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Sunbury: A once-thriving seaport
On the east end: Although the Dunham plot is clearly visible, most of the graves at the Sunbury cemetery are unmarked and forgotten. - photo by Photo by Greg Kurth
Mary Jones, one of the main characters in Children of Pride, wrote in a letter in 1830 to her future husband, Charles C. Jones, that, “Sunbury was such a delectable place to live.”
I thought about this statement two weeks ago as I stood inside the Sunbury Crab Company and looked out the window at the beautiful view of the Medway River. I was also watching for the Tybee Light Power Squad group coming from Savannah in their boats to eat at the restaurant.
Around 1781, this place had more than 1,000 residents living on the 300 acres next to the river. Businesses around the river’s edge were booming and filled with excitement as people came and went.
While I was looking out the window, everything was very quiet and peaceful.  
Sunbury, now called “a dead town in Georgia,” was named after a town in England that denotes a place in the sun. Here it is, bathed in sunshine, from early dawn until sunset. His Majesty, King George II, conveyed to Mark Carr, one of the wealthiest men and an excellent military leader, 500 acres fronting the Medway River in 1757. He sold lots to various persons on which a trading post and wharves were built.  
In the middle of 1758, Carr entered into an agreement with five men to establish a town here. Carr told them how to lay out the town, the type of architecture to use, and the cost of the 496 lots. Each lot was 70 x130. The town was laid out to resemble Savannah. Bay lots 1-40 fronted the river and extended down to the low-water mark. The town had three squares. King’s Square was three blocks back from the river, Meeting Square was seven blocks back and Church Square was six lots back. All of the first buildings were made of wood and tabby was used for the foundations, chimneys and outbuildings.  
Mary Sharpe Jones lived on lots 29 and 30. Her slave servants lived in small houses behind her big house. She died in 1798 and was buried in her backyard 209 years ago. I wonder if her grave is marked in any way or if anyone even knows where it was.  
Eliza Robarts Low, a very attractive young lady lived in waterfront lot 6. By the time she was 28, she had already buried three husbands. Either she was tired of burying husbands or the men were skittish about being the fourth husband to be buried. She never married again and died at the age of 83.
Samuel Bacon, one of the scouts that sent to explore the Midway area for the Puritans, owned lot 478. I was told he was my grandfather, six times removed. Why did he not buy a lot along the river edge? I have not had time to research and find the prices of each lot but it would be very interesting to
know this information.
There were five wharves along the river owned by Lamotts (2), Kedsall & Spalding, Fisher Jones & Hughes and Darling and Company. These merchants sold any and everything. They purchased their wares in Savannah and transported their cargoes by sloops using the islands passageway.  
Sunbury was declared a port of entry in 1761. In 1772, 56 vessels entered and cleared this port. On one or two occasions, cargoes of Africans were sold at one of the wharves. The port rivaled Savannah in commercial importance.  
Sunbury played a very important part in the Revolutionary War. Three signers of the Declaration of the Constitution were connected to it. Dr. Lyman Hall lived on riverfront lots 33 and 34 although he owned a plantation, Hall’s Knoll, in Midway.
Button Gwinnett carried on his public business as Justice of St. John’s Parish in the town of Sunbury and transacted his private business here. George Walton 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.
Fort Morris was built in 1756 as a precautionary measure against the Creek Indians. The Indians were terrible in this part of Georgia. They killed and captured many slaves and scalped many white plantation owners and stole their animals. Everyone in the village and communities were terrified. Gen. Daniel Stewart is credited with making the treaty with the Creek Indians and creating peace in the area.
Lt. Col. John McIntosh made his famous remark to Col. Fuser in 1778 when Fuser demanded surrender of the fort promising the citizens would be left in peaceable possession of their property. McIntosh replied, “Come and take it!” These words were inscribed on a sword and presented to him later by the Georgia Legislature.  I wish we knew the whereabouts of this sword today.
Fort Morris was the last place on Georgia soil where the old Colonial flag remained flying. After its surrender to the British, it was called Fort George and then Fort Defense.
Other famous citizens of Sunbury were Richard Howley and Nathan Brownson who became governors of Georgia as well as Lyman Hall. John Elliott Ward, who was mayor of Savannah, a senator, U.S. district attorney and the first minister plenipotentiary to China was born in Sunbury. He was buried in the Midway Cemetery in an aboveground tomb. One night some voodoo worshipers broke into his tomb and took his skull. Later it was found in the woods placed on a stump where people had built a fire and sat around it. The skull was returned to the tomb and resealed.
Sunbury Academy, a two-and-a-half story building, was established on King’s Square in 1778. The Rev. William McWhir became headmaster in 1793 and remained for 30 years. He was a personal friend of George Washington and had taught his stepchildren in Virginia. McWhir was called the ugliest schoolteacher in Georgia because he had smallpox as a child and the disease had left pockmarks all over his face. He was blind in one eye. But, his personality was superb. He was extremely strict in his classroom and used his hickory stick on the backs of the students’ hands many times. His favorite drink was rum poured in a glass of buttermilk.
Seventy children were enrolled in the academy at one time from all over the state. When students graduated from Sunbury Academy, they were well equipped to attend Harvard or Yale.
The island adjacent to Sunbury was an integral part of its economic and social life. It was known as Bermuda Island because so many people from Bermuda came there to live. The malaria fever wiped most of them out and the rest left. Some of the Sunbury residents built homes and plantations on the island and later it was called Colonel’s Island. A causeway was built for easier access. Before 1808, much indigo was grown and the putrid smell of it fermenting in the huge vats in the ground caused an infestation of flies on the island. No one could stand it. But, by 1808, the indigo market had crashed and finally the island became a beautiful place once again.
Below Sunbury and on the causeway to the island was a locality known as “Staves Landing.” Staves and shingles were manufactured and shipped to other points. On the eastern side was a shipyard where vessels were built and repaired.
The Baptist Church was organized in 1806. In 1864, the Yankees burned it as a signal. They did allow the huge Bible to be taken out before they burned it. This Bible is on display in the Walthourville Baptist Church today.
The General Assembly authorized a public road to be built from Sunbury to Wilkes County. It was finally built from Sunbury to Greene County and was authorized as a state road in 1792, the longest vehicular route in the state at the time. We know it as the “Old Sunbury Road.”
Sunbury suffered greatly from falling into the hands of the British. The homes were burned and those left were impoverished. Yellow fever and two major hurricanes completed the destruction.
In 1784, Sunbury was established as the first county seat in Liberty County. It was moved to Riceborough in 1797. By the year 1848, nothing was left of Sunbury to indicate the prosperous gracious life that was lived here. Graves are unmarked and forgotten. The Sunbury Cemetery is being cared for and restored.
Yes, Sunbury was a wonderful place to live long ago. The slaves especially enjoyed it during the summer and fall when their masters left the plantations to get away from the mosquitoes and came to the breezy coast. They always had extra work to do as the masters loved to entertain the many visitors.
Guess what all the visitors to the coast wanted to eat every day? You guessed it, seafood! The slaves had to catch and prepare all the shrimp, fish, oysters and crabs.
As Mary Jones said, “Sunbury was a delectable place!”
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