St. Marys River History

1857 St. Marys Map, credit: Brenda Sellers

Click image for larger view. Credit: Brenda Sellers

The Indians’ name for this river was THLATHLOTHLAGUPHKA or PHLAPHLAGAPHGAW, which means “Rotten Fish” but the white men couldn’t pronounce it. Jean Ribault (1520-65) upon finding it May 1, 1562, called it the SEINE. The present name originated from that of the early mission.

A remote blackwater stream, the St. Marys River is located in southeastern Georgia and northeastern Florida, forming the easternmost border between the two states.

The St. Marys begins deep within the Okefenokee Swamp and flows along a twisting 130-mile-long path into the Cumberland Sound and the Atlantic Ocean only 40-air miles from its headwaters.

The river, with its extensive marsh system, relative lack of urban development and few pollution discharge points, has generally excellent water quality. The lower portion of the St. Marys is tidally influenced, and Okefenokee reverse flows occur daily. Forests comprise a substantial portion of the entire basin area, much of which are managed tree plantations, and assist in maintaining good water quality.

From its cypress and bottomland hardwood swamps to its salt marshes and mud flats, the St. Marys Basin provides habitat for a diversity and abundance of animals and plants. Many native plant species are found in the basin, including cypress, yellow pine, gum, magnolia, maple, holly, poplar, willow, river birch and a variety of oaks.

Wildlife in this area includes deer, otter, beaver, raccoon, alligator, gopher tortoise, turkey and ribbon snakes. The middle portion of the river supports bear, panther, bobcat and the red-cockaded woodpecker.

The river has a rich history. Evidence of the Native American use of the St. Marys has been found along the river, although much about the area’s prehistory is still unknown and yet to be studied. The river was also home to the early Spanish settlers and is said to have been the scene of pirate activity.

The river played an active role in the settlement of northeast Florida and southeast Georgia. British occupation in the late 1700s brought commerce to the region as crops of cotton, indigo and rice were introduced. In the early territorial days of Florida, schooners and sloops traveled the river and in the late 1800s, steamers carried passengers, cargo and mail along the river, which had become an active shipping route for numerous lumber mills along its banks. This activity lasted until the early 1900s, when the mills closed their doors due to a lack of accessible timber, leaving the river to settle back and develop into its present tranquil state.

The St. Marys River offers many opportunities for recreation and sightseeing. Canoeing, boating, fishing, camping and water-skiing are just some of the ways to enjoy the river. The upper reaches of the St. Marys, the north and middle prongs, are narrow, twisting streams with good current and beautiful cypress and tupelo trees.

After the two prongs meet, the river becomes wider and is characterized by bluffs, swamps and snow-white sandbars. It is an excellent touring river because development along the banks is scattered and infrequent, and campsites are plentiful. Popular sportfish include redbreast sunfish, bluegill, largemouth bass and various catfish.

In addition to the Okefenokee Swamp at the river’s headquarters, other public land among the St. Marys is the Ralph E. Simmons Memorial State Forest.

The state forest encompasses more than 3,600 acres along the south bank of the river, northeast of the community of Boulogne. This property, managed by the St. Johns River Water Management District, ensures preservation of 6.7 miles of the St. Marys River shoreline.

The state forest also serves as habitat for numerous animals and as refuge for a number of rare and globally endangered plants. The state forest offers a diversity of recreational activities, including fishing, hiking bicycling, horseback riding, canoeing, bird-watching and seasonal hunting.

The St. Marys River Management Committee is a group of citizen volunteers that seeks the local management of the river and the development of a management plan to guide the river’s future. The committee was formed in 1991, when the river was being studied for inclusion in the Federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Program.

The committee consists of representatives of each of the four counties that border the river and predominately comprise the basin: Charlton and Camden counties in Georgia, Nassau and Baker counties in Florida. This group meets monthly as part of its river management planning process and sponsors the St. Marys River Clean-Up, an annual river clean-up held in March. In addition, the Georgia Department of Environmental Protection and the St. Johns River Water Management District are engaged in ongoing water quality monitoring and assessment efforts in the St. Marys River.


  • Georgia RIVER Network
  • Kenneth K. Krakow, Georgia Place Names: Their History and Origins
    (Macon, GA: Winship Press, 1994) 2000