St. Simons Island
St. Simons is a census-designated place (CDP) located on St. Simons Island in Glynn County, Georgia, United States. Both the community and the island are commonly considered to be one location, known simply as “St. Simons Island”, or locally as “The Island”. St. Simons is part of the Brunswick, Georgia Metropolitan Statistical Area, and according to the 2000 census, the CDP had a population of 13,381.
St. Simons Island is one of Georgia’s renowned Golden Isles (along with Sea Island, Jekyll Island, and privately owned Little St. Simons Island). It is also the largest of the Golden Isles. After being cultivated by English colonists for rice and cotton plantations worked by large populations of African slaves, who created the unique Gullah culture, the island since the early 20th century has been developed as a resort community. It has many seasonal residents, as well as a steady base of year-round residents. Many of the residents have settled here after retiring in other parts of Georgia or the United States.
The primary mode of travel to the island is by automobile via F.J. Torras Causeway. Also, Malcolm McKinnon Airport (IATA: SSI) is located on the island.
Native American history
Just north of the village on St. Simons Island is a park of stately live oaks. On the southern edge of the oaks, along a narrow lane, is a low earthen mound. Growing upon it are three majestic oak trees; these serve as a natural monument for the more than 30 Indians buried in the mound. The men, women and children interred there lived in a settlement that flourished on this site two centuries before the first European touched shore.
The first inhabitants of St. Simons lived there during fishing season about 2,000 BCE (Before the Common Era). No one knows what they first called themselves. The much later historic tribe, which encountered the Europeans, became known as the Timucuan. The tribe and people persist. Arising from the prehistoric Mississippian culture that flourished over much of the Southeast, the eastern Timucuan ranged along the coastal plain of southeast Georgia and northern Florida. Their complex and loose confederacy was made up of seven distinct tribal groups that spoke at least five dialects of the Timucuan language.
St. Simons Island was the northern boundary of the tribal and Spanish mission province known as Mocama, which extended southward to the St. Johns River in present-day Florida. Its name was taken from that of the dialect of the people. The town of Guadalquini was located on the south end of the island at the site of the present-day lighthouse. The Spanish applied the town’s name to the island as well.
Just north of Mocama was the territory of the Guale, who occupied the lowland coastal area between the Altamaha and Ogeechee rivers. The Guale spoke a different language from the Timucuan but their cultures were closely related.
The coastal Indians were a healthy and robust people. They adorned their bodies with strings of shell beads four to six fingers in breadth. These were worn around the neck, arms, wrists, and under the knees and ankles. They painted their breasts, biceps and thighs with bright red body paint, soot and charcoal. Both men and women wore their hair long. They let both their fingernails and toenails grow. The men would sharpen their fingernails on one side, to use in warfare. The Timucuan engaged in periodic warfare with their coastal neighbors as much for sport as for spoils; violent ball games sometimes substituted for war. The men wore deerskin breechcloths in all but the coldest weather; the women wore skirts made of moss.
The Indians’ main source of food was the sea; they fished for sheepshead, sea catfish, drum, shellfish and the great Atlantic sturgeon, mostly in and near the coastal marshes. Their diet was supplemented by small game, such as raccoons, opossum and the white-tailed deer. They also grew varieties of pumpkins (a kind of squash), beans and corn; the latter was ground into meal for use. They also gathered a wide array of nuts, grapes and berries from the rich land.
During spring and summer, the Indians gathered in villages and planted crops, hunted, and fished until harvest. The villages included granaries, a large communal structure, and shelters for extended families made of saplings and boughs covered with palmetto fronds. The chief usually had a dwelling larger than other tribesmen. They used a wide range of bone tools; conch shells were formed into hoes for agriculture, as well as hammers.
They harvested corn in the fall, storing the surplus in the large village granaries. Several times a year they distributed the food held in common in ritualized festivals; after the fall redistribution ceremony, the Indians dispersed into small groups and abandoned the larger village pattern until the following spring. They ranged along the coast, from inland pine and river valley forest on the mainland to the high hammock forests, tidal flats, beach and dunes of the barrier islands. The group lodged in temporary shelters of large, oval-shaped pavilions, moving on when game and fish were no longer plentiful. When food was scarce, a hunter could hunt or fish in territory belonging to the village of his wife.
The Indians were governed by territorial and local chieftains known as “caciques” (Mocama) and “micos” (Guale) and by lesser-ranking functionaries within each of the coastal villages. Like nearly all Native Americans, they developed a matrilineal society, with hereditary power passed through the mother. The chiefs were required to marry a commoner, therefore a sister or nephew inherited the title. Governing power was based on the storage of corn – hence control of the food supply in lean times – cultivated by labor tribute from the subordinate villages. Along with their political power, the caciques and micos enjoyed the right to have more than one wife; monogamy seemed to be the norm for the rest of the population.
Little was recorded about the Timucuan religion before changes of European encounters. The accounts of the Guale were recorded by a Dominican missionary priest who heard it third hand. Guale mythology seems to have embraced the origin and destiny of the soul, and the communal atonement for sin. Their major deities were Mateczunga, god of the north, and Quexuga, god of the south. The Guales believed that all souls originated in the north, lingered briefly on earth, then departed to the realm of Quexuga.
The Spanish were fascinated by their ceremony with clearly religious connotations: the drinking of the “black drink” brewed from the berries of the cassina tree. After drinking this potent beverage, “their bellies swelled and vomiting followed”, which allowed the participants to be cleansed.
Knowledge of the Timucuan and Guale way of life prior to European contact is limited by the archeological record and the subjective observations of the early explorers and missionaries. From all indications, they were becoming more settled at the time of European contact.
During the 17th century, St. Simons Island was one of the most important settlements of the Mocama missionary province of Spanish Florida. After the founding of South Carolina in 1680, conflict between the English and Spanish wreaked havoc on the Sea Islands. James Moore of South Carolina led a combined land and sea invasion of Florida in 1702 which essentially destroyed the Spanish mission system on the islands. Surviving Indians were subjected to slave raids leaving the islands depopulated by the time the colony of Georgia was founded. By the mid-16th century, Spain had come into her own as the most powerful nation on earth and had thoroughly staked out her claim in the New World.
Ponce de Leon claimed the southern region for Spain in 1513, and Hernando de Soto probed western Georgia in 1540.
After the Protestant Reformation, Protestants of France, known as the “Huguenots”, were rebelling against the Catholics when persecution was revived after revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Determined to end the bloodshed, the French queen decided a colony in the New World could serve as a haven for the persecuted Huguenots, as well as a base for raiding the treasure fleets of Spain.
She selected Jean Ribault to head an exploratory expedition. It landed in 1562 at the mouth of the St. Johns River near present-day Jacksonville, Florida. He called it the “River May,” and sailed northward as far as Parris Island, South Carolina. He named St. Simons Island the Ile de Loire Rene Laudonnière led a second expedition of three ships and three hundred colonists in 1564. They, too, landed at the St. Johns River, and immediately began work on Fort Caroline. Two ships were sent back for more supplies and additional colonists.
Philip II of Spain learned of the French efforts and picked the ablest of his naval commanders, Pedro Menéndez de Aviles, giving him full power to destroy the French settlements. With a small fleet, Menéndez landed 40 miles south of Fort Caroline in August 1565. From this new base, which he named St. Augustine, Menéndez attacked and destroyed the fledgling French colony. He captured and executed Ribault and most of the survivors of a French relief expedition that was shipwrecked just south of St. Augustine. With them died France’s last hope for a colony on the Atlantic coast.
Although the French threat was neutralized, Menéndez decided to cultivate stronger alliances with the Native Americans to prevent future incursions. He traveled northward from St. Augustine in 1566 to meet with the most powerful chief in the area, the mico of Guale, on present-day St. Catherines Island. The mico was called Guale as well, and soon the Spanish adapted the name to the mico, his people and their territory.
During the meeting with the Guales, Menéndez erected a cross on St. Catherines Island, and soon after, a drought-ending rainstorm arrived. What seemed like a display of supernatural power by the Spanish leader made the Guale more receptive to the Jesuit missionaries who arrived next. The land of the Guale became one of the Spanish mission provinces of La Florida.
The Spanish Jesuits, respected throughout Europe for their piety as well as their scholastic achievement, were selected to convert the Indians of Guale. After an unsuccessful attempt to establish a mission in the province of La Florida, Father Sedaño and Father Báez were assigned to the district of Guale. Father Báez rapidly learned the Guale language and reportedly wrote a grammar, the first book written in an indigenous language in the New World, which was published in the early 17th century. The Guale were reluctant to convert to Catholicism. After spending fourteen months in Guale along with three priests of less tenure, Father Sedaño could claim only seven Indian baptisms: four children and three dying adults.
Indians and missionaries found the process frustrating. The Jesuits were dedicated and capable men, totally committed to their task, but the most zealous were discouraged in those early days. Father Rogel shared the frustrations when writing about the neighboring district of Orista just to the north: The Indians were so reluctant to receive the Catholic religion that no admonitions would curb their barbarity – a barbarity based on liberty unrestrained by the yoke of reason and made worse because they had not been taught to live in villages. They were scattered about the country nine of the twelve months of the year, so that to influence them at all one missionary was needed for each Indian.
The Jesuits had to accommodate to the nomadic habits of the Guale and Orista. Father Rogel followed one group for twenty leagues (roughly sixty miles), offering presents, gifts and adornments to entice them to return to their newly built village and cornfields, but to no avail. By 1570 the colonial government judged the missions a failure. They sent several of the Guale missionary contingent to Virginia, where they were massacred by Indians there. The remaining Guale missionaries were re-assigned to Mexico City the following year. Their sacrifices paved the way for the Franciscans who followed.
A few Franciscan priests arrived in 1573. Most were killed and the survivors were recalled. During the next 10 years, there were sporadic and bloody conflicts between Spanish soldiers and the Mocama and Guale. The Spanish government had to be alert to its national competitors, especially after Sir Francis Drake destroyed St. Augustine in 1586. The English leader’s raid was a timely reminder to the Spanish that their grip upon Florida was fragile; more Franciscans were soon sent to the fledgling province. The first permanent Franciscan mission, to establish the Mocama missionary province, was in place by 1587 under Father Baltasár Lopéz.
Spanish Missions circa 1655
In 1593, a dozen friars arrived in Cuba, six of whom were sent to Guale. One missionary each was assigned to the mainland villages of Tolomato, Tupiqui, Santo Domingo de Talaje/Asajo, and Talapo, while two were sent to Guale (St. Catherines Island).
The priests worked to learn the Timucuan and Guale languages, and in return demanded that the Indians learn the Catholic ceremonies in Latin. They memorized the Ave Maria, the Credo and the Pater Noster. The frequent Spanish religious and national holidays were confusing to the Indians, as they were encouraged to work one day and prevented from working the next. The priests abolished polygamy, enjoyed by the chiefs, prompting the complaint that “they take away our women, leaving us only the one perpetual [sic], forbidding us to exchange her.”
As the priests made more intrusions into the Indians’ lives, resentment built up against them. Juanillo, the son of a mico, became incensed when the Franciscans interfered with his succession after his father’s death. The priests picked the older and milder-mannered Don Francisco over the quarrelsome Juanillo. The infuriated Juanillo responded by leading the Indians in revolt. Juanillo and a small group of his father’s followers killed Father Corpa at Tolomato on September 13, 1597. They killed Father Rodrigues of Tupiqui three days later. The following day, the two priests of the Guale mission on St. Catherines Island, Father Miguel de Auñon and Father Antonio de Badajoz, were clubbed to death after ignoring warnings by friendly Indians of the insurrection.
At Asajo, Father Francisco de Velascola was absent, away on a visit to St. Augustine. Afraid of his physical strength and huge stature, the Indians agreed that he must be killed. They ambushed him on his return. They wounded and captured Father Francisco Dávila of the Talapo mission. He escaped, but was recaptured and sent to the Guale interior as a slave.
Four hundred Indians in forty canoes attacked San Pedro, the Mocama mission on Cumberland Island. A loyal chief, Don Juan, rallied the mission Indians and killed many of the attackers. Meanwhile, a messenger had reached Governor Canzo in St. Augustine, who sent a relief force of 150 infantry. They retaliated on Guale, razing the villages and storehouses, burning the corn in the fields and destroying all canoes which they found. Canzo was unable to catch the rebels and returned to St. Augustine with Chief Don Juan, his people and the surviving friars.
Almost a year after this upheaval, a Spanish scouting party near St. Elena heard rumors that Father Dávila was still alive. Under threats, the Indians released Dávila. The friar had been starved, beaten, and threatened. The Spanish captured seven young boys, four of whom were the sons of micos, and took them to St. Augustine. The oldest of the boys, a seventeen-year old named Lucas, was found guilty of being present at Father Rodrigues’ murder, but the others were released because of their age. Lucas was tortured and hung, the only legal response carried out by the courts for the Juanillo revolt.
But the rebels were still at large, and Governor Canzo was determined to exterminate them. The Indian tribes north of Guale were urged to make war on the rebels, and Canzo issued orders that all Guale Indians captured would be enslaved. This decree, however, was judged to harsh by his superiors and was revoked. The Spanish scorched-earth policy was ultimately successful. Severe drought compounded the Spanish destruction. By 1600 some of the important micos, their people facing imminent starvation, were ready to come to terms. The town of Tolomato refused to yield, and Asajo became the main village of Spanish influence. With his new power, the mico of Asajo led a successful expedition against Tolomato, after which more villages returned to the Spanish flock.
Juanillo still held out, aided oddly enough by his former rival Don Francisco. The two rebel chiefs and their remaining followers retreated to the interior stockaded village of Yfusinique. The mico of Asajo, Don Domingo, led an attack upon the town. After a fierce fight, the scalps of Juanillo and Don Francisco were sent back to St. Augustine. Don Domingo was made head mico of all Guale after his victory.
Thus the Juanillo rebellion was crushed, and the Spanish were once again masters of the land. But the ferocity of the revolt and the three years it took to extinguish the Indian spirit caused many in the colonial government to question the wisdom of maintaining a missionary presence in Mocama and Guale. The winning of heathen souls was proving to be a costly endeavor. To justify the expense, the crown ordered an investigation by the governor of Cuba, which quieted the missionaries’ detractors, and future Spanish presence was insured.
Governor Canzo, determined to make the province an anchor of the Spanish empire, threw himself into improving the coastal missions. In 1603, he made an inspection tour of the Guale district, rebuilding the missions and cementing Indian loyalty. He was transferred soon after the tour, but his replacement, Governor Pedro de Iberra, was just as eager to develop both Mocama and Guale. Iberra toured the districts in 1604, and promised the Indians that more friars would be forthcoming. With the consolidation of Indian fealty, the way was paved for the first visit of a bishop on Mocama and Guale soil. Bishop Altimoreno arrived in St. Augustine in mid-March, 1606. He traveled for two months throughout the two districts and confirmed over one thousand souls.
The attentions of two governors and a bishop assured more friars for Mocama and Guale. From 1606 to 1655 the Spanish missionary effort reached its zenith as the Franciscan missions reflected a steady growth. San Buenaventura de Guadalquini was established on St. Simons, San Jose de Zapala on Sapelo Island, and Santiago de Ocone near the Okefenokee Swamp. Now Spain had a total of ten Mocama and Guale missions. Apparently conversions had increased dramatically, too. By 1617 Governor Iberra could report that although half the Christian Indians had died of pestilence, some eight thousand were still alive.
Despite the growth of the numbers of missionaries and converts, the conditions in which the Franciscans carried out their duties remained harsh. The main source of funds to support the mission effort was intestate properties of the colonies and deceased traders’ estates unclaimed in Seville, the Spanish seaport link to the New World. Often ill clothed and hungry, friars rarely reached old age. Few ever saw their native Spain again; most succumbed to the hardships of their calling.
Primary emphasis was placed on spiritual conversion rather than colonizing for material gain; accordingly, there was no trade, no guns permitted, and very few skills taught. Horses had been introduced to La Florida, and some had been given to caciques and micos. But cattle were not made available for fear that crops would be eaten by them and the temptation for thievery would be too great. The most discernible changes resulting from Spanish contact were reflected only in pot manufacturing and the replacing of conch shell hoes with those made of iron. Spain’s failure to supply attractive and practical trade goods (such as flints, mirrors, silver or brass ornaments) gave the English the advantage in the final conflict for Mocama and Guale that loomed ahead.
Apart from the Indians’ decimation from disease – their numbers were reduced by 95% within a century of European contact – the death knell was sounded for the Spanish missions in 1661 when the “Chichimeco” Indians destroyed the mainland Guale town of Asajo. These fierce slave raiders, armed by the English in Virginia to ensure a steady supply of Indian slaves, migrated southward in the 1650s, preying on weaker tribes.
The disruptions of the Spanish missions did not abate. In the next few tumultuous years the Guales reestablished Asajo on the northern end of St. Simons Island (Cannons Point site). The “Yamassees” of coastal South Carolina, also fleeing the Chichimecos, established the refugee towns of San Simón (Fort Frederica site) and Octonico, 2-1/2 miles below, on the inland side of the island.
Charles II of England granted to eight Lords Proprietors all the land between Virginia and La Florida (31° -36° N) in 1663. This threat was sharpened in 1670 when Charles Town was settled. By 1675, only four Guale mission towns remained. The two Mocama missions left were widely separated and the intervening coast settled by unconverted Yamassees. The probability of attack from the English and the Indians loyal to them was now a constant fear to the Spanish. That fear was realized at its worst when the Chichimecos returned in 1680 to attack the towns of Santa Catalina and San Simón. The confusion and helplessness of the missionary and refugee Indians mounted as English pirates terrorized the Mocama and Guale coast in 1683. The following year, San Buenaventura de Guadalquini was ransacked and burned by pirates, and St. Simons Island was abandoned forever by the Timucuans who, for untold centuries, had called it their own.
In 1686, the English settled Port Royal, South Carolina – the old Spanish outpost of St. Elena. The Spanish responded by destroying the settlement, burning the English governor’s mansion, and threatening Charles Town itself. It was a final, futile gesture. Most of the remaining Mocama and Guale Indians had already abandoned the missions and retreated southward to the St. Augustine area, to be eventually absorbed by the Yamassees. After almost a century and a quarter under the cross and sword of Spain, the Mocama and Guale Indians were no more – their land soon to be known as Georgia
Remains of Fort Frederica
Fort Frederica, now Fort Frederica National Monument, was the military headquarters of the Province of Georgia during the early colonial period, and served as a buffer against Spanish incursion from Florida. Nearby is the site of the Battle of Gully Hole Creek and Battle of Bloody Marsh, where on July 7, 1742, the British ambushed Spanish troops marching single file through the marsh and routed them from the island, which marked the end of the Spanish efforts to invade Georgia during the War of Jenkins’ Ear.
An important naval battle in the American Revolution (the Frederica Naval Action) was won by the American Colonists near St. Simons on April 19, 1778. Colonel Samuel Elbert was in command of Georgia’s Continental Army and Navy. On April 15, 1778 he learned that four ships (including the Hinchinbrook, the Rebecca, and the Galatea) from British East Florida were sailing in St. Simons Sound. Elbert commanded about 360 troops from the Georgia Continental Battalions at Fort Howe to march to Darien, Georgia. There they boarded three Georgia Navy galleys: the Washington, commanded by Captain John Hardy ; the Lee, commanded by Captain John Cutler Braddock; and the Bulloch, commanded by Captain Archibald Hatcher. On April 18 they entered Frederica River and anchored about 1.5 miles (2.4 km) from Fort Frederica. On April 19 the colonial ships attacked the British ships. The Colonial ships were armed with heavier cannons than the British ships. The galleys also had a shallow draft and could be rowed. The wind died down and the British ships had difficulty maneuvering in the restricted waters of the river and sound. Two of the British ships ran aground and the British escaped to their other ship. The battle showed how effective the galleys could be in restricted waters over ships designed for the open sea. The Frederica Naval Action was a big boost to the morale of the Colonists in Georgia.
Lumber for ships
Saint Simons’ next military contribution was due to the Naval Act of 1794, when timber harvested from two thousand Southern live oak trees from Gascoigne Bluff was used to build the USS Constitution and five other frigates (see Six original United States frigates). The USS Constitution is known as “Old Ironsides” for the way the cannonballs bounced off the hard live oak planking.
Historical marker about the Wesley Oak
St. Simons Island Light
US Coast Guard Station
King and Prince Hotel
During the 18th century, St. Simons served as a sometime home to John Wesley, the minister of the colony. He later returned to England, where he founded the Methodist Church. Wesley performed missionary work at St. Simons while he was still in the Anglican Church, but he was despondent about failing to bring about conversions. (He wrote that the local inhabitants had more tortures from their environment than he could describe for Hell). In the 1730s John Wesley’s brother Charles Wesley also did missionary work on St. Simons.
On April 5, 1987 fifty-five members from St. Simons United Methodist Church were commissioned, with Bishop Frank Robertson as first pastor, to begin a new church on the north end of St. Simons Island. This was where John and Charles Wesley had preached and ministered to the people at Fort Frederica. The new church was named Wesley United Methodist Church at Frederica.
In 1808 the State of Georgia gave 100 acres (0.40 km2) of land on St. Simons to be used for a church and its support. Called Christ Church, Frederica, the structure was finished in 1820. During the Civil War, invading Union troops commandeered the small building to stable horses and nearly destroyed it. The church was restored in 1889. This historic building is still in use as of 2011.
During the plantation era, Saint Simons became a center of cotton production known for its long fiber Sea Island Cotton. Nearly the entire island was cleared of trees to make way for several cotton plantations. One of the last slave ships to bring slaves from Africa docked at St. Simons Island, but the slaves marched off the boat into the water, dragged down by their chains, and drowned themselves rather than becoming slaves. An original slave cabin still stands at the intersection of Demere Rd. and Frederica Rd. at the roundabout. Recently, the White House announced its intention to abolish subsidies to cotton growers and sent a draft to Congress. Previously, the illegality of subsidies claimed the World Trade Organization (WTO).
St. Simons Island lighthouse
St. Simons Island Light is a lighthouse near the entrance to St. Simons Sound in United States Coast Guard District Number 7. It is 104 feet (32 m) tall and uses a third-order fresnel lens which rotates to flash a beam of light every 60 seconds. The light keeper’s residence is a two-story Victorian brick structure.
The original octagonal lighthouse was built in 1811. Confederate forces destroyed it in 1861 during the Civil War to prevent its use by dominant Union forces. A replacement was completed in 1872, during the Reconstruction era. Electrified in 1934 and automated in 1954, it is still operational.
The current structure is both an active lighthouse for navigational purposes and a museum. On lease from the United States Coast Guard to the Coastal Georgia Historical Society, it is open to the public.
In 2010, the St. Simons Island lighthouse underwent a major renovation. It was closed to the public for several months while all interior and exterior paint was sandblasted off, and then repainted. Eight iron handrail posts at the top of the tower were replaced, recast from one of the originals. All ironwork was sandblasted and repaired as needed. Great lengths were taken to protect the valuable Fresnel lens during the restoration. It was bubble wrapped, shrink wrapped, and then finally enclosed in a plywood box. A temporary spotlight attached to top railing of the lighthouse continued to guide ships into the Sound while the main light was out of operation.
Coast Guard Station and World War II
The historic Coast Guard station is one of circa 45 such stations of the same design built in 1935 by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). They were part of the numerous public works projects sponsored by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration during the Great Depression. The station was commissioned in 1937 and operated until 1995. One of only three remaining stations built at the time, the station is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It houses the Maritime Center, a small museum run by the Coastal Georgia Historical Society. The Coast Guard uses a new station built to replace the one from the 1930s.
On the night of April 8, 1942 off the coast of St. Simons, the German submarine U-123 chased and torpedoed two tankers, the S.S. Oklahoma and the Esso Baton Rouge. Both ships sank and 22 of their crew members were killed. Survivors were rescued and brought to the Coast Guard station on St. Simons for care and debriefing. Five of the sailors killed in the 1942 incident were buried as “Unknown Seamen” in Brunswick, Georgia’s Palmetto Cemetery. In 1998 they were positively identified.
Both ships were raised and towed to the port at nearby Brunswick for repairs. Although they both reentered service, the two ships were sunk during warfare in the Atlantic Ocean before the end of World War II.
King and Prince Hotel
The Coast Cottages is a neo-traditional planned community located on St. Simons Island.