This history of the town of Sunbury was written by my Great Aunt Kate Jones Martin.
The first mention of Sunbury is found in the memoirs of General James Edward Oglethorpe by Robert Wright, London, 1857, in which he tells of General Oglethorpe’s exploratory expedition to the southern frontiers of Georgia. On this trip (in 1734) he embarked in a row boat at Savannah with sixteen men, and followed the inland waterway to St. Simons Island. It was at this time that Oglethorpe was impressed by the beautiful, bold bluffs overlooking the Medway River and its outlying islands, which later became a part of the town of Sunbury. According to tradition, it was on this expedition that the first Masonic Lodge ever organized in Georgia was instituted by Oglethorpe.
In 1757 His Majesty, King George II, conveyed to Mark Carr, his heirs and assigns forever, “All that tract of land containing 500 acres, situate and being in the district of Midway in the province of Georgia, bounded on the east by Medway River, on the west by the land of Thomas Carr, on the south by vacant land, and on all other sides by the marshes of said river.”
On the 20th of June 1758, Mark Carr conveyed 300 of his 500 acres, including that portion fronting on the river, to James Maxwell, Kenneth Baillie, John Elliott, Grey Elliott and John Stevens of Midway in trust that the land be laid out as a town by the name of Sunbury. The name Sunbury comes from two Saxon words, sunna, the sun, and byri, a town, and denotes a place exposed to the sun. Sunbury was the name of a town in England on the Thames River, and it is quite probable that Mr. Carr was perpetuating (as did many colonists) the name of a town he loved. However that may be, a more suitable name could not have been chosen, for it recalls the peaceful memories of old England, and from the early dawn until sunset, the locality is always bathed in sunlight.
The trustees of the early town of Sunbury were all men of prominence and position. John Stevens and James Maxwell were members of the Provincial Congress which assembled at Tondee’s Longroom in Savannah on July 4, 1775. The other members of this Congress from St. John’s Parish were: James Screven, Nathan Brownson, Daniel Roberts, John Baker, Sr., John Bacon, Sr., Edward Bell, William Baker, Sr., William Bacon, Jr., and John Winn, Sr. Grey Elliott was subsequently selected by the General Assembly to act as an assistant from the colony of Georgia to Dr. Benjamin Franklin who had been chosen by several of the provinces, including Georgia, and sent to England to represent the grievances of the colonies, remonstrate against such Acts of the Crown as were deemed oppressive, and oppose taxation without representation. Most of the trustees were members of the Midway church. The plan of the town of Sunbury as laid out embraced three public squares (known as King’s, Church and Meeting) and 496 lots. These lots had a frontage of 70 feet and were 130 feet in depth. Lots numbered from one to forty fronting the river were called Bay Lots, and included ownership of the shore to low water mark. Four lots constituted a block bounded on 3 sides by streets and on the 4th by a lane. From north to south the length of Sunbury, as thus laid out, measured 3,430 feet. Its breadth on the south side was 2,230 feet and on the north 1,880 feet.
Within a short time substantial wharves were built, the most marked of which were owned and used by the following merchants: Kellsall and Spalding; Fisher, Jones and Hughes; Darling and Company; and Lamott.
In 1761 the governor of the province declared Sunbury a port of entry and appointed Thomas Carr, Collector; John Martin, Naval Officer; and Francis Lee, Searcher. In his letter to Lord Hallifax, in 1763, Sir James Wright said: “I judged it necessary for His Majesty’s service that Sunbury-a well settled place having an exceedingly good harbour and inlet from the sea-should be made a port of entry, and I have appointed Thomas Carr, Collector, and John Martin, Naval Officer, for the same. There are eighty dwellings in the place, 3 considerable merchant stores for supplying the town and planters with all necessary goods, and around it for about 15 miles is one of the best settled parts of the country.”
Captain McCall in alluding to the early history of Sunbury says: “Soon after its settlement and organization as a town, it rose to considerable commercial importance . . . . a lucrative trade was carried on with various parts of the West Indies in lumber, rice, indigo, corn and other products. Seven square-rigged vessels have been known to enter the port of Sunbury in one day, and about the years 1769 and 1770 it was thought by many, in point of commercial importance to rival Savannah.” In his report on the condition of the province of Georgia, dated September 20, 1773, Sir James Wright mentioned that in the year 1772, fifty-six vessels of various sorts were entered and cleared at the Custom House in the port of Sunbury. On one or two occasions cargoes of Africans were sold in this port.
Sunbury played a most important part in the Revolutionary War. Imagine a town of that size having three signers of the Declaration of Independence closely connected with it. Dr. Lyman Hall, although having a plantation a few miles north of Midway, lived in Sunbury, where he owned two lots facing the river. He was the leading physician of the country thereabouts. In 1775 he was sent as a delegate to the General Congress in Massachusetts from the parish of St. John, which acted independently of the province of Georgia. Later, he was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Button Gwinnett, another signer, although having his home on St. Catherines Island, carried on his public business as Justice of St. John’s Parish in the town of Sunbury, and transacted his private business there. George Walton, the third signer from Georgia, was sent to Sunbury as a prisoner of war at the fall of Savannah in 1778, being wounded and paroled there until his wound healed.
Sunbury contributed other great men to the war for freedom. Here lived Major John Jones, aide to General McIntosh, who was killed while defending Savannah on the same day on which Pulaski fell. Dr. Stacy gives Sunbury as the home of General James Screven, who was mortally wounded at Spencer Hill, south of Midway, in a skirmish with the British on November 22, 1778, and died two days later. Colonel John Baker was the first captain of the St. John’s Riflemen and later made colonel. He led the expedition against Florida planned by Button Gwinnett, was wounded at Bulltown Swamp near Riceboro, and participated in the capture of Augusta in 1781. Baker County was named for him.
Besides contributing these great men to the army from the town, Sunbury was actively a part of the Revolutionary War in that it was the scene of much fighting. It was the place of rendezvous for the forces of General Charles Lee in the expedition against Florida in 1776. From here, Colonel Elbert embarked his troops in an expedition against St. Augustine in 1777. Here in 1778 Colonel Pinckney came with his troops to rest. Fort Morris was located here on land belonging to John Winn. This fort had been started in the year 1756 as a precautionary measure against a rumored invasion of Indians. Also according to church records on account of French privateers, citizens raised a couple of batteries and made carriages of eight small cannon. When Congress met on July 5, 1776, they resolved to raise two battalions to serve in Georgia . . . . that four galleys be built for defense of the seacoast, and that two artillery companies of fifty men each be enlisted to garrison two forts which the state was to erect at Savannah and Sunbury. The old fort was used but was modified and enlarged. It was given the name of Fort Morris in honor of Captain Morris who commanded a company of Continental Artillery raised for coastal defense. The fort was built, according to tradition, chiefly by the slave labor of the planters of Colonels Island and the Midway District. It was well armed for that day, for records show that twentyfive pieces of ordnance were surrendered by Major Lane to Colonel Prevost. The guns were small, consisting of four, six, nine, twelve, and eighteen pounders with one or two twenty-four pounders. The walls were of earth work, built to include one acre of ground. The parapet was ten feet wide and six feet above the parade of the fort. Surrounding the whole was a moat ten feet wide at the bottom and twenty feet wide at the top. The guns were all removed later. One was taken to Hinesville; two to Riceboro during the War Between the States, where no use was made of them. Two more were taken by Captain Lamar, and after being used as signal guns at Sunbury, they were moved to Fort Bartow in Savannah, where they fell into the hands of the Federals. Two more were left buried in the soil of the parade ground. One of those taken to Riceboro was removed by Colonel C. C. Jones in 1880 to his home in Augusta.
Colonel John McIntosh was left in command of Fort Morris in 1778. He courageously defended it against the attack of Colonel Fuser who, with 500 men, battering cannon, light artillery and mortars, attacked the fort by land and water. When Colonel Fuser demanded the surrender of Colonel McIntosh, promising that the citizens should be left in peaceable possession of their property, Colonel McIntosh (with less than 200 men, including continental troops, local militia and loyal citizens) replied in these words: “Sir, We acknowledge we are not ignorant that your army is in motion to endeavour to reduce this state. We believe it entirely chimerical that Col. Prevost is at the Meeting House; but should it be so, we are in no degree apprehensive of danger from a junction of his army with yours. We have no property compared with the object we contend for that we value a rush:- and would rather perish in a vigorous defence than accept your proposals. We, Sir, are fighting the battles of America, and therefore disdain to remain neutral ’til its fate is determined. As to surrendering the fort, receive this laconic reply: Come and Take It.”
Colonel Fuser waited for Colonel Prevost to join him, and when he did not appear, he reimbarked his troops and left. However, later when Major Lane was left in command of the fort, he disregarded the orders of General Howe to evacuate and join the main army and was forced to surrender unconditionally to the British under Prevost. After the fall of Sunbury, the Continental officers captured at Savannah were sent there on parole. Fort Morris has the distinction of being the last spot on Georgia soil where the old Colonial flag remained flying. After its surrender to the British, it was called Fort George. During the War of 1812, the fort was repaired and named Fort Defense. The Committee of Defense for Liberty County during that war consisted of General Daniel Stewart, William Fleming, John Winn, John Stacy, John Elliott, John Stevens and Joseph Law. The garrison was under the command of the Honorable John A. Cuthbert but was never called into active service. This was the last time the old fort was used.
A sketch of Sunbury would not be complete without mentioning other famous citizens. Richard Howley and Nathan Brownson, both governors of Georgia, lived there for years. John Elliott and Alfred Cuthbert, United States senators, and John A. Cuthbert, a member of Congress, lived there. Commodore James McKay McIntosh and his sister, Miss Maria McIntosh, the authoress, were born there. Born there, too, was the Honorable John Elliott Ward, who was mayor of Savannah, a senator, U.S. district attorney, and first Minister Plenipotentiary to China (those who preceded him being commissioners only). It was also the birthplace of Honorable William E. Law who was a celebrated teacher and jurist.
Sunbury Academy was established by the Georgia Legislature, February 1, 1778. Abiel Holmes, James Dunwoody, John Elliott, Gideon Dowse and Peter Winn were appointed commissioners to establish the academy and erect a building. About the year 1793 the Reverend William McWhir, D.D., a native of Ireland, came to Sunbury as a minister and educator. He was elected headmaster of the academy, and for thirty years he conducted the institution by the highest standards of scholarship and discipline. Students from many sections of the country attended the academy, and there were as many as seventy enrolled at one time. Other teachers were James E. Morris, the Reverend Mr. Lewis, the Reverend Mr. Shannon, the Reverend Thomas Goulding, Uriah Wilcox, the Reverend John Boggs, Captain William Hughes, C. G. Lee, the Reverend A. T. Holmes, the Reverend S. G. Hillyer, Major John Winn, W. T. Feay, Oliver W. Stevens and the Reverend Reuben Hitchcock. Dr. McWhir and his wife died at Sunbury and are buried in the cemetery there.
For its size, Sunbury had few churches. On May 20, 1790, a charter was granted to the Congregational Society of Sunbury with the following selectmen: Francis Coddington, David Rees, James Powell and John Lawson. The members of the Church of England, or Episcopal Church at Sunbury, had a missionary, the Reverend John Alexander, in 1766 and 1767, who was sent by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. He was succeeded by the Reverend Timothy Lowten, another missionary who served for several months in 1771. The Revolutionary War interrupted the plans of the Sunbury Episcopalians as a permanent organization. The Baptist church was organized in 1806 with the Reverend Charles O. Screven as minister.
A Masonic Lodge known as St. John’s Lodge Number Six of Sunbury was chartered by the Grand Lodge of Georgia in Masonry April 21, 1777. Appearing as officers in 1787 were: Worshipful Master, Adam Alexander; Senior Warden, William Peacock; Junior Warden, Andrew Maybank; Treasurer, Thomas Lancaster; Secretary, Daniel Stewart; Senior Deacon, Nathan Dryer; Junior Deacon, John Bihleimer; and Stewards, James Robarts and Samuel Law. In 1805 the Masons constructed a building on property owned by John and Rebecca Couper in the town of Sunbury.
Sunbury never recovered from falling into the hands of the British. Homes were burned and those left were impoverished. For a time it seemed that prosperity would be revived, but with all the other reverses came an epidemic of yellow fever and two hurricanes which completed the destruction. In 1797 the seat of justice of Liberty County was moved from Sunbury to Riceborough. Many of the houses were moved to Dorchester. By the year 1848 nothing was left of Sunbury to indicate the prosperous, gracious life that was lived there. Graves are unmarked and unremembered. The oldest stone here is that of Josiah Powell who died in 1788. Mr. Powell was one of the prominent citizens of the parish and was interested in the education of its youth. The Laws and Flemings whose family plot is quite well preserved were people of prominence in the parish of St. John, and members of the Midway church. They include several ministers and jurists in their number.
The Dunham family, whose graves are the most recent, lived at one time next to Springfield Plantation, the home of the Stevens family. It is presumed that they were descendants of the same William Dunham who is listed in Colonel Jones’s book among those having lots in early Sunbury.
Chief Justice George Walton charged the grand jury at Sunbury on November 18, 1783, with the following words: “In the course of the conflict with the enemy whose conduct was marked with cruelty, the whole state has suffered undoubtedly more than any of the Confederacy. The citizens of Liberty County, with others, have drunk deep in the stream of distress. Remembering these things, we should not lose sight of the value of the prize we have obtained. And now that we are in full possession of our freedom, we should all unite in our endeavors to benefit and perpetuate the system, that we may always be happy at home and forever freed from the insults of petty tyrants commissioned from abroad.”
There is a message in these words for us today, and as we remember the brighter days of this old town, as we boast of its history, let us strive toward making a history of our own which will justify the efforts and ambitions of the early settlers of the town of Sunbury.
Source: Midway Museum