William Bartram’s Visit to St. Simons Island in 1774

I didn’t go to St. Simons Island this summer as I’d initially planned, but I wasn’t disappointed.  I’m sure the island is not as interesting as it was when William Bartram visited it in the spring of 1774.  Bartram stayed for a few days with James Spalding, then the president of the settlement of Frederica and a merchant involved in the Indian trade.  Although a remnant of an old growth maritime forest has been preserved for the modern day naturalist to enjoy, Bartam had the opportunity to see the island when it was mostly undeveloped.  One day, he left Frederica on horseback to survey the island.  Thick groves of live oaks surrounded the town.

500 year old live oak on John’s Island South Carolina.  There may have been quite a few trees of this age on St. Simons Island when Bartram visited in 1774.

Bartram rode through the virgin live oak woods and found a “beautiful green savannah” about 2 square miles in extent.  Long-horned cattle, horses, sheep, and deer fed in this natural pasture.  On the other side of this savannah, he followed an old road that had fallen into disrepair.  The road went through an open woodland of live oaks and longleaf pines spread far enough apart that grass and shrubs could grow in the understory.  The road ended after 5-6 miles when he reached an impenetrable thicket growing on a sandhill.  The thicket was composed of live oak, myrtle, holly, beautyberry, silverbell, alder buckthorn, hoptrees, bully trees, hornbeam, and bignonia.  Several of these species are evergreen and subtropical.  Greenbriar vines covered the thicket, and there was a salt marsh on the other side of the sandhill.  Bartram referred to it as a “salt plains.”

Bartram did find a freshwater creek between the forest and the salt marsh.  Here, he rested and enjoyed the fragrant beauty of diamond frost, morning glory, lycium (a thorny plant in the nightshade family), scarlet sage, and white lily; all of which were blooming in April.

Diamond Frost Euphorbia Diamond frost in the Euphorbia genus.  It is related to the more famous Christmas poinsetta.  This is one of the flowers Bartram saw growing on St. Simons Island.  Actually, it is the leaves that look like flowers. 

Bartram turned south and found the beach where he saw living and dead starfish, corals, jellyfish, snails, whelks, clams, and squid; all washed upon the sand.  He left the uninhabited beach and headed west, coming across 50-60 beehives lined up in a grove of oaks and palms.  He met a farmer and beekeeper who was resting upon a bearskin rug after a morning spent hunting and fishing.  The man gave Bartram venison and honey-sweetened water spiked with brandy.  They had a picnic amidst the mockingbirds, painted buntings, and hummingbrids.  Jasmine, honeysuckle, and azaleas scented the air. 

William Bartram met a farmer and beekeeper on St. Simons Island who was lounging outside on a beer skin rug while drinking brandy mixed with honey and water.  He must have caught the bear raiding his bee hives.

 ©Zachary_Huang 

An apiary.  Beekeepers and bears do not get along.

On his way back to Frederica, Bartram saw many abandoned plantations.  Even Fort Frederica itself, still manned at the time by a small garrison, was falling apart.  Peach, fig, and pomegranate trees grew through the broken walls.  General Oglethorpe had ordered the construction of the fort 60 years earlier, but funds in 1774 were not available to maintain it.

Fort Frederica on St. Simons Island, Georgia.  General Oglethorpe ordered it built circa 1712 to repel any possible invading colonial force such as the Spanish.  By 1774 it was already in ruins.

I envy the bucolic life of the farmer that Bartram met.  The man had half of St. Simons Island to himself.  For an 18th century existence, this was living in paradise.  Poor city folks in London then were lucky if they had bread.  But this man lived on a beautiful plantation with quite a variety of food available from both land and sea.  On the other hand, he didn’t have air conditioning and television.  And the bikini had yet to be invented.  Today, his plantation has been transmogrified into a landscape of condos built as closely together as possible.  If this farmer could visit the present day for a week, I wonder if he would envy our modern life as I envy his or would he wish to return to his old life.  I wonder…would he trade places with me?

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