Cannon's Point Ruins
The western side, today largely developed, is called Hampton Point, site of a vast former plantation owned by Major Pierce Butler. The eastern peninsula, Cannon’s Point, is strikingly different, largely devoid of human intrusion.
The name, Cannon’s Point, is not derived from either artillery or military history, but rather was named for Daniel Cannon, a master carpenter for Gen. James Oglethorpe at the colonial village of Frederica, who received the original land grant. Cannon built a modest house there and kept livestock on the property. After he moved away from the area in 1741, portions of the peninsula were owned by different people until 1793 when the tract was purchased by Scotsman John Couper who established a thriving plantation, including the large main house overlooking the Hampton River where he lived with his wife, Rebecca, for more than fifty years.
John Couper had immigrated to America from Scotland in 1775. In 1793 he and James Hamilton began to buy land on the Georgia coast to grow long-staple cotton, an important and profitable commodity which depended on slave labor for cultivation. The Cannon’s Point tract was prime cotton land with its sandy loam soil. In 1796, Couper moved his family to St. Simons to live in a modest one and one-half story cottage built by Cannon. In 1804, the Coupers moved into a handsome mansion: the ground floor was built of tabby with the wooden upper story-and-one-half painted white with green blinds. Broad steps led up to a wide piazza that surrounded the second story and provided a magnificent view of the Hampton River and the distant marshes.
With an astonishing aptitude for scientific agricultural experimentation, Couper developed long-staple sea island cotton to perfection, while adding an abundance of citrus trees, grapes for winemaking, exotic date palms from Persia and mulberry trees for silk production. Couper was one of the first coastal planters to experiment successfully with sugar cane.
At Cannon’s Point, Couper experimented with the cultivation of grapes, olives, sweet and sour oranges, lemons, dates (with trees imported from Persia), peaches, nectarines, apricots, plums and figs. At one point, Couper fenced in two acres and planted 128 peach, nectarine and apricot trees. Fruit trees were particularly susceptible to damage from storms. In 1810, Couper’s son John wrote to his sister Anne, who was at school in Charleston, “The hail storm committed sad devastation…. Instead of that variety and abundance . . . [of] plums, peaches, grapes, nectarines, which we were accustomed to have, we must be content with the figs, which as usual promise to be plentiful.”
At the urging of President Thomas Jefferson, in 1825 Couper imported 200 young olive trees from Provence, France. By 1831, he was producing “a little pretty good oil.” From the original trees, he grew 600 additional plants. His son, James Hamilton Couper, continued his father’s cultivation of olives, and by 1855, James wrote that his olive oil was judged to be in no way “inferior to the same kind made in Europe.” John Couper wrote articles about cultivation of olive trees in The Southern Agriculturist.
The Coupers were gracious hosts, and Cannon's Point was rarely without visitors. It was not unusual for guests to stay weeks or even months: one young couple came to spend their honeymoon on the plantation and stayed until the birth of their second child! Also contributing to the pleasures of a Cannon's Point visit were the legendary skills of the slave cook Sans Foix, who had no equal on the Georgia coast.
Couper sold four acres of his land in 1804 to the government for a token sum of one dollar in order to have a lighthouse built on the island to aid commerce in the Brunswick area. In April of 1807, his plan seemed to have worked as a notice appeared in the Savannah Advertiser soliciting a builder with sufficient skills to erect a lighthouse on the southern end of St. Simons Island. The plans called for a lighthouse constructed of brick in the form of an octagon, supported by a stone foundation, and secured by a substantial panel door with iron hinges. The rest of that story is well-documented history and the beacon from the tall white structure near the Village still burns brightly today.
John Couper died in 1850 and is buried at Christ Church, Frederica. By 1876 agriculture at Cannon’s Point had ceased. The plantation house burned to its tabby foundations near the turn of the century. Cannon’s Point passed through a number of subsequent owners and was purchased by Sea Island Company in 1971.
The preservation of the historic sites on Cannon’s Point provides an opportunity for interpreting the multi-layered plantation culture on St. Simons Island. While there were numerous plantations located on the island, all of the significant ones were on land that has now been subdivided and/or developed. Since little has happened at Cannon’s Point for the past 100 years, archaeological study of the ruins of plantation-era buildings will yield significant information about all facets of plantation life.
The St. Simons Land Trust recently announced the closing of the organization’s purchase of the undeveloped, 608-acre wilderness tract of Cannon’s Point. The sale transfers ownership of Cannon’s Point to the St. Simons Land Trust, a non-profit, membership-based organization that has worked to acquire and protect land and greenspaces on the coastal Georgia island since its founding in 2000. The Land Trust intends to manage the land as a publicly accessible wilderness preserve that will be protected by a conservation easement. The acquisition of Cannon’s Point quadruples the amount of protected land on the Island
Cannon's Point is the last intact maritime forest on St. Simons Island and is rich in cultural and natural history. The peninsula has over six miles of salt marsh, tidal creek and river shoreline that provide habitat for wildlife such as oysters, birds, fish, manatee and shellfish. Shell middens dating back to 2500 BCE are on the site, as are the remains of the large plantation home and slave quarters built by John Couper in the 1800s. A conservation easement on Cannon’s Point, an agreement that limits how the land can be used in the future while protecting its natural value, is held by The Nature Conservancy. “The Nature Conservancy has worked in Georgia since 1969, and our first land protection here was on the coast,” said Mark Abner, executive director for the Conservancy in Georgia. "Now the maritime forests and coastal wetlands of Cannon’s Point, and the salt marsh and tidal creeks that surround it, will be protected for future generations to enjoy. We're proud to play a role in ensuring a healthy future for these incredible lands and waters.”
“So much of the natural history that preceded us is being erased,” said Wendy Paulson. “This was not so much a financial venture as it was a collective and urgent mission to establish a preserve that protects the natural and cultural history of Georgia’s coast to ensure that ongoing generations can better understand and enjoy barrier island history and ecology. Saving places like Cannon’s Point helps define the kind of future we want to leave for those who follow us.”
Pete Correll, a partner in the project who grew up in nearby Brunswick, said, “Cannon’s Point is really two things: a wonderful piece of coastal property that needed to be preserved; but it also has historical significance. It’s important for the people of this area and our state to know that this is how Georgia grew up.”
The successful campaign launched by the St. Simons Land Trust to acquire and preserve the Cannon’s Point property shared something in common with the legacy of its former owner, John Couper: vision.