Historical Darien, Georgia

Along Georgia’s coast, half way between Savannah and the St. Marys River lies McIntosh County, and the town of Darien. Today, Darien is a quiet town and travelers who fail to explore the lands along US 17 will pass by without realizing the historical significance of the area and its place in Georgia’s beginnings.

Two and a half centuries ago, John MacIntosh Mohr led 176 other Scottish Highlanders in a little fleet of small boats from the fledging settlement of Savannah to Barnwell’s Bluff on the Altamaha River. The new town they built was not the first English settlement on this strategic site. In 1720, 13 years before Savannah and the colony of Georgia were founded, a successful planter from the Carolina colony, John Barnwell, persuaded the British government that a fort on the Altamaha was needed to defend Charles Town (Charleston) from the Spanish in Florida. The next year Colonel Barnwell and an independent company of foot soldiers arrived and began construction of Fort King George. For six years, the first fort was garrisoned by the Independent Company. During that time, over 140 soldiers died of sickness. In 1727 the garrison was withdrawn to Port Royal and the fort was abandoned.

But the Spanish threat to British colonies on the Southern coast remained. In 1733 James Edward Oglethorpe founded the town of Savannah and the colony of Georgia. Three years later the Highlanders arrived at Barnwell’s Bluff and Darien was born. The new settlement was not to be an isolated fort as Fort King George had been but a town of permanent character. The Scots brought with them their families and a minister, Reverend John McLeod. A small Chapel was built and the first Presbyterian Church of Darien was founded.

With the arrival of the Scots, the area began to flourish in spite of the continuing, Spanish threat. It was this threat that gave Darien its existence as it did for the town and fort of Frederica on St. Simons Island (also established in 1736). Proof that the threat came in 1739 when Britain and Spain formally declared war. Oglethorpe’s preliminary forays against St. Augustine were unsuccessful but did delay the Spanish assault. When the attack did come in 1742, it was from Darien that Oglethorpe summoned Highlanders to assist in the defense of Fort Frederica. They came and distinguished themselves in the Battle of Bloody Marsh. The British victory was to be the end of the Spanish threat to the English colonies in America.

In the peace that followed the war with Spain, the Scots turned to building the thriving community of Darien. Lands were granted and cleared and prosperous plantations established. The territory of the colony was divided into parishes. The district around Darien was part of St. Andrews Parish. The Revolution again called forth the fighting spirit of the Scots and the name of McIntosh was written into American history. Lachlan, William and John were all officers for the Patriot’s cause. The legendary General Lachlan McIntosh commanded the first Georgia militia. It says something of the clan and times that he is probably best known for the duel he fought with Button Gwinnett, president of the Revolutionary Government of Georgia. Gwinnett died of his wounds and McIntosh was sent north as a brigadier general to fight against the British.

Following the Revolution the new state of Georgia was reorganized into counties, most of which were named after Revolutionary heroes. St. Andrews Parish became part of Liberty County. In 1793 McIntosh County was split off from Liberty County and renamed after its most famous family. The seat of county government was established at Sapelo Main (now Eulonia) and court was held in the home of John Houston McIntosh until a new courthouse could be built.

For Darien it was a time of growing prosperity as its plantations produced cotton, rice, and indigo for world markets and the Altamaha River became the Highway for great rafts of pine, oak, and cypress. The growing importance of Darien to the economic life of McIntosh County lead to the transfer there of the county seat from Eulonia in 1819. The town experienced its times of trouble as it was ravaged by a great fire in 1813 and a disastrous hurricane a year later. The severest blow came in 1863 when Union troops attacked from St. Simons and burned virtually every building in Darien.

Despite the devastation Darien recovered when the era of lumbering reached its peak after the war. The town became a thriving international port in the 1890’s. But modern ideas of conservation and reforestation were unknown then. By 1900 the depletion of the forests brought the boom to an end. The building of Georgia Coast and Piedmont Railroad through Darien failed to stem the decline. The G. C. and P. was affectionately known as the “Get Out Crackers and Push” and it failed as US 17 pushed south in the 1920’s. Today much of the physical evidence of this colorful history has disappeared but the beauty of the countryside remains.

by Hanley Bennett