for construction of the Panama Canal . A 1915 writing tells of a bustling St. Mary's with the waterfront "humming with activity"-- 2 hotels busy with winter guests and a town so spotless that " no smallest piece of paper blows about the street, no glow of orange peel, no banana skin appear before any of the half dozen stores...." Many local businesses closed as the Great Depression reached St. Mary's. The pogy plant ceased production and sawmills dwindled in number. St Mary's needed more than shrimping and the nearby cattle and chicken farms. It needed more than the naval stores operations. So, a committee went in search of industry. In 1940, Gilman Paper Company agreed to build a plant in the town of St Mary's. With the paper mill came employment, new families with new ideas and an upsurge in the economy of St Mary's and the whole of Camden County . In 1972, the National Park Service announced the acquisition of Cumberland Island as a National seashore with St Mary's as its embarkation point. Pride began to manifest itself in manicured medians, a well-kept cemetery, an interest in the restoration of older homes, and a welcome center for those interested in what the "small town of St Mary's" had to offer. The historical significance of the town was recognized in 1976 when much of the older sections of St Mary's and Oak Grove Cemetery were named to the National Register of Historic Places. Orange Hall had been placed on the National Register in 1973. St. Mary's once again began an upward swing in population and economic growth when the U.S. Navy announced that Kings Bay, just north of the town, was to become its new Naval Submarine Support Base for the Poseidon submarines. The base became active with the arrival of the Sub Tender Simon Lake from Rota, Spain in 1979. The following year, Camden County faced the greatest change in its history with the announcement that the Sub Support Base was to become the Navy's east Coast Trident Base. This word was followed closely by the planners and engineers, construction workers, and military families. With all of these came new and expanded businesses and spiraling real estate prices.
The effects of this nudge into the Space Age have been seen in the conversion of woodlands into subdivisions, in membership growth of churches and civic organizations and increased school enrollment. So, the little town that once was home to tribes of Indians and started its civilized life as a land grant, the little town that had survived cycles of depression and prosperity and only a brief time ago was just a remnant of yesteryear is destined formuch, much more!