Retreat Plantation
King's Retreat on St. Simons Island
by Amy Hedrick

1904 Map of Retreat

Founded in 1804 by William Page from South Carolina, Retreat Plantation was one of the major players in the plantation system of Coastal Georgia during the 19th century. In all, the plantation totaled 2000+ acres geared towards growing long staple cotton. It was originally known as Orange Grove, owned by Thomas Spalding.

William’s daughter, Anna Matilda Page, inherited Retreat in 1827. She was the wife of Thomas Butler King of Massachusetts who was a member of Congress from 1839 to 1850 and a prominent figure in Georgia and national politics. The Kings had 10 children, only seven lived to see the aftermath of the Civil War, and the end of the antebellum south as they knew it.

Of all the plantations, this one was the most efficient, and the one most concerned with the well being of their slaves. A slave hospital [ruins which still stand today] was built which had about 8 rooms and a large attic. To get to the hospital, you would leave the main house, and stroll through a walkway shaded by tropical plants and flowers, then you passed through the infamous orange grove.

Two nurses headed up this hospital who also had to be trained in midwifery. One early record lists Sukey and Mily, a mother and daughter, as faithful and trusting nurses. Sukey was the mother to Neptune Small.

There were, of course, slave quarters, gardens, chicken & duck yards, sewing rooms, and a detached double kitchen with two fireplaces to handle all of the plantation cooking.

As tradition holds, this was a true “Gone With the Wind” plantation. Galas and balls were held here, people from the island and in town would arrive to dance the night away. The men would make toast after toast, William Page holding his own.

The plantation was adjoined by another, aptly named New Field, lined with a street of tabby cabins for the field hands. One cabin is still standing at the intersection of Frederica and Demere Roads, converted into a gift shop and named “The Tabby House.”

Items grown at Retreat included, long staple cotton, lemon, orange, and olive groves, graperies, and various orchards. The Kings also owned plantations on the mainland, in Camden County was Waverly, Monticello was in Wayne County. Of course numerous slaves were attached with each place. High overhead, and Butler King’s willingness to sign his friends’ notes, cost them almost everything they had in the panic of 1838-39. All that was left was Anna Matilda’s dower, Retreat and New Field, and the slaves working them.

One ghost is purported to haunt Retreat, that of a Naval Officer, while living he was stationed at Retreat. During the Civil War, Retreat was used as a base of operations for Union soldiers. One night two young officers, after imbibing heavily, started quarrelling. The end result, one was shot to death. His spirit is said to wander the property.

Anna was brought up to be a smart, responsible, businesslike young woman. Able to handle the day to day tasks of running a plantation. Her father never hesitated upon his death to leave everything in her capable hands. An estate that estimated, in today’s economy, to be over two million dollars, not counting the slaves. Her husband would have been deemed an absentee owner had Anna not stayed home while Butler King attended all the political and social events his career demanded.

Due to her forthright business manner, and meticulous records, a clear picture of plantation life at Retreat has been preserved for generations to come. A book titled “Anna, The Letters of a St. Simons Island Plantation Mistress, 1817-1859” tells the story of her life through letters and correspondence with family and friends.

Not only was she an avid writer, she was also a stern record keeper. Her plantation accountings have slaves listed, not only by names and ages, but in their family unit, with birth and death dates. As you can see by her estate papers, even in death, her records were kept in order. Everything was left to her children to share and share alike.

Anna died before war came to her home, right to her doorstep as a matter of fact. Retreat became a “contraband colony.” During the War Between the States, many coastal slaves had the run of the country and formed groups that ran amok, stealing and damaging properties, so much so that it was becoming troublesome to the Northern commanders stationed in the town. Retreat became the ideal place to put these contrabands to work, and to keep them out of trouble. Eventually over 500 people were living and working there, too many for a healthy environment, so many were moved to Gascoigne Bluff. In 1862, this colony was disbanded.

After the war, Retreat was still not abandoned by these interlopers. The headquarters of the Freedman’s Bureau for this district was stationed there. The King family and their people were safely tucked away in Ware County, as were most of the islanders and mainlanders.

The Kings suffered losses in the War, far worse than just their home. Georgia King’s husband, Col. William Duncan Smith, died from yellow fever in Charleston on 4 October 1862. Before this, Georgia had the opportunity to ride into battle with her husband and partake of a front row seat to the second battle of Manassas. She also served as a volunteer nurse.

Thomas Butler King, Sr. died 10 May 1864 in Waresboro, Ware County, Georgia, just before War’s end. Fortunately for him he did not live to see the Confederacy he worked hard to preserve, fail.

Son, Henry Lord Page King, enlisted in 1861 with the C.S.A., only to loose his life at Fredericksburg on 13 December 1862. Lordy was killed while carrying dispatches for his commanding officer, felled by five balls on Mayre’s Hill. Lordy took with him to battle his childhood friend and body servant, Neptune, who bravely carried Lordy’s body off of the battlefield and all the way back to Savannah to be buried with the family after the war at Christ Church.

After Lordy’s death, Neptune was told that he could stay home for good, but having seen the evils of war, could not let young Richard Cuyler King go off without him.

After the Civil War, Retreat was never the same, and economic ruin brought about the sale of some of the property. All but one of the King children moved away, Mallery King tried to make a go of the old place, but eventually had to sell tracts of the home place, those known as New Field. The Retreat tract today, bears the street names of the King children, and Mallory [misspelled] Street ends at Neptune Park, named for, you guessed it, Neptune, the body servant, and faithful friend of the King boys.

The home, originally built in the 1790s by Thomas Spalding, was consumed by fire in 1909, the cause of which was unknown. In the 1920s, Howard Coffin, developer of Sea Island, bought the Retreat tract and turned it into a golf resort. The old tabby corn barn from plantation days was converted into a clubhouse. Other ruins still remain today, the foundations and part of the chimneys of the big house, the slave hospital, and the tabby greenhouse.

Tucked away in a grove of trees, is the final resting place of Neptune Small, his family, fellow bondsmen, and their descendants. Upon entering the Sea Island Golf Club [formerly Retreat Plantation] the avenue of live oaks still stands in all its glory. The same path traveled by the King family and friends, on their way to happiness, sorrow, and eventual closure to a life gone with the wind.

 

Bibliography

King, Anna Matilda (Page), edited by Melanie Pavich-Lindsay, Anna, The Letters of a St. Simons Island Plantation Mistress, 1817-1859; The University of Georgia Press, Athens & London 2002; 453 pages [includes appendices and index]; The personal correspondence of Anna Matilda (Page) King between herself and her family and friends. This book is comprised of actual letters written, mainly by Anna, from Retreat Plantation on St. Simons Island, to friends and relatives of the King family. Appendices includes lists of slaves, with birth and death dates, plus their family units.

Mayre, Florence, edited by Edwin R. MacKethan III, The Story of the Page King Family of Retreat Plantation, St. Simons Island and of the Golden Isles of Georgia; Edwin R. MacKethan III, 2002; 137 pages [includes notes and index]; A comprehensive history on the King family and Retreat Plantation on St. Simons Island, as told by Florence King Nisbet Mayre, granddaughter of Thomas Butler and Anna Matilda (Page) King.

Mueller, Pamela Bauer, Neptune's Honor; Piñata Publishing 2005; 189 pages; Historical-fiction, story of real characters from Retreat Plantation, Neptune Small and Henry Lord King were childhood playmates who grew into manhood together on St. Simons Island.  During the War Between the States, Neptune followed Lord King into battle as his body servant, never forgetting his promise to always bring Lordy home.

 

 

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