Before European settler’s arrived on the coast of Georgia, two Native American groups thrived: The Guale and the Mocama. Both of these tribes stemmed from the larger Mississippian group. The Guale were primarily located on the northern end of St. Simons, whereas the Mocama were located at the southern tip of the island.
As early as 4000 BCE, Guale and Mocama Indians have been traced to inhabiting the island for periods of time, but it wasn’t until 2500 BCE that these tribes made the island a permanent residence. The barrier islands were a perfect match for the natives. With fish, crab, shrimp, and oysters, the islands were essentially an unlimited food supply. These natives made use of the Georgia’s marshlands — the most out of any state on the east coast.
The coastal Indians were very healthy people. They adorned their bodies with strings of shell beads that were worn around the neck, arms, wrists, and under the knees and ankles. They painted their bodies with bright red body paint, and wore their hair long. If the weather got cold, the men wore deerskin breechcloths and the women skirts made of moss.
When it was not fishing season, their diet included small game, such as raccoons, opossum and the white-tailed deer. They were also agricultural: they grew varieties of pumpkins, beans and corn. They also gathered nuts and berries from the land.
During spring and summer, the Indians gathered in villages and planted crops, hunted, and fished until harvest. The villages included granaries, a large communal structure, and shelters for extended families made of saplings and covered with palmetto fronds. The chiefs had dwellings larger than other tribesmen. They used animal bones and shells for tools.
Based on archaeological evidence, the Guale and the Mocama were frequent visitors to Jekyll Island, but never established permanent residences there.
European’s made contact with the Guale and Mocama as early as 1540, when Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto traveled up the Georgia Coast. Amidst Spain’s recent land claims in North America, French Protestants were facing religious persecution. To end the discontent in her country, the Queen of France decided to send Jean Ribault on a quest to look for land to create a potential colony. On this journey, Ribault came in contact with St. Simons Island and named it “Ile de Loire Rene Laudonnière” before claiming Florida for France. This dispute over land led to a quick battle between the Spanish of St. Augustine and the French of Fort Caroline. The Spanish came out victorious, and in order to prevent future issues, began to create alliances with the Native People.
Catholic missionaries began to pop up all over the southeastern seaboard, including St. Simons. San Buenaventura de Guadalquini was the name of the main mission on the south end of St. Simons Island. San Buenaventura was located near the current site of the lighthouse. Other mission sites included Santa Domingo de Asajo, San Simon, and Ocotonio.
Like most cases in with early European contact in the Americas, the native population in the area decreased drastically. New diseases from Europe were introduced to the Native Americans, decimating their populations by 95%. In 1683, English pirates began to ransack the Guale and Mocama areas, and San Buenaventura de Guadalquini was burned by these invaders. In response, natives on the island began to retreat inland, further from European contact and abandoning their past.