The historic city of St. Marys was at one time the southernmost city in the United States. It is located in the southeast corner of Georgia and is the Gateway to Cumberland Island.
Less than six miles from the Atlantic Ocean, St. Marys was chartered as a seaport on November 20, 1787 – the same year as the drafting of the U.S. Constitution. The city was laid out the following year by its 20 original landowners.
The mouth of the St. Mary’s River was then one of the most strategic places on earth. A boundary between states today, the river was then a boundary between nations. Georgia, on the north side of the river, was part of the fledgling United States. Florida, to the south, was a Spanish colony.
Designed with airy 100-foot wide streets and a spacious waterfront that looked directly across the St. Marys into Spanish Florida, the settlement was perfectly positioned to become a crossroads of American history.
Because it formed the boundary of nations and opened directly into the Atlantic, the St. Mary’s River became a center for smuggling, piracy, filibustering and intrigues. The free-wheeling Spanish city of Fernandina lay just across the river from the new American city of St. Marys and each had heavy influence on the history of the other.
St. Marys saw its first burst of growth in 1791 when Acadian settlers arrived there fleeing the slave revolt in Saint Domingo (today’s Haiti). These French-speaking refugees had been part of the massive wave of more than 6,000 people forced to leave their homes in Nova Scotia by the British during the French & Indian War. The famed Acadians or Cajuns of Louisiana were part of this same exodus.
The rapid growth of St. Marys during the four years after its founding led to its official approval by the Georgia Legislature in 1792. By that time it had become a booming port community.
The U.S. Government was quick to recognize the strategic value of the town and in 1795 a battery of heavy cannon was placed on Point
Petre, the next point downstream from St. Marys. Also called Point Peter, the battery was built of earth and logs and included a gunpowder magazine and barracks for the soldiers posted there.
St. Marys became an official Port of Entry in 1799 and James Seagrove, a well-known Indian trader, was named its first Customs Agent. The post was assumed by Archibald Clark in 1808, the same year that the U.S. Congress passed the Embargo Act which prohibited the importation of slaves into the United States.
The passage of the Embargo Act led to the growth of a major slave smuggling industry in Spanish Florida. St. Marys became an important interdiction point against the smugglers, with U.S. troops from Point Petre working hand in hand with the sailors aboard U.S. gunboats stationed in the St. Marys to suppress the illegal trade.
A number of buildings in St. Marys date from 1808 or earlier. The stunningly beautiful First Presbyterian Church, for example, was built in 1808. The Jackson-Clark-Bessent-MacDonell-Nesbitt House was completed in 1801. The nearby Washington Oak was planted in 1799 as a memorial to President George Washington, who died that year.
By the end of the first decade of the 19th Century, the United States was looking south to Spanish Florida with covetous eyes. The King of Spain was not interested in selling his colony so officials hatched a scheme to take it. St. Marys became a center for the intrigue associated with the plot.
With a secret nod from President James Madison, former Georgia governor George Matthews assembled a force of well-armed “revolutionaries” at St. Marys and set up headquarters at the Point Petre battery. The scheme called for these filibusterers – along with former U.S. residents already living in Florida – to carry out a rebellion against Spanish authority. As the revolutionaries – dubbed “The Patriots” – advanced, they would declare independence from Spain and then surrender occupied lands to U.S. troops who would follow in their wake.
The Patriot invasion began in 1812 and in short order the revolutionaries invaded Amelia Island and seized Fernandina. Gov. Matthews followed with U.S. troops to raise the Stars and Stripes over the island.
The Patriot “army” surged to the very walls of St. Augustine itself, but despite help from U.S. troops, they were unable to take the capital city. Counter-attacks by Spanish soldiers and Seminole warriors, coupled with deadly fevers, broke the siege and the whole “revolution” soon became a disaster.
The U.S. Government disavowed the Patriots – previous approval aside – and U.S. troops were ordered back to Georgia. Throughout it all, St. Marys had served as a headquarters, supply point and more.
War came to St. Marys again three years later when the same British fleet and army that had burned Washington, D.C. came south down the Atlantic seaboard following its unsuccessful bombardment of Fort McHenry. Admiral Sir George Cockburn put troops ashore on Cumberland Island and blockaded the mouth of the St. Marys River.
The British forces attacked and captured the U.S. Army post at Point Petre on January 13, 1815. Casualties were light on both sides, but the battery and all of its cannon were captured. British troops then occupied and looted St. Marys, doing extensive damage to the city.The Battle of Point Petre (or Point Peter) has sometimes been called the last battle of the War of 1812, but it was not. That distinction belongs to a second and much bloodier fight that took place on the St. Marys River less than six weeks later.
A large force of British sailors and marines went up the river on February 24, 1815 to destroy a U.S. outpost. Instead they were surprised by 20 U.S. soldiers firing from the north side of the St. Marys and 30 men from the all but dissolved Patriot army firing from the south shore.Trapped on their barges in the middle of the river, the British lost 29 killed or wounded. The Americans lost only 2. The Battle of the St. Marys was the last land action of the War of 1812.
The British were not the last to cause turmoil for the people of St. Marys. Just two years after the Redcoats left, the citizens watched with alarm as the Scottish adventurer Gregor MacGregor sailed into the harbor and seized neighboring Fernandina. Then, four months later on September 17, 1817, the pirate Luis Aury arrived, forced the last of McGregor’s men to surrender and raised the flag of the Republic of Mexico over Amelia Island.
In just five years, the people of St. Marys had watched from their riverfront as the Spanish, the Patriots, the United States, the British, McGregor and then Aury had all raised their own flags on the other side of the river. They must have breathed a sigh of relief when President James Monroe, fed up with the chaos on Amelia Island, ordered U.S. troops from Point Petre to once again seize the island. The occupation went smoothly and all of Florida was finally ceded to the United States in 1821.
St. Marys prospered after Florida became part of the United States. The peace that returned to the area allowed the city to grow and it continued its development as a port for the exportation of sugar and cotton.
Peace reigned until 1861 when Georgia and neighboring Florida seceded from the Union. St. Marys was shelled and looted by Union troops during the War Between the States (or Civil War), but survived. Raids were also launched up the St. Marys River.
The emergence of Jacksonville as a major deepwater port during the years after the war assured that St. Marys would remain a small but remarkably charming coastal community.
It is noted as a major tourist destination today, although the adjoining Kings Bay Submarine Base gives it a major military distinction as well. Unique cafes, museums, historic sites, bed & breakfast inns and 200 year old buildings dot the landscape.
St. Marys is the Gateway to Cumberland Island National Seashore, which is famed for its pristine beaches, stunning scenery and historic sites. A major destination for heritage and ecotourism, it is accessed by passenger ferry boats that leave daily from the St. Marys waterfront.
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