by Virginia Fraser Evans
When the pioneers began moving into the lower part of the Midway country known as the North Newport District, they took advantage of the most desirable locations for their rice plantations.
John and Williams Graves knew their lands were choice. They had received a grant of 2,100 acres in 1756 and 1757 along the banks of the North Newport River, which wound its way through the marshes into other streams and on to sea. The creeks branched in all directions, watering the lowlands and making perfect soil for rice planting. The river was also important for transportation. Rice and other products were loaded on the plantation-made boats, and shipped to Sunbury, the nearest port, and on to local and foreign markets. Another advantage of this location was the road running through the vicinity from Savannah to the Altamaha River, which James Edward Oglethorpe, the leader of the new colony of Georgia, had surveyed and constructed in 1736. Although only a trail, it provided a route by land for Oglethorpe to visit the southern settlements and forts he had established for protection against the Spaniards and Indians.
A fort was constructed on the Newport River for the protection of the settlers against the increasing attacks by the Indians, and in 1778 the fort at the house of John Winn on the North Newport River was used by the settlers when threatened by the British.
This choice land was rapidly claimed, a bridge was built across the river, and the area became known as Gravesend. There the Graves brothers surveyed town lots and sold them to merchants and made the outlying tracts available to planters. This settlement flourished.
Following the Revolutionary War and the devastation by the British, Sunbury, the county seat, was beginning to feel the effects of many forces that threatened its commercial, political and cultural strength. Many residents who left during the war did not return. Many found the storms on the coast and the "swamp fever" beyond their endurance. They began moving inland and establishing summer retreats that became permanent, and with additional inhabitants from other counties and states, communities were formed.
The distance to Sunbury from the pineland settlements became too inconvenient for the citizens to travel. On April 26, 1796, an election was held to determine whether the courthouse should be removed to a more central location in the county. This resulted in 101 votes for the removal to the North Newport Bridge and 48 against. By an act of the Georgia legislature, February 1, 1797, "a place to be called Riceborough" was designated as the new site for the courthouse and other public buildings. This was an important port from which the planters shipped large quantities of rice that made the name Riceborough appropriate.
For the courthouse and jail site, Matthew McAllister deeded to the Liberty County commissioners a lot 150 feet x 230 feet. This location is believed by some authorities to be near the river and the bridge, while others fix the site near Cedar Hill Plantation, the home of General Daniel Stewart. Appointed to serve as commissioners were Thomas Stevens, Daniel Stewart, Joel Walker and Henry Wood. This site was also referred to as North Newport Bridge, or "The Bridge." The spelling of Riceborough was later changed to Riceboro.
For forty years Riceborough was the center of political and commercial activity in the county. The Savannah-Darien road was improved and the Riceboro Inn was built to accommodate travelers on the stagecoach, which operated regularly, and for those on business at the courthouse. Among the famous visitors at the inn were Mrs. Basil Hall (Margaret Hunter), the author of The Aristocratic Journey, and her husband, Basil Hall, whose sketch of the inn was later copied as a design on fine china.
In the Riceborough area were several well known plantations. Montevideo, a rice plantation on the North Newport River, was owned by the Reverend Charles Colcock Jones, a noted minister and large landowner. He and his family spent the winters there. Cedar Hill, located nearer the town, was the home of General Daniel Stewart, of Revolutionary War fame, and Woodmanston, settled by John Eatton LeConte, at the headwaters of the South Newport River in St. John's Parish in 1760. It became well-known throughout the United States and Western Europe for its unusual collection of Camellia Japonica and for bulb-type plants in the gardens developed in 1810 by his son, Louis.
John and Joseph LeConte, sons of Louis, became noted scientists and educators. John became the first to be accorded the title of "president" of the University of California, at Berkeley, where he and Joseph had accepted faculty positions in 1869. The 3,354 acres in Woodmanston were inherited by the LeConte children, who lived elsewhere after 1869; consequently, the plantation house and gardens deteriorated, and the fields became grazing lands and forests for timber. (A later owner, Charles B. Jones, leased the lands to the Brunswick Pulp and Paper Company, and in 1977 the central area of the original Woodmanston, comprising 63.8 acres, was deeded by the Jones heirs and the Brunswick Company to the Garden Club of Georgia, Incorporated, for preservation and partial restoration, with particular emphasis on restoring the Louis LeConte Botanical and Floral Garden.)
Again the westward migration was being felt by the coastal settlements. The population of the interior outnumbered that of the coastal section. More communities were established, churches and schools were built, and the time had come again to consider the removal of the courthouse to a more centrally located site. In 1837, by an act of the legislature, Hinesville was made the county seat.
Riceboro did not die. It lost its importance as a port, but it gained a railroad and a station for shipping naval stores and timber that replaced rice, the once most important product of the low country.
Unlike Sunbury, this once thriving town did not become one of Georgia's dead towns, but it has held its own as the oldest existing town in Liberty County.