St. Mary's, Georgia - Historic Sites & Points of Interest
|St. Mary's, Georgia
The historic St. Mary's River flows past the
waterfront of St. Mary's. Once the dividing line of
nations, it is now the border between the states of
Georgia and Florida.
St. Mary's, Georgia
Quaint and charming, St.
Mary's was chartered in 1787
and is one of America's most
historic port cities.
St. Mary's Methodist Church
Union soldiers used the
sanctuary as a butcher shop
when they occupied St. Mary's
during the Civil War.
St. Mary's, Georgia - Historic Sites & Points of Interest
City of Intrigue & History
|Copyright 2013 & 2015 by Dale Cox
All rights reserved.
Last Updated: January 13, 2015
Points of Interest near St. Mary's
Archibald Clark Home
U.S. Vice President Aaron
Burr was entertained by Clark
after the fatal duel that killed
Ferry boats to Cumberland
Island National Seashore
leave from the visitor center
on the St. Mary's waterfront.
The historic city of St. Mary's 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. Mary's 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
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. Mary's 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. Mary's and each had heavy influence on
the history of the other.
St. Mary's 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. Mary's 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
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.
Mary's. 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. Mary's 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
The passage of the Embargo Act led to the
growth of a major slave smuggling industry
in Spanish Florida. St. Mary's 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. Mary's to
suppress the illegal trade.
A number of buildings in St. Mary's 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. Mary's 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. Mary's 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. Mary's had served as a headquarters,
supply point and more.
War came to St. Mary's 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. Mary's 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. Mary's, doing extensive damage to
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. Mary's 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. Mary's 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. Mary's was the last land action of the War
The British were not the last to cause turmoil
for the people of St. Mary's. 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. Mary's 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. Mary's 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. Mary's was shelled and looted by Union
troops during the War Between the States (or
Civil War), but survived.
The emergence of Jacksonville as a major
deepwater port during the years after the war
assured that St. Mary's 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. Mary's 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. Mary's
Please click here to learn more about things
to do in historic St. Mary's, Georgia.
First Presbyterian Church
Built in 1808, the historic First
Presbyterian Church survived
the looting of St. Mary's by the
British during the War of 1812.
Historic Inns and B&Bs
A noted tourist destination, St.
Mary's is home to many inns
and B&Bs. Riverview Hotel
(above) was built in 1916.
On the waterfront, the St.
Mary's Submarine Museum
houses one of the largest
collections of submarine
memorabilia in the world.
Oak Grove Cemetery
Established in the 1780s, the
historic cemetery includes a
section once used by the
Acadian refugees who came
to St. Mary's in 1791.