Reminiscences of Old St. Marys by James Thomas Vocelle; Camden County, Georgia

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Reminiscences of Old St. Marys



“Oh, would you like a calm retreat
            where health and joys perpetual meet,
            And birds with many a son
            Make music in each brush and brake—
            O, would you of such bliss partake?
            Then come, come at once along
            To Beautiful St. Marys by the Sea.”


Price Twenty-Five Cents.

Copyright 1913,
James Thomas Vocelle

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Reminiscences of Old St. Marys.

            Way down in the extreme southeastern corner of the State of Georgia, near where the waves of the majestic Atlantic break loudly upon the shore, is situated the historic little city of St. Marys.
            Nature in one of her kindest moods bestowed upon the site of this historic town her choicest gifts, leaving but little for man to do to promote health, comfort, conveniences or aesthetic enjoyment.  War, fire, storms and pestilence have paid direful visitations, but king Nature ever promptly covers up the scars with flower and tree and shrub and vine, and a lovlier, more restful scene never delighted the eye of man.  Broad avenues, carpeted with grass and shaded with giant live-oak and sycamore trees, stretching from the river’s bank to the primeval forests of pine and palmetto, and in intersected at right angels by streets that paralel the river, and a bold creek with a druidical grove of venerable oak—such are the physical features of the town.
            When the first white man landed upon her sacred soil is unknown but it is believed by some to be the very spot on which John Ribault, who was sent over by Admiral Coligny of France, to explore Florida, landed.  On the first of May 1562 he came up a river which he called May river, and it is more than probable that this is the same river that we call the St. Marys and which the Indians called Thathothathogupka.
            Prior to 1765 Camden County was not included in Georgia; Oglethorpe’s grant only extended to the Altamaha river.  On Nov. 10, 1753, Gov. James Wright of Georgia, with the governors of Virginia, North and South Carolina, met at Augusta.  A treaty was made with the Indians and about the same time Great Britain and France made a treaty with Spain that Florida should be given over to the British.  So

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Georgia’s limits were extended to the St. Marys river on the south.
            In 1765 the parishes of St. Mary and St. Thomas were laid out.  In 1777 these two parishes were named Camden county, after the Earl of Camden, a British statesman.
            In the year 1788 the city of St. Marys was laid out by James Findlay, county surveyor of Camden county, and to this wise man is largely due the wonderful beauty for which St. Marys is justly famed.
            The first English settlers of St. Marys were:  Henry Osborne, Thos. Norris, Jacob Weed, John Alexander, Lankley Bryant, Richard Cole, Jonathan Conyers, Wm. Ready, Simon Dillingham, Isaac Wheelar, Wm. Norris, James Seagrove, Lodwick Ashley, James Findley, Robert Seagrove and a Mr. Gallop.  The beautiful avenues of St. Marys are named for these men, who did so much for the early history of the town.
            St. Marys was chartered as a town in 1792, during the administration of Governor Edward Telfair.  In 1857 it was chartered as a city.
            The old brick building now used for the Catholic church was formerly the bank of St. Marys.  This bank was incorporated, by the legislature of Georgia, in 1826 and was the twenty-third to be chartered in the State.  The capital stock of the Bank was $250,000 and the cashier received a salary of $2,500 per annum.  The first cashier of the Bank was Mr. Abram Bessent, he having resigned, the directors elected a Mr. Winter cashier.  One morning they awoke to find that the night before Mr. Winter had taken French leave and had carried with him the greater part of the bank’s money.  As telegraphs and railroads were few in those days, Mr. Winter was never again heard of.  St. Marys was without a banking establishment until the growing needs of the town necessitated the forming of one in 1911.
            St. Marys has many old and historic buildings, among them is the Presbyterian church, 113 years old, the oldest building now standing and the oldest church in Georgia with the possible exception of Old Midway in Liberty county.

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            It is said that when Florida belonged to Spain that St. Marys was a great smuggling port and the officers were keeping such a sharp lookout that the smugglers could not land their gin, rum and cigars.  So one dark night they stole the minister’s horse from the stable, carried it to this old church and hoisted into the belfry, where next morning from its lofty perch its neighing attracted the attention of the entire population of the town.  Of course the unsuspecting customs officers, as well as the other inhabitants, spent the day wondering at the strange sight of a horse in the church steeple and speculations as to who were the mischievous culprits that put him there.  And so while the parley was going on and plans were in operation to get him down the smugglers made good their wares and were off to sea with the ebb tide.
            Another old and historic building is Orange Hall, now owned by Judge J.L. Sweat, of Waycross.  This building, which resembles an old colonial mansion such as a well-to-do southern planter lived in before the Civil War, is built entirely of white pine and situated as it is in the heart of St. Marys, it presents an imposing sight indeed.
            A few miles from St. Marys, hidden almost from view, lying far back in the forest, may be seen the ruins of an old building.  This building is made entirely of tabby and closely resembles the old monasteries built on the St. Johns river, Florida.  It is more than probable that it was built for such a purpose.  This old building has been standing for ages, when it was first built is not known, its past history is buried in obscure darkness and is never likely to be brought to light but it stands to remind us that long before our ancestors came to America that the Spanish were here trying to convert the Indians.
            Three miles from St. Marys, though still within the corporate limits, Sweetwater Branch crosses the public road.  The waters of this little stream are clear and pleasant to the taste, whence its name.  In the olden times while the red men still roamed the forest in that vicinity, it is told that one day Withlacooche, an aged chieftain, was seated beside the

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road vainly trying to extract a thorn from his foot.  Pretty Mary Jones, an amiable white girl and a belle in her class, coming along and seeing the old warrior’s predicament, volunteered her assistance and quickly had the foot relieved of its invader.  Full of gratitude, the old Indian told her he would surely help her if she ever got into trouble.  Shortly after this the Smashing Nancy, a United States recruiting vessel, appeared in the harbor and began to solicit men to enlist in the navy.  Among the number that enlisted was Ben Johnson to whom Mary Jones was betrothed.  When poor Mary heard of it her heart was broken.  She felt if her lover went away on a long cruise he would never return.  Half distracted, she was walking along the same road loudly weeping and bewailing her fate, when she was espied by old Withlacooche, who quickly approached her and in sympathetic tones inquired what her trouble was.  Between violent sobs the poor girl stated her case.  “you were good to Withlacooche,” said the old chief, with feeling, “now Withlacooche will be good to you,” and he gathered a handful of red berries and green leaves and scattered them on the water of Sweetwater Branch.  “Now see,” he resumed, “Withlacooche has cast a spell on these waters and whosever shall drink of them will surely return.  Bring your lover here and make him drink.”  Inspired with new hope, Mary brought Ben to the stream and he drank.  He went away on the cruise, but the spell brought him back, and he and faithful Mary were happily wedded.
            During the war of 1812 St. Marys was invaded by the British.  They landed at Point Peter Neck, where a fort had been established by the government, but the garrison consisted of only about 100 men and they were powerless against so many British.  The Biritsh defeated them and then marched on to St. Marys.  Upon arriving here they pillaged and burnt the place.  The collector of customs, Major Clark, had in his possession a hundred thousand dollars of government money, but hearing of the approach of the British, he managed to secrete the money, and though boldly demanded to deliver it, he as bravely refused.  This enraged the British

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and because he eluded their search for this treasure, they ascended the St. Marys river for the purpose of burning his valuable mill located near the spot where Folkston, Charlton county, Georgia now stands.  Twenty-three barges piled with British soldiers ascended the river with this terrible purpose in view.  But while ascending, they were attacked by a party of twenty-eight men commanded by Captain William Cone.  As soon as they were attacked they fired their cannon, but the palmetto on both sides of the river served as a screen for Cone’s men so that the shot proved harmless.  Cone’s men took advantage of every turn in the river to fire on them and every shot brought down a man.  The British


finding themselves exposed to so deadly a fire returned to St. Marys and when they arrived they reported 180 men killed and as many wounded.  That 28 men could defeat twenty-three barges full of British soldiers seems almost a miracle, but Cone’s men were fighting for life, liberty and country and nothing daunted them.
            History says that this was one of the most remarkable feats ever recorded in the annals of war.
            Major Archibald Clark, owner of the mills, was born in Savannah August, 1782, where he received his primary education.  He was then sent to the famous law school at Litchfield, Conn., where he met and fell in love with the beautiful

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and accomplished Miss Rhoda Wadsworth, daughter of Capt. Elija Wadsworth, of the Continental Army.  He was descended from Capt. Joseph Wadsworth, who secreted the charter of Connecticut in the famous oak tree on the night of October 31, 1687.  All students of history are familiar with this dramatic episode.  Major Clark returned to Savannah and received his degree of barrister-at-law and then hurried back to Connecticut to claim his bride.
            He removed to St. Marys in 1802 and purchased the unfinished house, which stood opposite Orange Hall, (not then in existence), and settled down for life.
            It was prophesied at that time that St. Marys would be a very large city.  It contained nearly 1,000 inhabitants, distinguished for their industry and hospitality, just as its present inhabitants are, and it was the boast of the people that in no place south of Charleston could merchandise and produce be bought so cheap.  Smoked and jerked meat was furnished in abundance from Ware, Appling, Lowndes and Irwin counties at 3c a pound and bacon at 6c.
            A railroad was projected to Columbus.  It was incorporated by the legislature of the state in 1836 and among the incorporators were the most prominent citizens of St. Marys and Camden county.  If it had been built who knows but what St. Marys would have rivaled Savannah and Charleston?  But cruel are the decrees of fate.  Savannah reached out her arms and built a railroad through Ware and the other counties and cut off St. Marys’ supplies.
            St. Marys was an important port of entry in those days and it was in the administration of the illustrious Thomas Jefferson, 1807, that Major Clark was appointed collector of the port.  At that time the salary, perqusites [sic], &c., amounted to about $7,000 a year.  With his law practice and other income this brilliant young lawyer was anchored for life.  He served the city as mayor a number of years and served as collector from the time of his appointment until his death which occurred a few months before the inauguration of President.  He now lies peacefully sleeping in our ancient city of the dead where there is naught to disturb his repose.  Peace to his ashes and may the rememberance [sic]

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of his courage and bravery ever live as an immortal monument to one of St. Marys’ most distinguished citizens and patriotic sons.
            St. Marys is indeed beautiful but what adds more to its beauty than anything else is its cemetery.  Situated as it is at the edge of town it owes its charm to the ancient and venerable live oak trees that shade it.  Majestic and solemn, draped and festooned with long gray moss, these giants of the forest stretch a canopy of perennial green over the city of the dead.  Asleep in this beautiful and secluded spot are many heroes of the Confederacy, soldiers of the Revolution and beloved citizens of St. Marys.  The oldest stone in the cemetery is that of Richard Gascoigne, who died in 1801.  The grave of one old Revolutionary solider bears the following inscription, the syntax of which is somewhat loose.
            “Sacred to the memory of John Brown, who was born at South Kingston, R.I.., 1765, and died at St. Marys, Ga,. 1820.  This stone is erected to an honest man, a soldier of the Revolution in his youth and in his old age an humble christian.”
            A few years ago the body of Capt. John Williams was removed from this cemetery to Arlington, the national cemetery, after resting here for 92 years.  The bones were perfect, showing no signs of decay.  The following inscription was upon the monument:  “Here lies the remains of John Williams, esquire, late a captain of the corps of the United States Marine, was born in Stafford county, Virginia, the 24th of August, 1765, and died on the 29th of September, 1812, at Camp New Hope in East Florida.”
            When the Civil War came on, the citizens of St. Marys left the place and went farther up the river, most of them going to Traders Hill, about 100 miles up.  In 1863, ST. Marys was bombarded by the gunboat John Adams.  A blockade had been formed at Fernandina and this gunboat was making the ascent of the river to seize some cotton above St. Marys and was fired on by a citizen of the town, who killed the pilot of the gunboat.  This so incensed the commander that he immediately retaliated by turning his guns on St. Marys and practically destroyed the place.  A few buildings

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escaped; Orange Hall, the Methodist church, the Presbyterian church and a few others.  The Catholic church, the Episcopal church and the Camden County Academy were among the buildings destroyed.
            When, in 1865, the citizens returned from their exodus they found ruin and devastation everywhere visible, but with unconquerable resolve they set to work to rebuild the home so dear to their hearts and in a few months they had the town partly rebuilt.
            A memorable incident in the history of St. Marys was the visit here in 1875 of Mr. Nathaniel Bishop, who came in his little paper canoe, “The Maria Theresa.”  Mr. Bishop, who was an extensive traveler, came all the way from Quebec, in Canada, to the Gulf of Mexico in this canoe.
            In a book, which he has written, entitled “The Voyage of the Paper Canoe,” he has the following to say of St. Marys:
            “At dusk the town of St. Marys in its wealth of foliage opened to my view from across the lowlands, and soon after the paper canoe was carefully stored in a building belonging to one of its hospitable citizens.”
            “One evening, while enjoying the hospitality of Mr. Silas Fordham at his beautiful winter residence, Orange Hall, a note signed by the Hon. J.M. Arnow, mayor of the city, was handed me.  Mr. Arnow, in the name of the city government, invited my presence at the Spencer House.  Upon arriving there a surprise awaited me; the citizens of the place had gathered to welcome the paper canoe and its owner and to express the kindly feeling they as southern citizens held toward their northern friends.”
            This incident is still fresh in the memory of the old citizens of the place.  The mayor, Mr. Arnow, was the uncle of our esteemed townsmen, Messrs. I.F. and C.S. Arnow.
            Mr. Bishop says that he left St. Marys with a strange longing to return to its interesting environs and study here the climatology of southern Georgia.
            Prior to the Civil War the county seat of Camden was Jefferson Town, an important commercial center inthe [sic] early days.  But soon after the war this place became too much

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out of the way and the court house and other buildings were built at St. Marys.  The county seat has remained here ever since.
            Not far from St. Marys is Cumberland Island, the largest island on the south Atlantic coast.  Upon this island is Dungeness, the winter home of Mrs. Lucy Carnegie, the widow of Thomas M. Carnegie, a brother of Andrew, the great philanthropist.  This island of Cumberland was so named after the Duke of Cumberland by an Indian chief, Tonawanda.  When Tonawanda went to London with Oglethorpe the Duke gave him a gold watch to tell how the time went, and on his return he named this beautiful island Cumberland in honor of the Duke.
            Oglethorpe was so pleased with this act of the old Indian’s good will that he is said to have erected on the southern end of the island a hunting lodge which he called Dungeness.  This place was given by the state to General Nathaniel Green, in recognition of his great military services to the country.  General Green lived there himself, but after his death the place was occupied by his widow, Mrs. Miller, and her daughter Mrs. Shaw.
            At the extreme southern end of the island in a little private burial ground was buried the tried and trusted friend of Washington, Major General Henry Lee, better known as “Light Horse Harry Lee,” the father of General Robert E. Lee.  At the time of his death General Lee was visiting Mrs. Shaw, and the older soldier, who was in feeble health, breathed his last on March 25, 1818, and with military honors, was laid to rest beneath the sod of Georgia.
            During a recent session of the Virginia legislature a bill was passed appropriating the sum of $500 to defray the expenses of removing the remains of General Lee from Dungeness to Lexington, and on May 30, 1913, his body was carried to Virginia by the committee appointed for that purpose.  So after resting for over 95 years beneath the soil of Georgia all that is mortal of Major General Henry Lee has been conveyed to its final resting place, the vault of the Lee family in the Lee chapel at Washington and Lee University.
            In the vernal months of 1870 the grave of his father was

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visited by General Robert E. Lee.  He passed through St. Marys en route to Dungeness and expressed his delight in seeing the place.  It was the last visit of the old hero, he was soon to join his father in the great beyond.  Six months after his visit the great man fell asleep at Lexington, bequeathing to his fellow men and to the whole world the matchless example and the heroic name of Robert E. Lee.
            Camden county has had many noted residents, among them were General John Floyd, an officer of the State Militia who distinguished himself in the war of 1812.  His son, General Charles L. Floyd, Major General Duncan L. Clinch, who was a soldier of great distinction, a member of Congress and a candidate for Governor on the Whigg ticket.  Andrew J. Miller, an eminent Georgian, was born at Point Peter near St. Marys.  Lieutenant General Wm. T. Hardee, a noted Confederate officer, was also a native of Camden.  From the famous Floyd family is also descended Hon. William Gibbs McAdoo, Secretary of the Treasury of the United States and builder of the famous Hudson tunnels.
            Perhaps it may seem strange to the reader that a town redolent with historical associations as St. Marys is and situated in such a commanding location should have remained untouched by the business of the outside world so long, but St. Marys is rapidly coming to her own, a new day is breaking, a brighter sky than ever yet made luminous this beautiful and secluded spot is dawning upon her.  Her eyes are set toward the future and “Beautiful St. Marys by the Sea,” surrounded by its ancient relics of the past, standing in a world of its own, as it were, with its interesting environments awaits with outstretched arms the dawn of the new day.  May her hopes be realized and may He who rules over the welfare of all the world, send down upon the most beautiful spot on Georgia’s map his choicest blessings!



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