Visitors and residents alike who have experienced the history of St. Simons Island know there is a lot to enjoy and explore on the island. In the summer, there’s pleasure to be had walking along the beach or watching the ships sail by from the Village Pier.
Others may be attracted to the sections of the island that remain undeveloped, where nature reigns supreme. These areas are ideal for biking, boating, fishing, and nature walks. St. Simons Island can be paradise for anyone who loves the great outdoors.
But there’s something else that many of the visitors and locals find so fascinating and that’s the history of St. Simons Island. This is not just a history that’s been passed down in books or newspaper articles, this is history that can be seen, explored and re-lived because so much of it has been richly preserved all across the island.
This beautiful place was first called “San Simone” by 16th century Spanish explorers. Today you will find a beautiful mixture of businesses, local attractions and permanent residences along with an impressive number of cultural attractions, heritage sites, monuments, and parks. No time machine is needed to step back a century or two on St. Simons Island.
For decades, the island’s visitors and locals have been drawn here for the opportunities to routinely travel back in time by exploring the Bloody Marsh Battle Site, Christ Church, the First African Baptist Church, Fort Frederica National Monument, Gascoigne Bluff, the Maritime Center at the Historic Coast Guard Station on East Beach and the landmark St. Simons Island Lighthouse and Museum. A treasure trove of amazing sites from the past taking you back to an early century.
In the Beginning: The Early History of St. Simons Island
Today, when you visit St. Simons Island you can take in an afternoon of shopping in the quaint shops in the Pier Village or enjoy the local restaurants and golf courses.
Fortunately, all that reminds us of the modern world happily co-exists with beautifully preserved tributes to the history of St. Simons Island.
The rich history of this beautiful island dates back centuries – as early as 3,000 B.C., in fact, when Timucan and Guale Indians first inhabited the island. The Native Americans lived on a settlement in what is today St. Simons Park, two centuries before the first European contact.
Fort Frederica, which is now Fort Frederic National Movement, was originally built in 1736 as the military headquarters of the Province of Georgia during the early English colonial period; the fort served as a buffer against the Spanish. Close to the fort is the site of the Battle of Gully Hole Creek and the Battle of Bloody Marsh – battles that happened in July 1742 when British soldiers ambushed Spanish troops that had been marching through the marsh, ending Spanish efforts to invade Georgia. These sites have been greatly preserved and identified as historic. In 1941, local resident Margaret Davis Cates helped raise more than $100,000 to buy the site of the fort and push for its preservation. It was designated as a National Monument in 1947.
The Well-Loved Historic Lighthouse
When sailing close to St. Simons Island, boaters can see another key element of the history of St. Simons Island. The beautiful St. Simons Lighthouse facing the water. Its history dates back to Oct. 17, 1804, when John Couper, a local plantation owner, deeded four acres of his land at the south end of the island to the federal government for $1, so a lighthouse could be constructed at “Couper’s Point.”
In 1807, the U.S. Treasury Department hired James Gould of Massachusetts to build the lighthouse and a one-story frame residence. He gave them a 75-foot tower, with a foundation 8 feet thick at the base. In May 1810, Gould was appointed as its first keeper.
The Civil War changed the course of history of St. Simons Island , especially for the lighthouse. The invasion of Georgia by Federal troops forced the Confederates to evacuate St. Simons Island, but before they left in 1862, the Confederates destroyed Gould’s lighthouse so it couldn’t be used as a tool to aid in navigational efforts.
In 1872, the U.S. Government ordered the construction of a second lighthouse, placed just west of the first one. One of Georgia’s most noted architects, Charles Cluskey, designed a 104-foot tower with an adjacent home for the keeper.
In 1876 the U. S. Lighthouse Establishment performed a major overhaul of the lighthouse, weather-proofing the roof and walls. On June 1, 1939, the lighthouse was placed under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Coast Guard.
In 1960, it was given to the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries, which is part of the U.S. Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service. It was then deeded to the Coastal Georgia Historical Society in 2004 under the Lighthouse Preservation Act. Today it’s a very popular site for tours, and with the assistance of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, it continues as an Aid to Navigation during inclement weather.
Cotton Plantations Now Long Gone
During the plantation era, Saint Simons became a center for cotton production. Nearly the entire island was cleared of trees to make way for cotton plantations. African slaves provided much of the labor for these plantations. This led to the development of the Gullah people which preserved the remnants of West African ethnic groups. The Gullah language and culture survived into the 21st century.
After the Civil War, the island’s plantations were in ruins. Landowners could no longer earn a profit trying to cultivate cotton or rice, so they moved inland and the island’s economy remained stagnant for years, although former slaves established a community in the center of the island that became known as Harrington.
The slave cabins that were a part of Hamilton Plantation at Gascoigne Bluff are still maintained today by the Cassina Garden Club and open to the public. This beautiful site sits alongside our beautiful community, the Villas at Gasciogne.
Tourism Becomes a Big Industry
The 1870s marked a turning point in the history of St. Simons Island when a new industry was discovered: tourism. It started with the construction of summer cottages on the island’s south end along with a village to serve them. By 1887, when construction was completed on the Pier Village, visitors began coming to the island by boat from Brunswick and South Georgia. A year later, the island’s first hotel, The Hotel St. Simons, opened on what is today Massengale Park.
For a long time, visitors came only by boat, disembarking at the pier. Then in 1924, the opening of the Torras Causeway brought the automobile here and as more roads were constructed, tourism became the backbone of the island’s economy.
Today, the island, considered one of Georgia’s “Golden Isles,” receives visitors throughout the year attracted by its mild year-round temperate climate and the compelling history of St. Simons Island. It’s easy for tourists to enjoy all that the island has to offer whether you’re exploring by car, taxi, golf cart or even bicycle. The appeal of St. Simons Island’s beaches and scenic vistas continue to attract those who love outdoor activities like water sports, fishing, golfing and sailing – others come to enjoy peaceful natural surroundings at spots like Cannon’s Point Preserve.
And you definitely will want to check out the beautifully preserved historic venues, including the St. Simons Lighthouse and Christ Church – a very popular wedding site.
The History of St. Simons Island Continues
This is an amazing place to discover – for its natural beauty, spectacular views of the ocean, and the deep and rich history of St. Simons Island. There’s no surprise that this is also a place that a growing number of people want to call home.
If you’re looking at becoming a permanent resident of St. Simons Island, Palmetto Building Group has new, move-in ready single-family homes, cottages, condominiums and townhouses available, often with fabulous views of the marshes. We also have homes close to the Pier Village, or right near the beach.
Whatever it is that draws you to life on St. Simon’s Island, we have a home to match your concept of the ideal setting. We invite you to bring your family back to a slower pace. Whether you make St. Simons your full-time residence or use your home for much-needed getaways to recharge your family, start building your family life now. Grab your bikes and head south. We are waiting for you!
Contact us today at 912-266-8401 or email us at Palmettoleads@gmail.com to learn more. We look forward to hearing from you, but most of all, we’re thrilled to know you’re looking for a new home on one of the most spectacularly beautiful and historic parts of South Georgia.