St. Marys, GA has changed roles many times over recent centuries – having been described as a bustling colonial seaport, a sleepy city by the sea, an ethically questionable company town, and a strategic military location.
The city sits in the far southeast corner of the state of Georgia. Many Florida-bound vacationers have stumbled upon St. Marys while making a pitstop at Exit 1 on I-95. Here, people can learn about the local attractions, like Cumberland Island (the largest of Georgia’s barrier islands), the nuclear submarine base, and the quaint, historic waterfront.
Drone shot by St. Marys local, Ashley Alexander
Prior to European discovery, the southeastern region of Georgia was home to numerous American Indian tribes – the Guales, Timucuans, Creeks, and Yamacraws. Historians estimate that as early as 200 B.C., the tribes inhabited the vast maritime forests of live oaks and palmettos. They hunted deer, turkey, and wild game, while also catching fish, shrimp, and harvesting shellfish.
These diverse tribes lived independently of each other. They had never “united” under one body or banded together with any formal organization, so when the French and Spanish explorers arrived, the indians were unprepared to take a stand or resist the European conquest.
French River Mai (May). Original drawn by Jacques Le Moyne, c. 1562 (Recreation)
The known history of St. Marys begins in 1562, when French Huguenot Jean Ribault is said to have sailed into the river and landed on the south bank – now known as Amelia Island. Here, Ribault erected a stone monument and claimed the land for France. He also named the river "River May" – after the date of his arrival
Ribault column located on the St. Johns River tourist site. Photo via FloridaHikes.com
For the next 200 years, the land extending from the St. Marys River up to the Charleston Bay would belong to France. This was essentially all of present day Georgia. The French wrote that it was “a countrie full of havens, rivers, and islands of such fruitfulness as cannot with toungue be expressed.”
Shortly after the French expedition landed in the Amelia Island area, the Spanish settlers landed in St. Augustine. Now, both the French and Spanish began to “duke it out” while staking claims throughout “La Florida.”
As the Spaniards trekked through Florida, they headed north – pushing into French territory. When they reached the St. Marys area, they encountered an Indian encampment ruled by Queen Hiacia. Queen Hiacia was described as being the most beautiful of the native women.
The Spaniards settled and worked alongside the Indians peacefully, until an Indian uprising almost 40 years later (~1597). After this uprising, tensions between settlers and Indians continued to wax and wane for almost a century. In 1686, the French and Spanish settlers eventually retreated below the St. Marys River – back into Florida.
Timucuan warriors with weapons and tattoo regalia.
Original drawn by Jacques Le Moyne, c. 1562 (Recreation)
In the 1600s, the indian attacks on the French and Spanish settlers in the Coastal South had increased – and many historians believe that the English settlers encouraged and incentivized the natives to attack the French/Spanish competition. Once the French and Spanish retreated back into Florida, England jumped on the opportunity to stake a claim on the Carolinas. The new "Carolinas" territory would extend from today's Carolinas all the way down into Spanish Florida.
The English and their Indian allies ravaged today's South Georgia area – utterly destroying the local Timucuan tribe.
This land grab resulted in years and years of fighting between the English, Spanish, and French -- and due to close proximity -- native tribes were also heavily affected by these continuous battles. Though the English had originally used some indian tribes as their allies, many natives unexpectedly caught foreign diseases, which proceeded to weaken their populations.
Posts are a combination of my own research, visits, and conversations, plus various information found around the web. I try to provide sources, but if you have specific questions, feel free to ask!