Lifestyle, Habits, and Current Events

The lifestyle of Saint Johns Parish residents just before the Revolutionary War was quite good if they were wealthy, and miserable if they were poor. And there were many poor people in Saint Johns Parish at that time.


The wealthy enjoyed iced drinks nearly all summer long. Ships got the ice from polar caps, cut it into blocks, and packed it in sawdust. They sold it along the Georgia coast during the winter months, and plantation families seldom ran out of the precious commodity before late August.


The favorite libation in Saint Johns Parish just before the Revolutionary War was apple cider. Imported rum, brandy, and wine were available for sale at Sunbury. The poor, and the slaves secretly, made a type of beer known as “skippy” from the skimmings of cane juice being boiled to make syrup, and another type of beer from corn meal and unre­fined sugar. Both had a low-alcohol content, but the latter could be distilled and what resulted was whiskey with a high-alcohol content later known as “moonshine.” The wealthy, the poor, and the slaves secretly made wine and brandy from grapes and fruit grown in the parish.


A large iron, covered pot filled with meat stew was kept simmering near the kitchen fireplace at all times in most homes for quick snacks between meals. Since it was impos­sible to keep cooked meats and vegetables without refriger­ation during the hot months, leftovers from meals were tossed into the pot to keep them from spoiling. That mix­ture eventually became known as “Brunswick Stew.”


Saint Johns Parish by 1774 had a well-developed system of public roads and bridges built by the parish plantation owners with slave labor. The planters and their families used handsome carriages to travel about, and there was a great deal of visiting with each other, and “with other plantation families residing along the Ogeechee and Altamaha rivers.


The pace of life in Sunbury by 1774 was brisk and excit­ing. Roughly one-fourth of all vessels making port in Georgia came to Sunbury. It was a large town and there was quite a bit of entertainment for visitors. There were well-stocked general stores, billiard rooms, pubs, gambling of various types, rooms and women for rent, and a cosmopolitan atmos­phere caused by the ocean traffic. When several vessels docked at Sunbury at the same time, the town was boisterous and unruly. Watchmen employed by the wharf owners kept, or restored, order when things got out of hand.


There was a ready market for what Saint Johns Parish produced on its plantations, and its plantation owners were wealthy by any standard. Some of them were newcomers who found that to be a part of high society in Saint Johns Parish, they had to become members of, or support, the Meeting House, and adopt, or condone its principles of Puritanism. If they did so it is more than likely that they were soon adopted as “one of us” by the church congrega­tion.


All of the popular music in Saint Johns Parish in 1774 originated in England. There was “Robin Adair” published in 1750; “Sally in Our Alley” popularized in 1715; “Softly Rise, 0 Southern Breeze” from 1743, and a humorous tune sung by many a wandering minstrel called “Tobacco’s but an Indian Weed,” which was popular in the American colon­ies as early as 1700.


The plantation families of Saint Johns Parish were aware of popular music, but preferred religious or classical music at their social gatherings. They were all well educated in classical music, and some of their most beloved religious songs dated back more than 100 years. Spinets, forerunners of the piano, were commonplace in Saint Johns Parish drawing rooms by 1774.


There was widespread illiteracy among the poor people of Saint Johns Parish before and after the Revolutionary War. But the plantation families read the best literature available, and in time produced some well-known writers themselves.


Saint Johns Parish until 1763 depended on a newspaper printed in Charleston, South Carolina, for its news and com­mercial advertisements. It was on April 17, 1763, that the Georgia Gazette was established at Savannah, Georgia. It then became the newspaper the people of Saint Johns Parish read and used for its commercial advertisements.


The Georgia Gazette was at first printed on a new long primer type, on a foolscap sheet, folio, two columns to a page, and was issued each Wednesday. It was not much of a newspaper compared to the publications of 1984. But it is safe to say that the people of Saint Johns Parish received it within two days after publication, and read it avidly.


There was a considerable turnover of property in Saint Johns Parish in the years just before the Revolutionary War. Each week there would be advertisements in the Georgia Gazette for property in the parish for sale. An advertisement by Nathaniel Hall, for example, in the newspaper for January 10, 1774, offered a tract of land for sale in the parish “a great part of which is situated about four miles from the Great Ogeechee River, and ten miles from Midway landing, adjoin­ing land of James Graham.” Another advertisement in the edition of the Georgia Gazette for February 16, 1774, offered for sale, 800 acres of “barren pine land conveniently located for supply of merchants at Sunbury.”


Each edition of the Georgia Gazette carried advertisements of rewards offered for the return of this or that runaway slave, some of them as far distant as New Orleans, Louisiana. One legal notice said that on a certain date “a house wench and her child, the property of Mary Bateman, deceased, will be sold at Sunbury by John Baker and Robert Smallwood, executors of the estate.”


It was in the edition of the Georgia Gazette for January 10, 1774, that Saint Johns Parish first heard of the Boston Tea Party. The story was written in a matter-of-fact style, probably to avoid a confrontation between the newspaper publisher and colonial authorities in Savannah. The news was of great interest to the Midway people, because some of them had acquaintances residing in the Boston area.


Plantation society in Saint Johns Parish in 1774 was cen­tered in Sunbury and Bermuda Island. The more affluent families owned townhouses in Sunbury and maintainedplantations and homes on Bermuda Island and elsewhere in the parish. They traveled to Savannah, Georgia, at least twice a year for social and business reasons. Parish planters often gathered for political and social reasons at a tavern and inn named the “White House” on the south bank of the Ogee­chee River at Kings Ferry crossing.


People who owned little more than the clothes on their back started drifting into Saint Johns Parish on foot a few years before the Revolutionary War. They squatted on the backwoods property of other people, cleared small fields which they tilled by hand, hunted and fished to supplement their meager diet, and lived in log huts they built themselves. They trapped animals and sold the skins in Sunbury for that which they could not produce themselves. It appears that their only ambition was simply to survive.


Since so many plantation children in Saint Johns Parish in the years leading up to the Revolutionary War attained greatness as adults, it is interesting to study the manner in which they were reared. There were no public or private schools in Saint Johns Parish, so the plantation owners em­ployed tutors, either individually or collectively, to teach their children.


Most of the plantation children in Saint Johns Parish were part of a very religious environment, so it may be assumed that they were introduced to religious literature very early in life. In addition to the Holy Bible, there were other guides used by their parents in the rearing of their offspring.


A book of rules of etiquette titled “The Mirror of Com­pliments” was published in England in 1635. A revised edition of the book was printed in America in 1774. Both editions were used by the affluent in Saint Johns Parish in the rear­ing of their children. These are some of the phrases in the book taught to the children:


“Sir, you shall oblige me very much if you will do me the honor to take my poor dinner with me.”

“Sir, you are too courteous and persuasive to be refused, and therefore I shall trouble you.”

“Sir, pray excuse your bad entertainment at the present table, and another time we will endeavor to make your amends.”

“Truly, sir, it has been very good, without defects, and needs no excuse.”


A book titled “Grammar Schools” was published in Eng­land in 1612, and was used by affluent parents in Saint Johns Parish in the rearing of their children. One rule in the book had to do with the conduct of the children when they were sent off to schools in cities:

“Run not hastily in the street, nor go very slowly. Wag not to and fro, nor use any antic postures either of thy head, hands, feet, or body. Throw not aught on the street, as dirt and stones. If thou meetest the scholars of any other school jeer not nor affront them, but show them love and respect and quietly let them pass along.”


In homes of the affluent of Saint Johns Parish in 1774, children were never seated at the dining table with their elders. They stood at a side-table with their plates and uten­sils. After the blessing had been said at the main table, the children brought their plates to their parents and politely asked for food. They took what was given them without comment, and returned to their side-table and ate their food in complete silence.


Another rule of etiquette for children in affluent families of Saint Johns Parish in 1774 went like this: “When any speak to thee, stand up. Say not that I have heard it before. Never endeavor to help him out if he tells it not right. Snig­ger not; never question the truth of it.”


There were still other books in 1774 designed to help affluent Americans rear their children properly. The children were expected to always obey their parents, and never act contrary to rules in the guides. It is little wonder that the affluent children of Saint Johns Parish developed into adults with perfect manners.


Agriculture in Saint Johns Parish by 1774 had broadened considerably in scope. The settlers of the Midway District raised only rice for export. But the 1774 residents of Saint Johns Parish exported a variety of agricultural and forest products. They also exported large numbers of livestock, and barrels of meat preserved in salt, which they produced from ocean water.


While barns for farm animals were often attached to the main house in many parts of the Northern colonies, housing for such animals in Saint Johns Parish was always built away from the main house. There was usually a loft in the barn used for the storage of hay and grain, and to facilitate the feeding of farm animals lodged below. Outhouses were built on the plantation for the storage of grain and dried vegetables until they were exported or consumed.


Mills to grind corn into meal were centrally located in Saint Johns Parish and used by several plantations, since one mill could accomplish more than one plantation required. Such community mills, always water powered, continued to be used in coastal Georgia until World War II. All of the plan­tations in Saint Johns Parish grew sugar cane. And each plantation had a horse-powered mill for the production of syrup and unrefined sugar. The production of rice for home consumption or export was all done by hand.