There is a nearly forgotten historical significance to St. Simons Island, Georgia, both for the survival of the original fledgling British colonies and one that is oddly also personal for us.
St. Simons Island is the site of Fort Frederica to the north and Fort St. Simons on the southern tip of the island, both of which served to guard Georgia against southern invasion by those pesky Spaniards who first settled Florida and felt entitled to lands further north.
Then there is Musgrove Plantation, a mysterious and remote plot of land near Fort Frederica, still owned by a member of the R.J. Reynolds tobacco family.
Musgrove Plantation hosts one of the country’s most exclusive resorts and crosses our family lineage somewhere in the dim (very dim) past through Mary Musgrove, who was instrumental in negotiating key indian treaties in the 1700’s, making initial British town settlements in the region possible.
I’ll talk about that later, but first, a little background about how this small island stood it’s ground in protecting the southern colonies that would later evolve into our southern American states.
Georgia was the last of the original thirteen colonies to be established in America and was named in honor of King George II, by James Olgelthorpe, a British General and member of Parliament, who founded the colony there in part as a fortified buffer against Spanish incursions from Florida.
In the early 1700’s, Europeans referred to the land lying between British South Carolina and Spanish Florida as the “Debatable Land”. It’s important to recognize that America was first colonized from the bottom up, initially by an expansive Spanish land claim from explorer Ponce de Leon, which he named La Florida for the wonderful Spring flowers he found there around Easter time in the early 1500’s.
The first British colony came much later at Jamestown in Virginia in 1607.
The two forts of Frederica and St. Simons succeeded in rebuffing the Spanish in two major battles, at Gully Hole Creek and Bloody Marsh and on the road leading between them. The Spanish were sufficiently bruised and never returned, so the British claim on Georgia remained unchallenged.
Actually, America was established by a series of imperialistic land-grabs starting with the Spanish, then the British and later by the French. Imperialism has such a negative connotation, but in fact, most of the known world was civilized through imperialism, which hails from Latin and essentially means sovereignty obtained and retained through force. So these new British colonies were vulnerable and constantly under threat of seizure, particularly on the border between Georgia and Florida.
Fort Frederica stands in almost complete ruin today, but as we walked the old streets and park grounds we couldn’t help but be amazed at the hardship the British settlers there must have endured here on the then southern frontier of America.
Her silent cannons still guard the river, surrounded by mosquito and alligator infested swampland. But a sense of important history still hangs in the air around this national monument. You can get more info at the National Park Service website page for Fort Frederica.
Fort St. Simons is completely gone, now marked simply by a sign and one lone cannon.
It is better known for the site of the St. Simon’s Lighthouse. You can find more information on Fort St. Simons and the St. Simons Light house at: Fort St. Simons Historic Site – St. Simons Island, Georgia
But Oglethorpe, a rich philanthropist, was smart to create the colony as a means to land ownership for Britain’s poor and he focused initially on those still residing in debtor’s prison.
Fetid swampland probably looked pretty good compared to jail and in return he received motivated residents who were willing to build fortifications there to boot.
Today, the upscale St. Simons Island along with it’s island neighbor Jekyll Island hardly offers a red carpet for the impoverished, which brings us to the second topic concerning Musgrove Plantation.
Mary Musgrove, nee Coosaponakeesa (good Jeopardy question), who was later married to John Musgrove, was half Creek Indian and related to members of their tribal leadership as the daughter of English trader Edward Griffin and his Creek Indian wife.
She and her husband John established and ran a successful deerskin trading post along the Savannah River in the pre-Georgia territory in 1716. Mary greatly assisted their business and Oglethorpe through her tribal connections and after her husband’s death she served as his principal interpreter in negotiating with the Creeks for settlement lands that became the town of Savannah Georgia and St. Simons Island.
By extension these laid the foundation for the crown colony through the stewardship of James Oglethorpe. Thus the state of Georgia, admitted 4th to the Union in 1788, owes a tremendous debt to Oglethorpe and the Musgroves.
In return for service to the British Crown the Musgroves were awarded over 500 acres of prime waterfront real estate. This, along with other previous and subsequent Musgrove land investments, made Mary one of the largest land owners in the region.
I had heard about the Musgrove Plantation through our family history of course and we traveled to St. Simons Island specifically to view this amazing resort. I had the misshapen idea that if we showed up on their doorstep and produced our “Musgrove” credentials, we might at least be granted access, or at best perhaps even discover they had been looking for the lost family connection to award us a shockingly huge inheritance!
Having hosted a US President and dignitaries from all over the world, one might expect a grand entrance to the estate, but the access road off Frederica Road was difficult to find and anything but ostentatious.
In fact, the access gate looked more like a padlocked service road to a dairy farm. Sigh.
However, one can apparently still book the resort for weddings and even Yoga retreats at the Musgrove Plantation website.
We enjoyed the journey here though and discovering the history of how one of our distant kin helped to found a state and (ahem) preserve a nation!