Fort St George – “Look in the river.”

By George Kotlik
January 25, 2022


Fort George Island Photo courtesy of Florida Memory Project

Fort George Island is named after an eighteenth-century British fort, Fort St. George. In 1736, Georgia Governor James Oglethorpe established Fort St. George somewhere on Fort George Island to guard Georgia’s southern frontier from Spanish interests. In 1740, a more permanent outpost was erected on site. Today, locals are unsure of the fort’s precise whereabouts. Park rangers believe Fort St. George was situated on Mount Cornelia, Fort George Island’s highest elevation. Outside of speculation, no archaeological evidence has yet unearthed the British fort’s exact location. In 1744, Francis Moore published A Voyage to Georgia, an account of his travels in the Georgia colony from 1735 to 1736. According to Moore, in June 1736, James Oglethorpe arrived at “St. George’s,” at noon.

“He immediately landed, and viewing the Ground, found but very little cleared, but there was a Mount just upon the edge of the River, which was Salt-water, and the Ruins of a Rampart and Ditch about 25 or 30 Foot from the bottom of the Ditch to the top of the ruin’d Rampart. There was upon the top of the hill another Mount cast up by Hands, like the Bulwarks with which they fortify’d in Queen Elizabeth’s Time, from whence the Hill descended on one side to the Water; from thence, if the Woods were cleared, one could overlook the Inside of the Island; and from this Bulwark you could also see the Spanish Look-out, and discover far into the Ocean, for it over-looks Talbot Island, which is narrow in that Place, and lies between that and the Sea. They immediately mounted one Piece of Cannon, on the lower Mount Bulwark, which commanded the River, and a couple of Swivel-Guns on the upper Mount, several of the Men were set to clearing, in order to judge better of the Ground.”[1]

According to the above account, Fort St. George was situated at the top of a hill next to a body of water, overlooking Talbot Island. Mount Cornelia, named after a niece of King George II, is the highest elevation on the island, commanding views of Talbot Island and the surrounding area. It is the highest point along the U.S. Atlantic coastline south of North Carolina, and the fort’s most likely location. In response to Spanish demands for its removal, Oglethorpe abandoned Fort St. George in October 1736.[2] According to eighteenth century plantation owner, Jonathan Bryan, Oglethorpe demolished the fort “but for what Reason I never knew, perhaps he thought it too distant from the Main Body of his Troops to be supported.”[3]

During the summer of 2019, I set out for Mount Cornelia. A friend and archaeologist, Mike Perrin, accompanied me. That summer, Mike and I explored Mount Cornelia, familiarizing ourselves with the terrain. Next, we inspected the hill from the river on the island’s eastern coast. From what we observed, Mount Cornelia sits on the island’s edge, gradually sloping down to the water.

“It’s in the river,” Mike finally said, breaking the silence.

“What is?” I asked.

“The fort. It’s in the river.”

“I’m not sure I get your meaning.”

“Look, see the edge of the hill over there? By the river? It’s eroded.”

“Yeah, so?”

“If you look close enough you can see by how much.”

“I don’t follow.”

“My guess is that a long time ago, Mount Cornelia extended further out from the island than where it sits today. Over the last two hundred and seventy years, erosion ate away at the hill, probably where Fort St. George was built. If this is the case, whatever was left of the fort fell into the river. If I conducted an archaeological dig, I would look in the river.”

If Mike is right, we are one step closer to finding the lost British outpost. After our wanderings, Mike and I ventured to a local tavern to discuss plans for detailed surveys of the fort. We agreed to come back with a boat and diving equipment. So far, those plans have not yet materialized. To this day, the fort remains lost. Our advice to future explorers? Look in the river.

[1] Francis Moore, A Voyage to Georgia: Begun in the Year 1735 (London: 1744), 90-91.

[2] Judson J. Conner, Muskets, Knives and Bloody Marshes: The Fight for Colonial Georgia (St. Simons Island: The Saltmarsh Press, 2001), 19-20.

[3] Virginia Steele Wood and Mary R. Bullard, eds., Journal of a Visit to the Georgia Islands of St. Catherines, Green, Ossabaw, Sapelo, St. Simons, Jekyll, and Cumberland, with Comments on the Florida Islands of Amelia, Talbot, and St. George, in 1753 (Mercer University Press, 1996), 32.

Editor’s Note: George Kotlik is a resident of Jacksonville, Florida.  He enjoys history, especially colonial North American history.  We thank George for his contribution to the Fernandina Observer.

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Mark Tomes
Mark Tomes(@mtomes)
2 years ago

Good thinking. Just like the bluff in Fernandina’s Old Town has been greatly reduced due to erosion and both Big Talbot and Little Talbot islands have so greatly changed their shape over the centuries, so do rivers meander and change the course, as well. If the old fort is lying in the mud at the bottom of the river, it actually may be more preserved than if it had been left in the air or ground.