St. Simons Island, Ga:
In Search of Oglethorpe
(As shown above, Fort Frederica's powder magazine remains as one of the few above-ground structures from the 1730s English fort and town founded by James Oglethorpe.*)
By Susan J. Young
Today, travelers vacationing on St Simons Island, GA, come primarily for the beaches; eco-activities including birding, biking, hiking and kayaking; lighthouse and maritime museums; and a walkable downtown with boutiques, galleries, craft/gift shops and a fishing pier.
But the island -- just 75 miles south of Savannah and an hour's drive north of Jacksonville, FL -- boasts an impressive Colonial history as well.
Few Americans realize that just 300 years ago, Georgia's southeastern coast was disputed territory.
England and Spain were at war. In the New World, the Spanish were entrenched in Florida, operating from a massive fortress at St. Augustine, just 112 miles south of St. Simons Island.
The English occupied the Carolinas and Georgia from such settlements as Savannah, GA, and Charleston, SC (originally called Charles Town).
Fort Frederica (shown in the map at left*) was built between 1736 and 1748 on St. Simons Island.
This fortress and supporting settlement provided the English a key geographic foothold in the tug-of-war between empires.
Most people know that English Captain James Oglethorpe founded the city of Savannah, GA. (Oglethorpe is shown in the photo at right**)
But did you know he also founded Fort Frederica?
Settlement of England's Georgia colony began in January 1733, when the Ann sailed into Charles Town after a voyage of 88 days.
Onboard were Oglethorpe, one pastor, a doctor and 114 colonists. The settlers weren't just from England, but also from Scotland, Switzerland, France, Germany other European nations.
Oglethorpe negotiated with native Americans, the Creek tribe, for land.
He soon established several defensive forts -- including Frederica -- along the coast. (Above left, weapons recovered from the archaeological site at Fort Frederica help tell its history.*)
In its heyday, the island fort was home to 630 British troops.
Surrounding the fortress was Frederica, a town of about 500 residents; it was named for the reigning Prince of Wales, the son of King George II.
At times, the town's population swelled to 1,000 in support of the fort's military efforts.
Today, modern travelers seeking tales of Oglethorpe and America's Colonial history often stroll through the quiet, peaceful site of Fort Frederica, now operated by the National Park Service at 6515 Frederica Rd. (See the entry marker in the photo at right.*).
Armed with a map from the visitor's center, visitors may explore the site along well-marked paths -- many are Fredericka's original streets as laid out by Oglethorpe.
Oglethorpe personally staked out 84 lots in Frederica; most measured 60 by 90 feet. At first, the homes consisted of 14-by-20 foot palmetto huts woven by a Brazilian craftsman brought to Frederica by Oglethorpe.
Soon, however, these temporary homes were replaced with traditional Georgian-styled buildings of wood, tabby and brick.
Frederica's settlers received one acre for a garden just outside the town. They also were given 50 acres in the country to grow crops.
Broad Street, Frederica's 75-foot-wide boulevard (shown above*), was ringed by trees. It led from the fort to the town gates.
By 1739, Frederica was protected by a palisade, a wall of 12-inch thick cedar posts. Residents and troops entered through two gates, one from land, the other from the sea.
And yes, the fort had a moat along the palisade. If attacked, settlers and troops simply opened a sluice gate to allow the river water to flood the moat.
(This map is one visitors may peruse at Fort Frederica.*)
Above ground, only a few structures -- the fort's powder magazine and part of the barracks -- survive today.
Kids and adults alike will enjoy viewing several huge cannons of the era(see photo below*) positioned adjacent to the powder magazine.
Strolling through the town site, you'll also view the foundations of many town buildings; park service maps indicate the type of house or structure originally on the site.
For example, you may view the foundation of the Francis Moore House in North Ward (shown in the photo above*).
Moore was Frederica's first town recorder. He was also keeper of the King�€™s Store, and Oglethorpe's personal secretary.
Frederica (shown in the photos at right and below*) is a hauntingly beautiful spot for strolling, especially early in the day before most visitors arrive.
Tall oak trees laden with Spanish moss surround the walking paths
Battle of Bloody Marsh
Troops from Fort Frederica went into battle on several occasions, including one mission by Oglethorpe south to attempt to wrestle St. Augustine from the Spanish.
That effort, however, was unsucessful. It actually stirred the Spanish to do more to protect their turf. In 1742, Spanish troops headed north to take on the British in coastal Georgia.
Oglethorpe and his English force defeated Spanish troops at the Battle of Bloody Marsh -- just six miles south of Fort Frederica. (Above, the battle is depicted in a painting.*).
Today, the historic site of that battle is maintained by the National Park Service. The so-called battle is often described by historians as a minor skirmish with a big result -- ending Spain's potential threat to Georgia.
The Bloody Marsh site is located just off Demere Road between East Beach Causeway and Frederica Road.
Oglethorpe Returns to England
Oglethorpe's stay in the southeastern U.S. was relatively short -- just a decade. He returned to England in 1743, married, and died in Chatham, England in 1775.
And by 1749, any Spanish threat to Georgia was over. England soon disbanded the garrison at Frederica.
Without a military presence, Frederica began to decline. (Ruins of the town's foundations are shown in the photo at left*)
By 1755, only a few colonists remained. The town survived a 1758 fire, but within a few years, it was no longer a place of influence in British Georgia.
In 1936, Fort Frederica became a U.S. National Monument and gained new life as a tourism attraction.
Besides the fort and town, there's a small burial ground near the Visitors Center, but not much is known about it.
Fort Frederica Visitors Center
Visitors begin their colonial exploration of Fort Frederica at the National Park Service Visitors Center, open daily except on Christmas day.
Admission to the exterior fort and town site -- is $3 for adults, free for those 15 and under.
Before touring the site, learn more by watching a 23-minute park service film, entitled "History Uncovered"
The center also has many exhibits to educate visitors. You'll peruse pottery, weapons, clothing of the day and more.
Artistic vignettes depict the lives of Frederica's troops and civilians during the 1700s. (See photos above and below.*)
At times, travelers may encounter living history portrayals of townspeople and the soldiers who protected them, as well as cannon/murket firing demonstrations and period music.
The visitor's center carries an interesting selection of books, DVDs, gifts and souvenirs.
We couldn't resist buying an Oglethorpe doll as a memento of our experience at Fort Frederica.
The doll is dressed in a uniform of red, silver, black and gold. It sports a 1700s hat, sword and boots
For $14.99 plus tax, it's a cute souvenir(see photo at right*).
Lighthouse and Beaches
Seeking other activity diversions for your stay on St. Simons? One option is a driving tour outlined on the Brunswick and the Golden Isles CVB Web site.
You might also enjoy the island views and leave the driving to someone else on the 90-minute St. Simons Trolley Tour.
Among the major St. Simons attractions - beyond Oglethorpe's legacy?
Dating from 1872, St. Simons Island Lighthouse and Museum (shown at right*) still operates to protect sailors as a "working" lighthouse.
Its light, a 1,000-watt electric bulb, is reflected by a fixed, third-order Fresnel Lens, manufactured by L. Sautier of Paris, France.
Four flash panels mounted around the fixed lens revolve around the bulb -- flashing one beam per minute.
The beam projects 23 miles out to sea -- as far as the curvature of the earth will permit.
If you're so inclined you might climb the 129 steps to the top of the 104-foot-tall lighthouse. You'll be rewarded with unforgettable views of St. Simons and nearby islands.
The lighthouse museum is within the historic brick building that previously served as the lighthouse keeper's residence. The museum has exhibits and artifacts detailing lighthouse history and 19th century life.
Walk toward the beach from the lighthouse and you'll come upon a new downtown park, kids' play area and promenade (see photo above*), perfect for enjoying the waterfront.
Or, you might take the stairs to the beach, enjoying the sand and surf -- even in your clothes (as the visitors did in the above photo*)
If shopping or fishing delight you, head for the nearby "Village" along Mallery Street.
Since the early days of ferryboat transportation between St. Simons Island and the mainland, the Village's pier has been a focal point of activity.
We watched locals and tourists alike fishing off the pier.
An impressive natural attraction on St. Simons is the Avenue of Oaks entrance drive to the Sea Island Golf Club (shown at right*).
While golf club access is reserved for guests of The Cloister and The Lodge at Sea Island Golf Club, as well as members of the latter, visitors may still drive along this tree-lined avenue to admire the vegetation.
This oak-canopied drive was formerly the entrance to Retreat Plantation, an antebellum plantation known for its sea island cotton and extensive flower gardens.
Editor's Note: View the oak canopies and golf course vistas by driving along the avenue; just circle back around before entering the Golf Club.
Another historical St. Simons tidbit is that Episcopalian Charles Wesley ministered to colonists during Frederica's early years.
In addition, Wesley's brother John, the founder of Methodism, also journeyed to St. Simons on several trips and worked to establish a church on the island.
John Wesley often spoke on the site of what is today Christ Church, (shown in the photo at left*) 6329 Frederica Rd., St. Simons.
It's worth a stop for a stroll around the lovely grounds.
The church is also sometimes open for tours. Check the Web site for hours.
Adjacent to the church is the Christ Church Cemetery, popularized in the novels of author Eugenia Price.
Price is buried in the cemetery, which is also the final resting place of several prominent 1800s plantation owners and political figures.
Another island attraction is the Maritime Museum, housed within a historic U.S. Coast Guard station (shown in the photo below*)
Listed on the National Register of Historic places, this Roosevelt-era station gives visitors a sense of what it was like to be a Coast Guardsman stationed on the island in the 1940s. Seven galleries feature hands-on exhibits.
From the museum's parking lot, visitors may also walk across a wooden access bridge (shown at left*) to the beach.
We visited in the fall of the year when the vegetation was spartan and yet colorful at the same time (see photos below*).
Eco-enthusiasts will find much to delight on St. Simons. The island provides an enticing haven for marine creatures and birds.
Visitors with a love of the outdoors may enjoy biking, hiking and kayaking.
If you enjoy birding, the Colonial Coast Birding Trail awaits.
The island's nesting birds include Great Blue Heron and Ospreys.
During winter, it's possible to spot cormorants (often airing out their wings), ducks, grebes and loons.
In the evening, another touring option is the Ghost Walk of St. Simons. The island's lighthouse, for example, is reportedly haunted.
On this ghostly tour, visitors will meander through moonlit streets and moss-draped passageways in The Village, as well as through Neptune and St. Simons parks.
The Ghost Tours, offered March through August, depart at 9 p.m. from the lamppost at the St. Simons Island Pier entrance. Call 912-638-2756 for the latest schedule.
Ghost Walk tickets are $13 for adults, $7 for kids 5-12.
Accommodations and Dining
Our fall visit to St. Simons Island was brief, but certainly memorable.
We dined for lunch at Gnat's Landing, 310 Redfern Village.
It's a fun, casual place for burgers, wings and similar fare.
Dine outside to relish the laid-back island aura. Gnat's Landing is situated amid a shopping area so you can even browse and buy before enjoying your burger.
We stayed at the Best Western Island Inn, a clean, comfortable property with a very nice pool.
(Check out the hotel in the background of the photo at left; the pool deck is very inviting*).
I would definitely stay here again. Rooms were clean and spacious.
Staff were also quite friendly. They seemed dedicated to their jobs and eager to assist customers.
We enjoyed a complimentary continental breakfast in the bright, cheery breakfast room just off the check-in lobby.
This hotel is a good choice if you're seeking affordability.
Of course, you'll also find premium and luxury properties on St. Simons if you wish to spend the bucks.
One of the most popular upscale hotels is the historic, King and Prince Beach and Golf Resort (shown in the photo at right*), a full-service property on the beach.
We only spent one evening and most of the next day on St. Simons Island. So, the activities listed above are just a few of the diversions the island offers.
Our main focus on this trip was to visit Fort Frederica and the ruins of Frederica town. I regret we didn't have more time to explore the rest of the destination, including Jekyll Island, just a few miles away, as well as Brunswick city.
So we're putting those on our "wish list" for a future Georgia visit!
For More Information
To learn about all the activities, accommodations and dining choices the destination offers, visit the Brunswick & the Golden Isles Convention & Visitors Bureau at www.comecoastawhile.com.