Artifacts help bring coastal history to life

By Louie Brogdon
Brunswick, Georgia (AP) May 2011

Fort King George was built in 1721 in Darien to bolster England’s influence by expanding what was then the South Carolina territory, but the fort’s manager, Ranger Steven Smith, says some recently discovered old maps suggest trade may have been the reason to put the fort in what is now McIntosh County.

A map dating back to the building of the fort that Smith found in a sealed map case in a storeroom revealed some interesting information, he said.

“We were cleaning out our artifact room, and we found a map case that I had never looked in,” Smith said.

The map was a print, but it was definitely old, and after checking with the British Public Record Office, Smith believes it was originally drawn by Col. John Barnwell, commander and founder of Fort King George.

“This is possibly the oldest map of the Altamaha River Delta in existence,” Smith said.

Smith has seen many old maps of the area, but Barnwell’s 1721 map revealed an interesting look at the transportation structure of the day.

Two roads led from where the fort was marked: one that headed north and one that headed along the river toward an ancient Muscogee, or Creek Indian, trade path.

“This lends us a reason to believe there was an economic purpose to build Fort King George. Barnwell wanted to trade with the Creek Indians,” Smith said.

The Lower Creeks were a trading powerhouse in the early 1700s and were rich in animal pelts like buck skins.

South Carolina at the time flourished on the sale of buck skins, Smith said. The pelts were actually used as currency in many towns, and that’s why U.S. dollars are now nick-named “bucks.”

The old road to the Muscogee trade path had to cross Cathead Creek, and Smith said he believes he knows where that ford was made.

Unbeknownst to him, he has been using the site for a picnic stop during canoe trips to the Barrington area for years.

“For the years I’ve been doing that trip, we’ve been stopping at this one place that is the only place with any high land to eat. I never realized it was a historic ford across Cathead Creek,” Smith said. “These places were used for hundreds of years by people for a reason, because they are practical.”

It is unclear if Barnwell’s plan to get fully into the pelt trade ever came to fruition, but parts of his roads were definitely still used, Smith said.

At least part of Col. Barnwell’s plans didn’t turn out. The map indicates Barnwell wanted to move Fort King George to the south end of St. Simons Island, Smith said.

Also, 12 years after the fort was built, the state of Georgia was established.

The economic incentive to connecting to the fur trade from Darien added a new wrinkle in the fort’s history, Smith said.

“It’s always been viewed in geopolitical terms. It was always just about moving South Carolina’s territory from the Savannah River to the Altamaha. Now we know there might have been economic reasons,” he said.

At least two other things the area did take advantage of were naval stores, or sealant used in ship-building that is derived from pine sap, and rice, Smith said.

“The Altamaha River Delta was the best place to grow rice in America,” he said.