Time Capsules of the Golden Isles

never to forget

The Geechee Gullah Ring Shouters perform during the opening ceremony of the new Wanderer Memory Trail on Jekyll Island in November.

The sands of time have layered one historical moment on top of another throughout the centuries here in the Golden Isles. Prehistoric peoples gathered for annual celebrations on the south end of St. Simons Island. The first known audio recording in American history – that of the song, “Kumbaya” – was reportedly recorded not that far from Darien. Even the first trans-Atlantic phone call was received by AT&T’s president Theodore Vall at his summer home on Jekyll Island.

We highlight three locations in the Isles where history is being unearthed for future generations to connect with the past.

Can You Dig It?  

By: Bethany Leggett

Last summer, Fort Frederica National Monument bustled with activity as people marched across the grassy acres alongside the Frederica River on St. Simons Island.  

Fort Frederica.

Echoing the liveliness of centuries before — when the town and fort were constructed as a British military outpost in 1736 — the modern-day inhabitants weren’t soldiers but archaeologists and volunteers, reaching back in time with each shovel of dirt. From seven year olds to 70 year olds, all ages dug trenches, cataloged finds, and discovered shards of history buried deep below the ground as the fort underwent the first major excavation in 40 years.

“The last time we did any work here was in the 1970s with Dr. Nick Honerkamp [who conducted his doctoral research at Fort Frederica]. He’s retiring this year, so we brought him back to bookend it,” says Michael Seibert, Fort Frederica’s integrated resource manager.

They came from near and far. Honerkamp and his students from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga were joined by members of the Southeast Archeological Center, the National Park Service’s archaeology unit, during the two-week experience. A student from the University of South Florida came up, and others from Georgia Southern attended. Amateur archaeologists from the Carolinas also came down for three days. In total, there were 20 archaeologists on site, and by the end of the excavation, around 180 volunteers had contributed, too.

“We have a national park in our backyard here on the island. There’s not many places that can say that … and there’s not that many opportunities for you to get your hands in the dirt in a federal archaeological site. Typically, if you do this on your own, you would go to jail for five years,” Seibert says with a laugh.

And get their hands dirty, they did. Screening, taking photographs, drawing maps of findings — after a short informational rundown, anyone visiting the fort during the excavation time had the chance to be their own version of Indiana Jones. “You watch on TV, and you see people moving with brushes and toothpicks; and that’s an aspect of it. There’s a lot of dirt moving. There’s a lot of shovel work. There’s a lot of trowel work. It’s hot. It’s buggy. But it’s rewarding. Hopefully, they saw, too, the importance,” Seibert says.

Even the kids got in on the archaeological action. Two camps — one offered for fourth- through sixth-graders and another for eighth-graders — took place, too. The camp for the 9- to 12-year-olds was similar to those which Glynn County Schools instructor Ellen Provenzano taught from 1994 to 2012 at the fort. She returned last year for the camp, where the children learned how to handle real artifacts under the watchful gaze of volunteers and staff. “So they are digging up real artifacts, but in a controlled setting, to learn all the correct things,” Seibert says.

The older kids in the second camp got to work side-by-side Seibert and the staff; and they “actually got to do something that is probably pretty rare, in the park service at least. I took them into the park, and I said, ‘You are going to dig a hole here, and you are going to do all the work,’” he says. “They laid out the unit, they excavated. They took all the notes and all the photographs, strained it, and bagged it.”

The odds of finding something underneath the ground were in the eighth-graders favor. The same anomaly had popped up on data sets from ground penetrating radar, conductivity, and magnetometer readings. But what could it be?

A trove of discoveries — from a large cooking pot to buckle fragments, food waste, bits of bone, and even a well-preserved peach pit — were discovered as the dirt was carefully moved away. “We have some post-colonial stuff, which we should; but a lot of this stuff that they were finding at the right level was colonial period,” Seibert says. “It’s in this town lot, which we know belonged to at least one individual who leased it out to some soldiers at some point in time. So this is probably related to soldiers living in huts or temporary housing in that area because it is so close to the barracks,” he says.

The excavations were a special experience for Seibert to expose the younger generation to the field of archaeology. For instance, there was one young girl from Atlanta who had visited the fort while on vacation with her mother in April. She had a passion for archaeology and wanted to know more about the fort. Seibert happened to meet her at the visitors center and told her about the camps planned that summer. While she couldn’t attend a week-long camp, the girl did get her first exposure to archaeology when she returned to St. Simons for her birthday, which occurred during the dig. “She came out and spent the entire day excavating with me … and she actually came back on Sunday afternoon to dig some more. So, I thought this was cool. She helped dig and map all kinds of stuff,” Seibert says before pausing to reflect on passing along the passion for discovering ancient cultures. “Hopefully, you get one, you know.”

Seibert, who became the first archaeologist on Fort Frederica’s staff since the late 1940s, has been busy since his arrival at the St. Simons national park in October 2016, and the two-week excavation was the culmination of more than a year of work. In 2017, the park had ground-penetrating radar completed around the town site, with the help of funding awarded through Seibert’s proposals.

“We surveyed a lot of the town using geophysical techniques, which helped us see what was potentially under the ground and guide future research,” Seibert says. This led to a “surgical approach,” where small units could be opened above anomalies discovered in the data sets rather than digging long trenches and hoping for the best, as had been done more than a half a century ago, he explains.

Students gather around an excavated site at Fort Frederica this summer.

This targeted approach of using radar not only saves time but money, too. “Keeping the artifacts, that’s a lifelong process. You could never get rid of them. The more you dig up, the more money you need to have. So if you take a surgical approach, you can get better answers without spending all of your funds,” he says.

Interested by what the data sets were showing, Seibert first did a smaller excavation unit with the help of his family on weekends. “What we are looking for are things not in alignment in the town site … maybe they are in the middle of an alley, or they are tilted sideways or something like that. They don’t jive with the current overall understanding; we want to look at those to see what they are,” Seibert says.

Interested by what the data sets were showing, Seibert first did a smaller excavation unit with the help of his family on weekends. “What we are looking for are things not in alignment in the town site … maybe they are in the middle of an alley, or they are tilted sideways or something like that. They don’t jive with the current overall understanding; we want to look at those to see what they are,” Seibert says.

While the family worked under the tent at the fort, people kept stopping by to ask what was going on. “During that one-week dig, we talked to about 500 people and we found a bunch of stuff. So, clearly there’s really cool things happening here, and there is clearly interest,” he says.

With more to discover, Seibert decided to get the ball rolling on a larger excavation that would incorporate the community’s involvement. Many locals and visitors got involved by just visiting the fort during the excavation time in June. An informational tent was set up where participants were trained on the basics of preservation standards. “We estimate that we talked to more than 2,000 people in 11 days. It’s a peak season, right around the beginning of summer. All of these people here are just visitors that happened to come for the day. We had extra gloves and stuff, if you wanted to come out and spend a couple of hours,” Seibert explains of the 180 people who ended up lending a hand.

“When you dig something up, I like to tell them, ‘You are probably the first person to touch that since it was lost, which could be 200 to 2,000 years old if you go back to prehistoric times.’ That’s a really cool concept … to be the first person to touch this since the last person did,” he says.

Friends of Fort Frederica Board Members Bill Jones, left, Amy Dry, Clint Purser, Lucy Thomas, and park archaeologist Michael Seibert, gather before the fort in November

The colonial period is a well-documented period of time on the island. In fact, the staff are waiting on a report to see if they can conclude the location of General Oglethorpe’s house site. That being said, evidence of human habitation before and after the 18th Century isn’t as well-known. “I feel like we don’t know everything about 1736 to 1758, but we probably know a lot more about those 22 years than we do about the 150 years after or any other times before that. So that’s why we are trying to focus on things outside the norm,” he explains.

Further excavation findings from the summer included items from a plantation-era warehouse, and a shell pit more than six feet deep that has been radio carbon dated between 500 and 900 AD. “That’s a pretty long range, but you can say, this is prehistoric. And the interesting thing is that this was under a historic road, which is pretty cool,” Seibert says. “I think the prehistoric stuff … helps to show that once a good place to live, always a good place to live. You know, we aren’t the first people here. We won’t be the last.”

Artifacts and documents from the summer’s dig are now on display at the visitor center at the park, providing an updated exhibit inside the center that could be rotated to include future findings, too.

And there are plans to bring back the summer camp this year, too, with a little help from some friends — the Friends of Fort Frederica, that is. The nonprofit group, formed in November 2017, branched out from the Fort Frederica Association that got its start from Howard Coffin in 1941. Back then, the association was instrumental in obtaining the additional 80 acres around the site that was required by the National Park Service to designate Fort Frederica as a national monument.

Michael Seibert, archaeologist at Fort Frederica National Monument, looks at radar scans during the dig last summer.

While the historic association continues to support the fort through revenue-producing concessions, such as the bookstore and drink machines, the newly formed Friends group is interested on expanding their assistance. As such, fundraising, community engagement, capital campaigns, monthly events, and more are planned, says Lucy Thomas, one of the founding members of the Friends of Fort Frederica. Other founding members include Bill Jones, Valerie Hepburn, Albert Fendig, Millie Wilcox, and Dewey Benefield.

For Thomas, getting the community involved in the first major excavation in recent history was critical. “The amount of valuable research uncovered was significant. However, the staff’s idea to open the unearthing of history to the public was ingenious,” she says. “The outpouring of volunteers from far and wide speaks for itself. The public clearly understands the significance and fascination of the history here at the fort, and they are interested in being a part the research, preservation, and promotion of Fort Frederica.”

Working with the National Park Service staff — Seibert along with Superintendent Gary Ingram; Manager Steve Theus; and Supervisory Facility Operations Specialist Chad Thomas — has been a thrill, Thomas says. “They are enthusiastic about making the fort a popular destination for visitors to our community as well as for the locals,” she says.

When the Friends turned to the staff and asked what they would like to have funded first, it was the educational camps for the kids that topped the list. “It is a testament to the staff at Fort Frederica that their first request was for educational programs for the kids. The camps were a huge success, and we have already received their request to sponsor the camps again this year,” Thomas says.

Thomas knows how captivating the national monument can be for children. After all, she grew up exploring the island’s historic treasure herself. “I have fond childhood memories of going to the fort with my parents: when the old orange trees lined Broad Street; when there were boxes by each ruin that had a recording of the people reenacting who lived in those ruins, including one scary guy at the moat who screamed ‘Halt, who goes there?!’,” she recalls. When she had kids of her own, the fort was an oft-visited location for picnics.

“Somewhere along the way, our visits were spaced further and further apart. I think a lot of locals have done the same. That is about to change. There are live programs every month at the fort, free to the public. There will be members-only events at the fort, and there will be community-sponsored events at the fort,” Thomas says.

Allied in their future efforts with the staff’s vision, the Friends hope to support further archaeological research on the grounds and exhibits to display the findings; fund benches and educational wayside markers on the 1.5-mile trail, in collaboration with the Colonial Dames, Brunswick Town Committee; and assist in the renovation of the Visitor’s Center. There are plans to build a pavilion to be used as an event venue and outdoor classroom by the Frederica River. There is also talk about building a floating dock for kayakers and canoers. Things may even get futuristic with virtual reality and 3D tours, where visitors could use an app on their phones to see where items had been discovered in the park as they walk underneath

the oaks.

Volunteers Francesca Trinca, left, and Mary Jo Davis sift through dirt in search for artifacts at an archaeological dig last summer at Fort Frederica National Monument.

“Together with the National Park Service team, we have big dreams for our fort,” Thomas says.

Seibert is onboard for future ways to incorporate all ages at Fort Frederica National Monument. Fort Frederica is unique for its history — and how little has actually been explored leaves more to do, he says. “It’s a pristine 18th Century site that’s been protected for most of its history. It was owned by one or two families, and there’s not been a lot of digging here,” Seibert says. “You don’t come across the opportunity to dig these things very often. I’m here, and now there is finally an opportunity to partner with these people. We don’t want to go excessive and dig everything up. But if there are questions we can answer, then we should answer them.”

Keep up with the latest happenings at Fort Frederica National Monument through the group’s Facebook page.

If you are interested in learning more about the Friends of Fort Frederica, go to fortfredericafriends.org.

Never To Forget

By Bethany Leggett

Visitors experience the new Wanderer Memory Trail and its interactive exhibits during the trail’s opening event in November on Jekyll Island. The trail tells the moving story of the enslaved Africans who, in 1858, survived a harrowing transatlantic voyage on the Wanderer, one of the last known slave ships to arrive in America

One hundred and sixty years ago, the typically serene banks of the Jekyll River on the southern side of the barrier island were disturbingly tumultuous, as hundreds men and women were smuggled ashore after having been captured and transported to America aboard the converted slave vessel, The Wanderer.

The Wanderer — which had been outfitted for the nefarious and illegal purpose despite the U.S. having outlawed the international slave trade half a century earlier — dropped anchor off Jekyll on November 28, 1858, with 400 enslaved aboard. Close to 100 had already perished, their bodies thrown overboard, during the horrendous Middle Passage from West Africa. Once the enslaved were ferried over to the mainland, they were sent to Savannah, Augusta, and ports in Florida and South Carolina to be sold.

Scattered across the South, the Africans formed a new hybrid culture known today as the Gullah Geechee, and their story — one of capture and survival — is detailed extensively in the newly dedicated Wanderer Memory Trail.

And it was along that trail, on a sunny Saturday this past November, where a crowd of all ages gathered together, holding candles as they explored the exhibit that sheds light on the legacy of those captured and their contributions to the communities in which they lived, as well as the lasting impact the survivors had on coastal Georgia and across the United States.

Designed by Curt Bowman of Artaventure, in Richmond, Virginia, a series of interactive exhibits along the path tell the true story of Umwalla, a young African boy brought to America aboard The Wanderer. Visitors will discover the pieces of Umwalla’s journey — from capture to freedom — as they are unveiled along the memory trail, which was produced and installed by Bowman and Jekyll Island Authority staff and volunteers.

By framing the story from a child’s perspective, the new memorial strikes a chord with many in attendance during the dedication, including Griffin Lotson, a seventh-generation Geechee. “What they are doing at the [Jekyll Island] Authority, they are bringing it from a child’s perspective, a young fella’s perspective. I think everyone loves family, everyone loves children,” he says of being able to connect with the story that unfolds throughout the trail.

Staff members from the Jekyll Island History Department and Jekyll Island Museum were able to enlighten attendees about the new exhibit during the November 17 dedication ceremony. Also present were the Geechee Gullah Ring Shouters, a troupe of performing artists who themselves are descendants of African slaves.

“This trail is an important and poignant reminder of the conditions these enslaved people suffered through during their journey to the United States, and the unthinkable hardships they faced after they got here,” says Dr. Deborah L. Mack, associate director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Office of Strategic Partnerships, National Museum of African

Raheem Isom, far left, Ocea Lee Barnes, and Patricia Bishop — all descendants of Ward Lee, a survivor of The Wanderer — examine the updated list of known Wanderer survivors with Dr. Deborah L. Mack, far right, an associate director in the Office of Strategic Partnerships at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. The list, stationed at the entrance to Jekyll Island’s new Wanderer Memory Trail, so far includes 67 ship survivors who have been identified by name.

American History & Culture. “It also references their path to freedom and it vividly reminds us that despite the circumstances of their arrival, the dynamic culture these brave people brought to America continues to influence Coastal Georgia and countless places beyond.”

The reimagined exhibit replaces a previous statue that had honored the survivors of The Wanderer. In 2008, the Jekyll Island Authority dedicated the first Wanderer Memorial, a large, metal sculpture honoring the ship’s survivors. When the sculpture began to deteriorate from exposure to the salt air and had to be removed, the opportunity to design a new type of memorial emerged. This led to the creation of the Wanderer Memory Trail, situated in the same general location as the original memorial, in the St. Andrews Picnic Area on Jekyll Island.


places in peril

Sketch of The Wanderer.

The reimagined exhibit replaces a previous statue that had honored the survivors of The Wanderer. In 2008, the Jekyll Island Authority dedicated the first Wanderer Memorial, a large, metal sculpture honoring the ship’s survivors. When the sculpture began to deteriorate from exposure to the salt air and had to be removed, the opportunity to design a new type of memorial emerged. This led to the creation of the Wanderer Memory Trail, situated in the same general location as the original memorial, in the St. Andrews Picnic Area on Jekyll Island.

“This updated, larger exhibit tells the story much-more comprehensively than before. In adding to that legacy, the Wanderer Memory Trail and the lessons it provides also enhance the educational experience that comes with a visit to Jekyll Island,” says Cheltsey Vann, Jekyll Island Museum Educator. “We are very proud of this new island landmark and anticipate that families and various groups most of all will want to add this trail — and the journey of Umwalla — to their Jekyll itineraries.”

The Wanderer Memory Trail has been a collaborative project by Jekyll Island Authority along with The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History & Culture; the State of Georgia Historic Preservation Division; the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission; the Old Slave Mart Museum in Charleston, South Carolina; and various descendants of known Wanderer survivors.

The trail is designed to be easily toured by all ages and group sizes. Though visits normally are self-guided, tours also can be included as part of special programming. For more information, visit jekyllisland.com.

Places in Peril: Glynn Landmark

Provided by Traci Clark

Needood Baptist Church

The Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation has released its 2019 list of 10 Places in Peril, and Needwood Baptist Church and School in Brunswick has been included in this year’s selections.

“This is the Trust’s 14th annual Places in Peril list,” says Mark C. McDonald, president of the trust. “We hope the list will continue to bring preservation solutions to Georgia’s imperiled historic resources by highlighting 10 representative sites.”

 The list is designed to raise awareness about Georgia’s history. Selections include buildings, structures, districts, archaeological sites, and cultural landscapes that are threatened by demolition, neglect, lack of maintenance, inappropriate development, or insensitive public policy.

Founded in 1866 by freed people raised in the Gullah Geechee tradition, Needwood Baptist Church is one of the oldest African-American churches in the state. The church building dates to the 1870s and likely sits on land that was once part of Needwood Plantation. The adjacent school, built in 1907, remained in use for the children of the congregation until the 1950s, when Georgia created equalization schools. The Needwood Baptist Church and School are threatened by their current state of disrepair, including failing roofs and increased water damage after recent storms, despite many families, descendants, and church members working to save them.

Other sites on the 2019 Places in Peril include: Huston House at Butler Plantation in Darien; Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace Garden in Savannah; Colquitt County Arts Center in Moultrie; Glennwanis Hotel in Glennville; Madison Theatre and Rhodes Center South, both in Atlanta; Springfield Log Cabin School in Union Point; Stark Mill Community Building in Hogansville; and The Cedars in Washington.

Through the list, the trust will encourage owners, individuals, organizations, and communities to employ proven preservation tools, financial resources, and partnerships in order to reuse, reinvest, and revitalize historic properties that are in peril.

Founded in 1973, the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation is now one of the country’s leading statewide, nonprofit preservation organizations. The trust generates community revitalization by finding buyers for endangered properties acquired by its Revolving Fund and raises awareness of other endangered historic resources. The Trust offers a variety of educational programs for adults and children; provides technical assistance to property owners and historic communities; advocates for funding, tax incentives and other laws aiding preservation efforts; and manages two house museums in Atlanta and Macon.

History Lesson: The Wanderer

In 1808, Congress abolished the slave trade and even made it a crime punishable by death in 1820.

That didn’t stop Charles Lamar, a member of a prominent Savannah family, from approaching New York Yacht Club member William Corrie to purchase a luxury racing yacht, The Wanderer, and begin to repurpose the vessel for a run across the Atlantic.

The Wanderer departed Charleston on July 4, 1858, with plans to make it to the Congo River near present-day Angola. There, the crew continued to make rudimentary modifications in order to fit the 500 purchased slaves, who had been bought for the rate of $50 per person, aboard. Conditions were horrendous for the enslaved onboard and close to 100 died before the ship landed off the shores of Jekyll, which was owned by Henry DuBignon Jr., who had conspired with Corrie to unload the illegal cargo of slaves.

Despite the attempt at secrecy, news of The Wanderer’s brazen journey began to spread. The conspirators, including Lamar and Corrie, were charged with slave trading and piracy in a federal court in Savannah, only to have the jury acquit the men on all charges.

The Wanderer and the lack of punishment for those involved strained tensions between the South and the North further, when then-president James Buchanan proposed the federal government be more aggressive against the slave trade.

The following year, the Civil War broke out. The Wanderer was captured in 1861 in Key West by Union troops and used by the North for a variety of wartime purposes. After the war, the boat returned to private ownership before it sunk off the coast of Cuba in 1870.

Source:  Golden Isles:  The Magazine for Brunswick, St Simons Island. Jekyll, & Sea Island