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This abandoned Georgia state park hides many secrets

In the 1830s Glynn County leaders developed a canal between Brunswick, GA and the Altamaha River that went immediately west of a fort's ruins.
In the 1830s Glynn County leaders developed a canal between Brunswick, GA and the Altamaha River that went immediately west of a fort's ruins.
Loami Baldwin, Civil Engineer (c. 1835)

National Park Service personnel surveyed Santo Domingo State Park for inclusion in the new national park system, but misinterpreted some very important pieces of evidence.

Excerpt from the latest book by Richard L. Thornton: © Fort Caroline, the Search for America’s Lost Heritage. The contents of this article are copyrighted by the book’s publisher.

The famous botanist and explorer, William Bartram, visited what was described as an old French or Spanish fort on the Altamaha River in 1773. Bartram was shown the ruins by a plantation owner living on Broughton Island in the Altamaha River of Georgia. His visit is described in “Bartram’s Travels.”

During the 1930s, many 16th and 17th century European artifacts were found by archaeologists, employed by the WPA, in the black alluvial soil and river bottom muck around the mouth of the Altamaha River. They were particularly abundant on the grounds of the new Santo Domingo State Park. It was adjacent to the Altamaha’s South Channel, where Interstate 95 crosses over a bridge.

The artifacts included a wide range of metal tools, weapons, ceramics, ornaments, etc. Broken dinner plates and eating utensils of 16th century French manufacture were found. The archaeologists assumed that these items had been imported by Spanish missionaries. No one even considered that they might be standing on the ruins of Fort Caroline (1564-1565.)

Most tools were iron, but curiously, bronze axes and weapons were found. Bronze axes were not utilized in Europe after around 500 BC. Inexplicably, the National Park Service archaeologists interpreted them as “tools and weapons lost by Spanish explorers on the Georgia coast.” They may have been from Iberia, but they would have arrived on the coast at some point in time before 600 BC.

Residents along the mouth of the Altamaha River considered the earthworks next to the confluence of the Altamaha River and Six Mile Creek to be the location of a 16th century French fort or Spanish fort. Actually there are two fortifications in the vicinity. They thought that nearby tabby ruins were of the Spanish mission, Santo Domingo de Talaje. The actual mission site is closer to the ocean. The abundance of 16th century and early 17th century European artifacts in that area seemed to confirm their traditions. While virtually no 16th century artifacts have been found in the mouth of the St. Johns River, they are commonplace in the Altamaha River Delta. Illegal poachers, using metal detectors, are still pilfering the many ruins along the South Channel.

The nation’s earliest state parks

In 1826, the State of Georgia created the first state park in the nation. A 640 acre tract around Indian Springs had been granted to Creek Indian mikko, William McIntosh, as part of the bribe for him persuading several minor Creek leaders into signing the illegal Treaty of Indian Springs. When McIntosh, most of his sons and the sons of United States Indian Agent, Benjamin Hawkins, were executed for giving away all of the Creek lands in Georgia (except their own plantations) Georgia seized the Indian Springs tract and declared it a state park.

Cator Woolford (1869-1944), Atlanta businessman, civic leader and philanthropist, founded the Retail Credit Company (the precursor to Equifax) in 1899. In 1934, Woolford donated 350 acres of land along the South Channel of the Altamaha River in Glynn County for a state park around the earthworks and nearby tabby ruins. It became one of the nation’s earliest state parks, after the one at Indian Springs.

The new park was the site of the Elizafield Rice Plantation in the mid-1800s. Immediately to the south was the Hofwyl-Broadfields Plantation. The old Brunswick-Altamaha Canal ran through the western part of the tract. The ruins of an old rice mill were also on the property. Historians at the University of Georgia and state officials in Atlanta assumed that the tabby ruins were those of Mission Santo Domingo de Talaje. Therefore, the donated tract was named Santo Domingo State Park.

According to a documentary film produced by the fledgling National Park Service in 1939, Santo Domingo became one of the first state parks in the United States. The park was designated to be the museum facility that would focus on Georgia’s Spanish occupation period. While the State of Georgia utilized CCC workers to develop the park, the newly created National Park Service agreed to analyze the tabby ruins on the site to determine their identity and age. Officials in Washington were considering the acquisition of the property as a national park or national monument.

Georgia built a museum at the park in the form of a “Spanish Inn.” It contained exhibits of the many European artifacts found on and near the site . . . something that is completely missing at Fort Caroline National Memorial. Many Native American artifacts have also been found along the South Channel of the Altamaha, including a dugout canoe found on the Elizafield Plantation. They were put on exhibit. However, none of the artifacts were curated by professional archaeologists, who were qualified to evaluate Early European Colonial Period objects. The large quantity of the artifacts suggests that at one time the location was densely populated.

The state also built walking trails and bridges over tidal creeks and a lagoon. The trapezoidal earthworks on a bluff overlooking the lagoon were interpreted by National Park Service archaeologists as being a fortified Indian village or perhaps something connected with rice cultivation. However, the earthworks were never excavated by the archaeologists . . . only legions of artifact collectors, decade after decade.

Shortly before World War II, the National Park Service sent the State of Georgia a letter in which it determined that the tabby ruins were what were left of a sugar mill from the late Colonial Period or early Federal Period. After the acquisition of the Louisiana Territory in 1803, relatively little sugar was produced in Georgia. The archaeologists did very little excavation around the tabby ruins. However, where they did dig, they found that artifacts from many cultural periods were endemic.

Georgia officials lost interest in Santo Domingo State Park after receiving the National Park Service report. Today, an 18th century sugar mill would be an interesting focus for heritage tourism, but it had nothing to do with the Spanish occupation of Georgia. The earthworks, rice mill ruins and early 19th century canal were completely forgotten, when politicians evaluated the assets of the park. Rather than re-name the park to something more appropriate to its assumed 18th and 9th century heritage, state parks officials decided to close the facility in 1945 and look for alternative uses for the site, now considered insignificant.

In 1946, Santo Domingo State Park became a state-owned orphanage, known as Georgia Boys Estate. Dormitories and a chapel were built. Artifacts were moved out of the museum. The location of these artifacts, particularly the ancient bronze tools, remain a mystery. The Spanish Inn became the offices of the orphanage. Over time the lush WPA installed landscaping disappeared.

In the mid-1950s, a native of Marietta, GA, General Lucius D. Clay, became the director of the planning process for the Interstate Highway System. It soon became known that Interstate 95 would be crossing the Altamaha River in the vicinity of Georgia Boys Estate. By the early 1960s the right-of-way was designated immediately west of the Brunswick-Altamaha Canal and the orphanage. The roadways were constructed between the triangular earthwork and the smaller trapezoidal earthwork. They were apparently protected because they were assumed to be either Native American villages or irrigation ponds for the adjacent rice fields. Unfortunately, the archaeological survey for this section of I-95 is missing.

During the period of interstate construction, Georgia needed the grounds of the Georgia Baptist Children’s Home in Hapeville, GA for expansion of the Atlanta Airport. Georgia deeded the portion of Boys Estate east of the I-95 right of way to the Georgia Baptist Convention. The portion of the tract west of the I-95 right of way was sold to the Sea Island Company, which planned to bulldoze the triangular earthwork and construct a resort. This never happened. The Sea Island Company went bankrupt in 2010. A real estate holding company that picked up the South Channel tract first planned a resort then decided that the economy would not support such a development at this time. The land is for sale.

Near the end of a seven year long study of the South Atlantic Coastal Plain, a Native American researcher in the People of One Fire discovered the passage about the “ancient French or Spanish fort” in “Bartram’s Travels.” Within a day, the probable locations of Fort Caroline and Fort San Mateo were found on infrared maps provided by the Glynn County, GA government. A copyrighted report on the discovery was published nationally, but received little notice in the mainstream media.

Three months later, the People of One Fire researchers were astonished when Florida State University mass-distributed a press release which gave credit to two “University of Florida history professors who are experts on Spanish colonial architecture” for the discovery of Fort Caroline’s true location on the Altamaha River. Speaking at a conference at FSU, the two quoted the People of One Fire report verbatim without giving due credit, but placed the location of Fort Caroline closer to the ocean. One was actually a retired anthropology professor, who specialized in women affairs and African cultures. The other, according to his LinkedIN bio, is the computer system manager for a wholesale pharmaceutical company in Atlanta.

With the publicity provided by FSU, the couple was able to otain funds to hire archaeologist, Fred C. Cook, in order to dig at the locations nearer the ocean that they suggested. No evidence has been found to date. However, they are digging in the general vicinity were the Spanish built two small forts to protect Fort San Mateo from large warships. They may eventually find the footprint of one of these forts.

America does indeed have a secret history . . . even in the news that you read today.

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