The first known residents of Liberty County, which includes Saint Catherines Island. were Guale (pronounced "walley") Indians. They were an agricultural people, and part of a confederacy of Indian tribes of the Muscogeon family which occupied a part of Alabama and Georgia by 1500.
Pedro Menendez, the Spanish explorer, founded Saint Augustine, Florida, in 1566. He then explored Saint Catherines Island, negotiated with the Indian leader Guale, and arranged for military and religious settlements on the island and at other places along the Georgia coast.
Mendez de Aviles, a Jesuit priest, and Spanish troops from Saint Augustine then established a presidio and the Santa Cantalina de Guale Mission on Saint Catherines Island. This marked the first time that anyone other than Indians had ever resided in Liberty County.
Puritan separatists from the Church of England, some of them residing in Holland. left Plymouth. England, in 1620 aboard the ship May flower and landed in Massachusetts at what today is referred to as Plymouth Rock. Ten years later 140 of these same Puritans, some of them from Dorchester, England, arrived in Massachusetts aboard the ship Mary and John and founded Dorchester. Five years later 125 of the residents of Dorchester, Massachusetts, founded Windsor, Connecticut. Churches established by the three groups were of the Congregational denomination, whose doctrines were first stated by Robert Browne in the sixteenth century, and held that each church should have complete autonomy.
It was in 1733 that the Province of Georgia was founded by James Edward Oglethorpe, a member of the British parliament, and a group of English settlers for a commercial company whose trustees had been granted a charter for the purpose by King George II. The province was named in his honor. Three years later, a trail about 70 miles long and about 15 miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean, was cut south from Savannah to coastal islands south of the Altamaha River, the southern boundary of the grant made by King George II to establish the Province of Georgia. The trail was cut primarily to facilitate the construction and maintainance of fortifications to defend the Province of Georgia against incursions by Spanish military forces in East Florida.
Oglethorpe in 1740 led an expedition to drive the Spanish from East Florida and their headquarters at Saint Augustine. The Spanish pushed the British north to the southernmost defenses of the Province of Georgia, where Oglethorpe won a victory at the Battle of Bloody Marsh in 1742. Oglethorpe retained his southernmost fortifications, while the Spanish remained in East Florida.
It was at about this time that a river in what would become Liberty County got its name. It was a feeder to the Atlantic Ocean and may have been named the Midway River because it was about half the way between Savannah and a settlement of Scots named New Inverness, which later became Darien. Or, it may have been named the Medway River after a tributary by the same name in England. It gradually became known only as the Midway River.
The Province of Georgia was at first divided into districts. The Midway District, named for the Midway River, extended from the Ogeechee River to the North Newport River along the coast of the Atlantic Ocean and about 20 miles inland. By 1748 grants of land had been made in the Midway District to Mark Carr, William Carr, Middleton Evans. Seth Place, Audley Maxwell, Alexander Herron, Charles West, Patrick Southerland, Kenneth Baillie, Alexander Baillie, Isaac Lines, William Hester, and the parents of Richard Howley, all of whom established plantations on their grants of land.
It was illegal for residents of the Province of Georgia to own slaves. But some of the residents owned plantations and slaves in South Carolina and used their slaves on their Georgia plantations. For other important reasons, but chiefly that having to do with slaves, the population of the Province of Georgia dwindled as its residents moved to other colonies where slavery was legal. In 1749 trustees of the Province of Georgia yielded to pressure from various directions and permitted the introduction of slaves into Georgia.
The Province of Georgia was from the beginning subsidized by the British Parliament, which saw Georgia as a source of inexpensive products then being imported by England from other countries of the world. When such products were not forthcoming, it declined to furnish any more funds for the venture. Trustees of the Province of Georgia surrendered their charter to King George lIon June 23, 1752, a year before it automatically expired. The Province of Georgia then became the thirteenth and last of the British colonies in America.
While all of the foregoing was happening, events were taking place in South Carolina and Massachusetts, and connected with those Puritans who established Dorchester, Massachusetts, which would eventually guide the destiny of that part of coastal Georgia which would become Liberty County.
William Norman.:' on September 22, 1684, was granted 320 acres of land about 17 miles up the Ashley River from Charleston, South Carolina. It is more than likely that persons from either Massachusetts or Connecticut, or both, migrated to this same area over the years who strongly identified with the Puritans who established Dorchester, Massachusetts." Most likely because of this influence, Norman applied to what is now known as the First Parish Church in Dorchester, Massachusetts, for a pastor and persons to help him establish a village and house of worship on his land in South Carolina.
The church granted Norman his wish and on October 20, 1695, "dismissed" or "transferred" Joseph Lord, Increase Sumner, and William Pratt to help establish the proposed church and village in South Carolina.
Joseph Lord (1672-1748) was a native of Charles Town, Massachusetts, and a graduate of Harvard College, founded by the General Court of Massachusetts in 1636. He was teaching school and studying theology in Dorchester, Massachusetts. at the time Norman made his request. Lord was ordained a minister by the First Parish Church in Dorchester, Massachu setts, on October 22, 1695, for the purpose of becoming pastor of the new church in South Carolina.
Five other members of the First Parish Church in Dorchester, Massachusetts, agreed to help establish the proposed village and church in South Carolina. They were Joshua Brooks, Nathaniel Billings, and Simon Daken of Concord, William Adams of Sudbury, and George Foxe of Reading, all in Massachusetts. Brooks, Billings, Foxe , and Daken apparently came to South Carolina, helped establish the village and church, and then returned to their homes in Massachusetts, since there is no record that they ever owned land in the village they came south to found.
Records of the First Parish Church in Dorchester, Massachusetts, dated February 2, 1696, say that the celebration of the Lords Supper was first observed in South Carolina by the group from Massachusetts led by Norman and Reverend Lord. The same story was told by Reverend Cyrus Gildersleeve, pastor of Midway Church, in a sermon he delivered in 1797. The information is incorrect. There were several churches in Charleston, South Carolina, in which the communion had been repeatedly celebrated years before the establishment of Dorchester, South Carolina.
Early accounts of the establishment of Dorchester, South Carolina, say that the village was located in a wilderness populated only by Indians. This, too, is incorrect. An entry in records of the First Parish Church in Dorchester, Massachusetts, dated November 1, 1696, says that "Deacon Sumner's wife and family and his brother Samuel Sumner and his wife and family, with Peter O'Kelly and his wife and six children" were dismissed from the church "to Christ Church near Newington in South Carolina (since called Dorchester)." Newington was the name given to the plantation of Rebecca Axtell, widow of Langrave (Governor) Axtell, who settled in the area some time before.
The area into which the Massachusetts group went was rather well populated. As a matter of fact, Rebecca Axtell gave considerable assistance to the group after it arrived, as did others who had been residing in the area for years. The name of "Christ Church" appears to have been one the First Parish Church in Dorchester, Massachusetts, arbitrarily bestowed on the new house of worship since it was never known by any name other than the White Meeting House.
After William Norman and his group arrived in South Carolina, a commission was named to establish the village and church. Members of the commission were Alexander Skene, Walter Uzard, Thomas Diston , Samuel Wragg, John Can tey, Thomas Waring, and Jacob Saltur.
For about two years there appears to have been considerable indecision, for various reasons, about where the church and village would be located. The commission apparently did not find Norman's land suitable for the purpose. The indecision ended in 1699 when John Stevens was granted land for the specific purpose of locating the village and church. The village and church were built on the Stevens property.
John Stevens became one of the leading figures in the new settlement known first as Bosso and then Dorchester, and a house of worship known as the White Meeting House because it was painted white. It was located about two miles from the main village.
While all of this was taking place, Aaron Way Sr., Aaron Way Jr., William Way, Moses Way, and Samuel Way migrated from Dorchester, Massachusetts, to Dorchester, South Carolina. They were among the first persons to own lots in the new village. Other persons who secured original lots in the village were Reverend Joseph Lord, Increase Sumner, William Pratt, William Adams, Samuel Sumner, Michael Bacon, John Simmons, Abraham Gorton, Thomas Osgood, Job Chamberlain, John Hill, Thomas Saltur, Peter Savey , Joseph Brunson, John Hawks, David Batcheler, John Kitchen, Thomas Graves, Robert Winn , Stephen Dowse, and Isaac Brunson. It may be assumed that all of those gentlemen and their families were members of the White Meeting House. There were. however, several original lots in the village owned by persons who had no connection whatsoever with the White Meeting House.
By 1706, Dorchester, South Carolina, was a bustling trading post with a population of about 350, many of them not connected with the White Meeting House, and not related in any way with the original settlers of the town. As the town became overpopulated, many of its residents obtained land farther up and across the Ashley River, especially in a section known as Beech Hill. It was there that a branch house of worship of the White Meeting House was established. The two churches used the same pastor.
In was in 1706 that the Church in England was established in South Carolina. Six parishes were created, and Dorchester was in Saint Andrews Parish. The Yemassee Indian War broke out in 1715, but it never reached Dorchester. In 1719, Saint Andrews Parish was divided and the upper portion, including Dorchester, became a part of Saint George Parish. In 1723, a fair and market was created, and in 1734, a free school was established in Dorchester. In the latter year the Ashley River was cleared for greater commercial traffic. A bridge across the Ashley River alongside Dorchester had already been built.
Reverend Joseph Lord remained as pastor of the White Meeting House until 1720, when he returned to Massachusetts forever. There is no evidence that the congregation of the White Meeting House even sought a Congregational minister to replace Reverend Lord. It chose instead, Reverend Hugh Fisher, a Presbyterian minister who emigrated from Scotland to South Carolina, and was a leading figure in the Presbytery of South Carolina. The White Meeting House remained a Congregational church, but with a Presbyterian pastor.
By 1752, only a few families in the Dorchester-Beech Hill area could claim any connection whatsoever to the first house of worship and the original settlers of Dorchester, Massachusetts. The other residents, a majority of the population, came from various ancestors from various places. Some were old and some were new residents of South Carolina.
Members of the White Meeting House and its branch church at Beech Hill shared a common bond, and that was a tenet of the Congregational denomination known as puritanism. They considered themselves to be denominational successors to the 140 Puritans who in 1630 established the First Parish Church in Dorchester, Massachusetts.
In an article titled "A New Errand: Massachusetts Puritans and the Founding of Dorchester, South Carolina," in the Bulletin of the Congregational Library, Boston, Massachusetts, Volume 28, Number 2, Winter 1977, Francis J. Bremer, the author of the article said:
"Dorchester, abandoned by the Congregationalists, retained its importance for a brief period. It was the third largest in the colony at the outbreak of the American Revolution, but shortly thereafter began a precipitous decline. The departure of the Congregational church had deprived the town of an important core of citizens who valued and tried to sustain community life. The expansion of the frontier and the development of new routes of travel and communication further undermined the town, which was eventually abandoned by the last of its residents."
Bremer had this to say about the persons who migrated to Georgia and settled in what would become Liberty County:
"In 1754 they organized themselves into the Midway and Newport Society. Signed on 28 April 1754, their covenant began with a declaration of purpose "We the Subscribers settled on Midway and Newport in Georgia ... being willing to lay a Foundation by the Blessing of God, of Peace and Harmony among ourselves and unoffensiveness to all our Neighbors.' There in Georgia they recreated the political and religious institutions of New England and the economic and racial patterns of plantation South Carolina."
From "Sweet Land of Liberty, A History of Liberty County, Georgia" by Robert Long Groover; Page(s) 1-3; Used by the permission of the Liberty County Commissioners Office