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Water bodies, watersheds and storm water

History of the St. Marys River

In decades past, both shipping and passenger craft plied the waters of the St. Marys River bound for destinations far upstream.

In decades past, both shipping and passenger craft plied the waters of the St. Marys River bound for destinations far upstream.

The history of the St. Marys River reaches back at least 13,000 years when the Timucuan Indians occupied the St. Marys River Basin. With its marsh, tidal, stream and estuary ecosystems, the basin provided the Timucuans with an ample source of food.

The 16th century heralded the appearance of European explorers, soldiers, missionaries and colonists. The Timucuans came into contact with Spanish settlers in 1537, then with French settlers in 1562. By 1763, the Timucuans disappeared from the area, due to warfare, disease and relocation during two and a half centuries of the colonial period.

During the 1600s and 1700s, Spanish and British explorers established settlements in the area and brought commerce to the region. Major crops included cotton, sugar cane, indigo and rice, which were shipped from river plantations to Europe. Longleaf yellow pine was harvested and used to mast Royal Navy ships and to frame mills in New England. During this period, schooners and sloops were used to transport cargo up and down the river.

In the late 1800s, steamers were introduced to the river, carrying passengers, cargo and mail. The St. Marys River was an active shipping route for numerous lumber mills located along its banks, such as at Coleraine, Kings Ferry and Crandell.

This logging activity lasted until the early 1900s, when the mills closed due to a lack of accessible timber. The St. Marys River then began to naturally rejuvenate itself and to develop into its present serene condition. Today, the river is popular for recreation and sightseeing.

In its current journey along Florida and Georgia, the St. Marys River undergoes three distinct physical changes on its path to the ocean. Its headwaters, from the Okefenokee Swamp (the north “prong”) and the Pinhook Swamp (the middle “prong”), are narrow and winding. Cypress and tupelo trees and white sandbars dominate the scenery. In the middle portion, from Traders Hill to the U.S. 17 bridge, the river widens and is rife with swamps and sandy bluffs. The lower portion of the river, from the U.S. 17 bridge to Cumberland Sound, is tidally influenced, with reverse flows occurring twice daily. Freshwater and saltwater marshes dominate this area.

Decaying peat and other vegetation from these swamps produce tannin, a naturally occurring, water-soluble organic compound. The tannin stains the waters to the color of coffee, making the St. Marys River a blackwater river.

Contact information

For information about the St. Marys River and the management committee, visit the committee’s website, or write to:

St. Marys River Management Committee
P.O. Box 251
Folkston, GA 31537


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