I have been extremely remiss about posting this semester’s student blog posts! First in this series is Kris Rice, who recommending many interesting ways to learn about archaeology and history in McIntosh County.
If you’re willing to venture a little farther than Chatham County for a taste of Georgia history and archaeology, plan a visit to McIntosh County—about an hour south of Savannah on I-95, or slightly more on US 17.
On the high bluffs of the Darien River, where a Guale Indian village, and subsequently, a Spanish mission, once stood, the British built Fort King George as a fortification against French and Spanish incursions in 1721. The original fort burned in 1725, but has been meticulously reconstructed, including officers’ quarters, surgeon’s office, soldiers’ lodging and mess, blacksmith shop, and block house (an ammunition storage and defense structure).
A reconstructed wattle and daub hut, utilizing Guale building technology of vines and mud, is also on the grounds. Historic reenactments take place every first Saturday and on major holidays, thanks to the fort’s small but hard-working staff and corps of volunteers. They also offer periodic kayak tours and provide paddling instruction in the river that fronts the fort.
The visitors’ center (9am-5pm, Tues.-Sun.) contains a small exhibit on the Guale, the history of the fort, and the sawmill industry, which once made Darien a thriving hub of commerce. Impressive finds made during a 1952 dig are on display: several finely-detailed pottery sherds, projectile points, part of a dugout canoe, and a few nearly complete bowls, one of which was found with a number of tiny burnt corn cobs still intact inside.
Unfortunately, the 1994 exhibit has never been updated and fails to provide context or provenance for the objects, which are simply identified as “Indian pottery.” (Perhaps attempting to identify and describe the artifacts would be a possible future project for an enterprising archaeology student?)
A self-playing 10-minute video dates to 1994, and is also in need of updating, although the prints by 18th century French artist and cartographer Jacques LeMoyne, who sketched the Timucuan people of coastal GA and northern FL, add some perspective to the video and exhibit.
Most of the City of Darien was burned by Union forces in 1863, so there are few historic buildings left in the downtown. Those that remain include the First African Baptist Church at 500 Market Street. Founded in 1822 and built in 1834, the church was burned in Sherman’s March, then rebuilt on the same site after the Civil War in 1868. Self-guided tours are available.
On the downtown waterfront are 19th century tabby ruins and the oldest commercial building still remaining in Darien—the Adam-Strain building on First Street. A once-thriving cotton warehouse and ship chandlery built between 1813 and 1815, the structure has long been empty and abandoned.
Across the Darien River, south of town on US 17, is Butler Island. Now part of the Altamaha Waterfowl Management Area, it was a rice plantation constructed by Major Pierce Butler—or rather, by his many slaves–in the 1790s, then passed to his grandson, also Pierce Butler, at his death in 1822. (Pierce the elder was born in Ireland, and despite ostensible reservations about slavery and the slave trade, never freed his own slaves and introduced the loathsome Fugitive Slave Clause to the U.S. Constitution.)
The grandson brought his bride, Fanny Kemble, a well-known actress of the time, to live there, but Fanny hated the place and in particular, the cruel treatment of enslaved people by her husband’s overseer, Roswell King Jr. (King subsequently moved to north Georgia, and founded the town of Roswell.) Fanny returned to her native England and published “Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation, 1838-9,” credited with preventing Britain from entering into a treaty with the Confederacy, and wakening many to the evils of slavery.
That evil provides a tragic connection between Darien and Savannah. After major financial losses, Butler sold 439 human beings in 1859 near what is now Brock Elementary School. The largest sale of enslaved people ever in the U.S., it was known as the “Weeping Time”—not only for the tears shed by the families who were destroyed, but by the sky itself, which wept bitter tears of rain on Savannah that day.
Of the Butler Plantation, only the rice mill and smoke stack remain, but the dairy and a two-story residence built in 1927 by T.L. Huston, half owner of the New York Yankees, also still stand. Drive down into the former rice fields to see bald eagles, a variety of herons, and the occasional roseate spoonbill or wood stork.
Part of another plantation owner’s property survives on Hwy 99, just north of Darien. Ashantilly, known also as “Old Tabby,” was built in 1820 as the mainland home of Thomas Spalding, part owner of nearby Sapelo Island’s Chocolate Plantation, and a wealthy cotton planter who introduced sugar cane and sugar manufacturing to Georgia. The house was named for Ashantilly Castle, the family’s ancestral home in Scotland. Subsequent owners made changes to the exterior, and the house was gutted by fire in 1937. The owner at the time, William Haynes, a small letterpress printer, artist, and environmentalist, established the Ashantilly Press on the property. It survives, and still produces small press notecards and other items. Donated by the family, the site is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Ashantilly hosts historic, educational, and cultural events, as well as artists in residence and the annual fall sale of native plants. Spalding’s dour portrait hangs in the former dining room, where dedicated volunteers provide complimentary (and delicious!) homemade refreshments during public events.
A day trip to Sapelo Island, off the coast of north McIntosh County, is another great option. Catch the ferry at the Meridian dock, 1766 Landing Rd SE, off Hwy 99. The ferry leaves at 8:30 am, M-F, and 9 am on weekends, but plan to be there at least half an hour in advance, especially on weekends or holidays, as tickets are first come, first served. Cost is $15 round-trip, cash or check only.
If you book a tour of the island in advance, you’ll be met at the Sapelo dock by an ancient school bus, driven by a member of the historic African-American community of Hog Hammock. Community members are descendants of the enslaved people on Thomas Spalding’s plantation. Spaulding bought the south end of the island in 1802.
The plantation house is now known as the Reynolds Mansion, having been renovated by Detroit auto magnate Howard Coffin in the 1920s, and again by Richard J. Reynolds, Jr., the tobacco heir, who bought most of the island in 1934. Reynolds endowed research and preservation on the island, and his widow sold their holdings to the state after his death. The mansion, with numerous murals and marble sculptures, as well as the famous “circus room,” is open for tours with advance booking. Your local guide will also show you the wild and beautiful Nanny Goat Beach, Hog Hammock community, island lighthouse, and UGA’s Marine Institute.
Less frequently-offered, but perhaps more interesting for archaeology students, is the tour of the island’s north end, featuring the Chocolate Plantation (actually the remains of tabby slave cabins and a 1920s barn built by Howard Coffin) and the once-huge Sapelo shell rings, middens left by the Guale people more than 4,000 years ago. A full day trip of the north end, led by DNR naturalists, is next scheduled for Sat. Nov. 11 at 9 am. Cost is $40 for the full day tour. Bring bug spray, water, and lunch or heavy snacks, as there are few public facilities and no restaurants on the island.
McIntosh County is definitely worth a day trip for those who would like to learn more about the history of coastal Georgia beyond the confines of our own historic city. For more information on Darien and McIntosh County, Buddy Sullivan, former director of the Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve, is a wealth of knowledge.