Part of the GAGenWeb Project

                   Part of the GAGenWeb Project.          


Contributed by Robert L. Hurst.

Area Presented A Potential Utopian Society

By Robert Latimer Hurst

(EDITOR'S NOTE: As we move closer to July 4 and as we further realize that we are now into a war on terrorism, patriotism should be something foremost in our hearts and minds. It might be interesting to review some area events that underscored that earlier patriotism.)

Signs guided the wanderer to Sunbury on the Medway River. "Old Sunbury Road" was still advertised as the colonial trail to a thriving coastal city. But it was all a ruse. It became a journey of the imagination. Sunbury disappeared from coastal Georgia long ago. It faded slowly "not with a bang but a whimper" to become one of those vanished towns of Georgia. 

From Mark Carr's land grant the town was laid out. This Georgia colonist and soldier, together will his neighbors, imagined a town completed with a port and wharves, lots and three town squares. It would rival Savannah a short distance to the north. Shipping would become a major industry bringing wealth to all of its citizens. 

The location was perfect --at the mouth of the Medway River, which had a deep harbor on the intracoastal channel. High bluffs allowed a good view of the river and any approaching problems. The marsh would draw residents. All the interior traffic would come this way, and what better place was there for anyone who wanted to do business with Caribbean ports and the northern colonies? The imagination painted the picture of an Utopia on the Georgia coast. 

Because even a perfect society needs protection, the Continental Congress, in 1776, ordered that a fort be constructed to protect the coast from the powerful British Navy. They noted that a low bluff on the Medway (not Midway) River at Sunbury would be the location for the fortification and a garrison for the patriots. It came as a defensive measure just at the right time to safeguard Georgia in both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. 

Now, the scene was set for Sunbury, Midway and Fort Morris, which would become Fort Defiance during the War of 1812. But we need to go back a few years.

On August 28, 1754, near what would become Sunbury, an eager group arrived from Dorchester, South Carolina, and quickly organized the Midway Society. Their meeting was held in a log cottage on what is called "Midway Neck." Some of these people held firmly to an old belief in Puritanism. Their ancestors had been those strict Puritans from New England, and they had selected to come with their minister, the Rev. Joseph Lord, from near Dorchester, Massachusetts, to this "wilderness." They would simply continue their lives in Georgia as they had in Massachusetts. They imagined living in the South would be the same as living in the North. Their belief in their God's looking over them was strong.

Actually, their ancestors had hoped for something different. Those earlier Puritans, in 1695, living by that disciplined religious code, wanted to create a church-centered community in the vicinity of the Ashley River in South Carolina. "Midway," as it would be called, would be a continuation of their Dorchester Society, "a Congregationalist community in which Christianity and daily living were closely inter-related."

But South Carolina's overcrowded settlements and worn-out lands were said not to be "capable of supporting the Gospel." So representatives checked out the Georgia area, which gained a favorable report and which presented the settlers with 31,950 acres of land, as petitioned by the Society and approved by the Council of Georgia. So the Articles of Incorporation of the Society were placed before the pilgrims. They would be required to join the Society but not the Church.

Rice, indigo and other crops became their livelihood, and their intense feelings about the politics of St. John's Parish, which had been created in 1758, became their passion. "They further colonized the entire parish, forming settlements whose congregations were served by associate pastors from the main meeting house at Midway," report historians. St. John's Parish included Sunbury, Midway and Fort Morris. 

This parish's citizens, for the most part, now became stalwart believers in independence from Great Britain. However, Georgia's First Provincial Congress disappointed many here when little interest was shown in expressing a desire for this freedom from tyranny; only five of Georgia's twelve parishes were represented at this body. Appointed delegates would be sent to the Second Continental Congress, meeting in May of 1775 in Philadelphia. Maybe a different attitude would prevail there. But the delegates exhibited a negative attitude about their selection. "We do not represent the majority of Georgia's citizens," they asserted. And they did not plan to attend the meeting. 

Failure to send representatives brought great criticism from the other colonies. Good will with her neighbors became severely injured, and St. John's Parish, ashamed of the rest of Georgia's actions and their own situation, curtailed trade with other sections of the colony and requested that St. John's be annexed to South Carolina. Of course this entreaty was denied, and the parish rallied by finally sending Dr. Lyman Hall to the Continental Congress.

Dr. Hall was one of those who came from that old Puritan stock. A student of theology at Yale University, he had, at one time, pastored a Congregational church. He, however, nursed a desire to study medicine and made his dream a reality when he moved from South Carolina in 1760 to land granted him in Georgia. 

And it was in Midway where Lyman Hall built his rice plantation, Hall's Knoll; a little further down that old colonial road, he also built a home in Sunbury. He would actively promote American independence as a leader in St. John's Parish. He, like those earlier patriots, became angry with his fellow Georgians when their spirit did not favor the coming rebellion. He urged, as his earlier neighbors had done, splitting the colony and joining South Carolina, a territory that showed a stronger desire for revolution.

Hall represented Georgia in Philadelphia, but he did not vote because he did not represent the entire colony. This inactivity would change when Georgia's Second Provincial Congress, meeting in Tondee's Tavern in Savannah, elected Dr. Hall one of the five delegates in 1775. One year later he, along with Button Gwinnett and George Walton, would sign a document that became known as the Declaration of Independence. 
These men were not really part of the original design; but, from that earlier plan, it was discovered that one, Rev. Joachim Zubly, who favored remaining loyal to the king, was dismissed from the delegation; and another, Noble Wymberly Jones, could not go to Philadelphia because of illness in his family. John Houston, a third, returned to Georgia and did not cast a vote.

Savannah fell in December, 1778; the British took over Georgia, except for the frontier. Hall's Midway plantation and his home in Sunbury were objects for burning. Dr. Hall, now accused of high treason, escaped to Charleston; after that city fell the following spring, he and his family went northward, only to return to St. John's Parish, now named Liberty County, after the British evacuation in 1782. St. John's had received the new accolade for its "early role in gaining independence."

This Declaration signer continued his work in medicine and the legislature, becoming governor and laying the base for the chartering of the University of Georgia in 1785.

(Watch for the second installment that will investigate George Walton's role in these events.)

Copyrightę 2002 Robert L. Hurst  
All rights reserved!

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