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History of Charlton County

Pages 25-30

Printed 1932, now out of print.

TRADER’S HILL (FORT ALERT)

By

Alex. S. McQueen

It cannot be definitely determined the exact time Trader’s Hill was established as a trading post, but it was probably about the year 1755, for we have recorded history, backed by authentic documents, of a settlement in this territory at that time.

Trader’s Hill was the head of navigation of the St. Mary’s river for many years, and was a village of considerable importance in the early days of the State’s history. This village was settled on the banks of the river, and a rude stockade or fort was maintained for several years, garrisoned by United States soldiers. The communication and report of the military commission sent by Governor Rabun in 1819 to ascertain the true head of the St. Mary’s river, refers to Trader’s Hill as “Fort Alert” and the report mentioned the fact of a company of regular troops of the United States Army being stationed there at the time. This report is given in another chapter.

This fort and garrison was maintained to protect settlers when the Indians were on the “war path,” and it is entirely probable that the old fort was established by the English before the Revolutionary War in the dispute which was carried on with Spain for over a century. At one time during the pioneer days when the fort was not garrisoned by United States soldiers, a band of Indians crossed the St. Mary’s river from Florida and brutally murdered a white man named Fleming. Hon. S.F. Mills, Sr., now deceased, gave the author the following account of this incident: “That after murdering Fleming the Indians plundered his home, taking what they wanted. They bound his wife with strong buck-skin cords and carried her to the banks of the river where they set their hungry dogs on her. The dogs bit her severely, but after the Indians had left she managed to free herself by biting the thongs in twain, and then ran all the way to the fort on the Satilla river, about 18 miles distant. A party was formed to pursue the murderers, but they had made good their escape into Florida.”

A remarkable incident of this raid by the Indians was the sparing of the lives of the two Fleming children. There was a baby boy just a little over three weeks old lying in a cradle and being rocked by his brother, three years old. The Indians never attempted to harm these children, and the three weeks’ old Fleming child grew up in this county (then Camden), and, after reaching manhood, married Miss Elizabeth Mills, member of a prominent pioneer family. This baby, spared by the Indians, lived to reach a ripe old age, as did also his three years old brother.

Trader’s Hill remained a pioneer trading post of a few stores and bar-rooms until 1854, when the county of Charlton was created and this village selected by the voters as the county-seat. This seemed to give the old village, probably established by the English during the dispute with Spain over the territory between the St. Mary’s and Altamaha rivers, new life, and the old town became the center of commerce and culture for a vast territory of Southeast Georgia and North Florida.

The principal industry of this old town was trade between the storekeepers and the pioneer farmers and this was chiefly the exchange of merchandise, shot and powder, for furs, hides, wool, cotton, beeswax, tallow, etc. Every store-keeper was a trader and every mercantile establishment carried, as a matter of course, a well stocked bar. These bars were responsible for frequent brawls, for the pioneer was, at times, a hard drinking, fighting individual, but these fights were usually of the “fist and skull” variety although several killings are credited to old Trader’s Hill.

This old village remained a thriving center of trade until the construction of the old S.F.&W. railroad from Savannah to Jacksonville, and the establishment of the town of Folkston on the railroad. After two or three unsuccessful attempts the county-site of Charlton County was, after a very bitter fight, removed from Trader’s Hill to Folkston in the year 1901, the first court being held in Folkston in October, 1902.

When Trader’s Hill was selected as the county-site of Charlton county in 1854, it was provided in the Act that a court house and jail be built at once, and accordingly a two-story wooden courthouse was constructed, the ground floor being utilized by the county officers as offices and the trial court room, and the upper story was used as a grand jury room and there was also a room for the petit jury out on a case. It was, at one time, also used as a meeting place for the Masonic Lodge.

The jail was constructed along rather unique lines. It was a high structure built of hewn logs and the logs studded with spikes, and the only entrance being at the top of the first story. When a prisoner was carried up a stairway one story he was then sent down a ladder into the jail, and the ladder was then withdrawn, leaving the prisoner the only chance of escape by scaling the straight walls, and if he could do this he would then have to break open a trap door locked from the top side. The door was placed about the center of the top of the first story, and was locked by a pad-lock from the outside. As there were no “human flies” in those days, after a prisoner was let down to the bottom of the jail, the ladder he used to get down on withdrawn and the opening at the top locked, there were no escapes. When a man was put in the old Charlton county jail he usually stayed “put.” An old citizen informs the author that Daniel R. Dedge, the first sheriff of Charlton county, was a hardy pioneer, a man of courage and rare common sense.

Shortly after the creation of the county two negro slaves were tried by a citizens court and summarily executed; this incident will be given in another chapter.

In the early days it seems that very little comity existed between the States, especially between Georgia and Florida, and the fact that the court house at Trader’s Hill was located near the banks of the St. Mary’s river which was the dividing line between the two States, gave the officers, especially the sheriffs and bailiffs at court, a great deal of trouble. At that time Florida was a vast, wild, undeveloped territory.

A prisoner being tried for a bailable offense had the opportunity of waiting for a verdict, and if unfavorable to him, make a dash for the river, and if he could out-run the sheriff, reach the river and swim across, was safe from pursuit and punishment, and could remain free so long as he remained in Florida. This meant virtual banishment, however, and one convicted would never attempt to come back to Charlton county or to Georgia. These escapes across the border were of frequent occurrence, especially those who had been out on bail. Those under bond could not be hampered by the sheriff until after conviction, and when they would hear the foreman of the jury read a verdict of “guilty” they would make a dash for the St. Mary’s river, Florida and safety.

The officials at that time could not rely upon the success of extraditions or did not bother about it, for in the early history of this section – and of all Georgia for that matter – it was accepted as a matter of course that every fugitive from justice had “gone South,” and that meant Florida. This is probably the origin of the expression: “He has gone South,” and we say this without any intention of casting any reflection upon our neighbor State.

In the old days a session of the superior court was an event to look forward to, and the people would come to spend the week, for it usually required an entire week for the completion of the business of the court, and in those days, there was no “hurry and bustle” about the courts or anything else.

Most of the jurors, witnesses, parties litigant and spectators – and this meant the entire male population – would attend, bringing their horses, mules and oxen, usually attached to a two wheel cart. They would do their cooking at night around the camp fires, and it was a time to “eat, drink and be merry.”

It was also the occasion for a great many “fist fights,” horseracing and kindred sports.

A famous character who attended these sessions of court was Judge Martin Mershon, a noted criminal lawyer of his day. He lived at Brunswick, and later became judge of the superior courts of his circuit. While engaged in the practice of law Judge Mershon would camp out, drink and spin yarns with the boys all night, and win his cases the next day. He was a master story-teller, and was a shrewd and brilliant criminal lawyer, and was very popular in Charlton county. He was, at one time, a resident of old Trader’s Hill.

During the sessions of superior court the business of horse-swapping and trading was of equal importance with the court itself. The old time professional horse-trader was a master in his line, and the ordinary citizen had very little chance in a horse trade or swap. This fact did not hamper or retard the business of horse-trading, for every time a farmer was cheated he invariably came back for “another dose,” always thinking he would come out ahead the next time, but the “next time” rarely ever came. It was a great game, and while the professional horse-trader was admittedly a cheat and swindler in a horse trade, they were usually a jolly, likeable lot, and it was considered perfectly legitimate to misrepresent the facts in a horse or mule trade. In those days every store was a bar room, and the judge and attorneys joined the jurors, witnesses and spectators when court was not in session and when the drinks were “passed around.”

All that is left of old Trader’s Hill is the beautiful site along the banks of the St. Mary’s river; the giant, moss-draped oaks still stand, and it is yet the beauty-spot of the entire section. There is still one store in the old village, and a Methodist church yet functions there, but it has long since gone to join the ranks of the “dead and forgotten towns” of early Georgia history.

The site of old Trader’s Hill, first known as Fort Alert, is now owned almost entirely by the Georgia-Florida Investment Co., a corporation, and Mr. J.V. Gowen, principal owner of the corporation and manager of its varied interests, lives there.

In the old cemetery lies sleeping many prominent members of the old pioneer families, and every year their descendants come from the “four corners” to visit and care for the graves of their ancestors.

The pioneers selected a beautiful spot for their seat of government, and it is today a spot of matchless beauty. The old court house and jail have long since been destroyed; the old stores and bar-rooms have passed away in decay; the residences and boarding houses have long been torn down and removed, but, skirting the old site on the south the magnificent St. Mary’s river placidly flows toward the Atlantic Ocean, and through the giant, moss-draped oaks the south wind still speaks of fierce combats, noble adventures and sweet romances of an almost forgotten past.

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Charlton  County Archives