King's Retreat on St. Simons Island
by Amy Hedrick
1904 Map of Retreat
Founded in 1804 by
William Page from South Carolina, Retreat Plantation was one of the
major players in the plantation system of Coastal Georgia during the 19th
century. In all, the plantation totaled 2000+ acres geared towards growing
long staple cotton. It was originally known as Orange Grove, owned by
daughter, Anna Matilda Page, inherited Retreat in 1827. She was the
wife of Thomas Butler King of Massachusetts who was a member of
Congress from 1839 to 1850 and a prominent figure in Georgia and national
politics. The Kings had 10 children, only seven lived to see the aftermath
of the Civil War, and the end of the antebellum south as they knew it.
Of all the plantations, this one
was the most efficient, and the one most concerned with the well being of
their slaves. A slave hospital [ruins which still stand today] was built
which had about 8 rooms and a large attic. To get to the hospital, you
would leave the main house, and stroll through a walkway shaded by
tropical plants and flowers, then you passed through the infamous orange
Two nurses headed up this hospital
who also had to be trained in midwifery. One early record lists Sukey
and Mily, a mother and daughter, as faithful and trusting nurses.
Sukey was the mother to Neptune Small.
There were, of course, slave
quarters, gardens, chicken & duck yards, sewing rooms, and a detached
double kitchen with two fireplaces to handle all of the plantation
As tradition holds, this was a true
“Gone With the Wind” plantation. Galas and balls were held here, people
from the island and in town would arrive to dance the night away. The men
would make toast after toast, William Page holding his own.
The plantation was adjoined by
another, aptly named New Field, lined with a street of tabby cabins for
the field hands. One cabin is still standing at the intersection of
Frederica and Demere Roads, converted into a gift shop and named “The
Items grown at Retreat included,
long staple cotton, lemon, orange, and olive groves, graperies, and
various orchards. The Kings also owned plantations on the mainland,
in Camden County was Waverly, Monticello was in Wayne County. Of course
numerous slaves were attached with each place. High overhead, and
Butler King’s willingness to sign his friends’ notes, cost them almost
everything they had in the panic of 1838-39. All that was left was Anna
Matilda’s dower, Retreat and New Field, and the slaves working them.
One ghost is purported to haunt
Retreat, that of a Naval Officer, while living he was stationed at
Retreat. During the Civil War, Retreat was used as a base of operations
for Union soldiers. One night two young officers, after imbibing heavily,
started quarrelling. The end result, one was shot to death. His spirit is
said to wander the property.
was brought up to be a smart, responsible, businesslike young woman. Able
to handle the day to day tasks of running a plantation. Her father never
hesitated upon his death to leave everything in her capable hands. An
estate that estimated, in today’s economy, to be over two million dollars,
not counting the slaves. Her husband would have been deemed an absentee
owner had Anna not stayed home while Butler King attended
all the political and social events his career demanded.
Due to her forthright business
manner, and meticulous records, a clear picture of plantation life at
Retreat has been preserved for generations to come. A book titled “Anna,
The Letters of a St. Simons Island Plantation Mistress, 1817-1859” tells
the story of her life through letters and correspondence with family and
Not only was she an avid writer,
she was also a stern record keeper. Her plantation accountings have slaves
listed, not only by names and ages, but in their family unit, with birth
and death dates. As you can see by her
estate papers, even in death, her records were kept in order.
Everything was left to her children to share and share alike.
died before war came to her home, right to her doorstep as a matter of
fact. Retreat became a “contraband colony.” During the War Between the
States, many coastal slaves had the run of the country and formed groups
that ran amok, stealing and damaging
properties, so much so that it was becoming troublesome to the Northern
commanders stationed in the town. Retreat became the ideal place to put
these contrabands to work, and to keep them out of trouble. Eventually
over 500 people were living and working there, too many for a healthy
environment, so many were moved to Gascoigne Bluff. In 1862, this colony
After the war, Retreat was still
not abandoned by these interlopers. The headquarters of the Freedman’s
Bureau for this district was stationed there. The King family and
their people were safely tucked away in Ware County, as were most of the
islanders and mainlanders.
The Kings suffered losses in
the War, far worse than just their home. Georgia King’s husband,
Col. William Duncan Smith, died from yellow fever in Charleston on 4 October 1862.
Before this, Georgia had the opportunity to ride into battle with
her husband and partake of a front row seat to the second battle of
Manassas. She also served as a volunteer nurse.
Thomas Butler King, Sr.
died 10 May 1864 in Waresboro, Ware County, Georgia, just before War’s
end. Fortunately for him he did not live to see the Confederacy he worked
hard to preserve, fail.
Son, Henry Lord Page King,
enlisted in 1861 with the C.S.A., only to loose his life at Fredericksburg
on 13 December 1862. Lordy was killed while carrying dispatches for
his commanding officer, felled by five balls on Mayre’s Hill. Lordy
took with him to battle his childhood friend and body servant, Neptune,
who bravely carried Lordy’s body off of the battlefield and all the
way back to Savannah to be buried with the family after the war at Christ Church.
After Lordy’s death,
Neptune was told that he could stay home for good, but having seen the
evils of war, could not let young Richard Cuyler King go off
After the Civil War, Retreat was
never the same, and economic ruin brought about the sale of some of the
property. All but one of the King children moved away, Mallery
King tried to make a go of the old place, but eventually had to sell
tracts of the home place, those known as New Field. The Retreat tract today, bears
the street names of the King children, and Mallory [misspelled]
Street ends at Neptune Park, named for, you guessed it, Neptune,
the body servant, and faithful friend of the King boys.
The home, originally built in the
1790s by Thomas Spalding, was consumed by fire in 1909, the cause
of which was unknown. In the 1920s, Howard Coffin, developer of Sea
Island, bought the Retreat tract and turned it into a golf resort. The old
tabby corn barn from plantation days was converted into a clubhouse. Other
ruins still remain today, the foundations and part of the chimneys of the
big house, the slave hospital, and the tabby greenhouse.
Tucked away in a grove of trees, is
the final resting place of Neptune Small, his family, fellow
bondsmen, and their descendants. Upon entering the Sea Island Golf Club [formerly Retreat
Plantation] the avenue of live oaks still stands in all its glory. The
same path traveled by the King family and friends, on their way to
happiness, sorrow, and eventual closure to a life gone with the wind.