The southern tip of Georgia’s Saint Simons Island is a verdant park next to a friendly little town with great shops and some extraordinary restaurants. From the pier at the foot of the village, the view is across to Jekyll Island, and the passage between sometimes fills with looming super cargo ships passing by on their way in or out of Brunswick harbor.
Several small hotels and inns are nearby, and it’s only a short stroll or bike ride from the celebrated King and Prince Beach and Golf Resort about a mile up the road or up the beach.
There’s a playground area for kids of all ages, sweeping oaks and waterside benches looking across the way and out to sea. The famed Saint Simon’s Lighthouse stands guard there, with its tales of illicit love, violence and ghosts.
But it’s a tale of loyalty, transcendent friendship and bitter irony that defines the spirit of this place, known as Neptune Park.
In the 1830’s, the lower part of the island was owned by the King family, and operated as the Retreat Plantation. Like all plantations of the day, it was self-sustaining. The Kings grew their own food and raised their own livestock, and raised cash crops like cotton and indigo to sell or trade for the things they needed. Like all plantations, it was a place of wealth and power, and its labor was done by a small army of slaves.
It was the custom of the times, when a child was born to the owners of the plantation, for them to reach into their community of slaves and choose a young child to be a playmate and companion for their own child. When Henry Lord Page King was born in 1831, the King family took the slave baby Neptune Small into their house to be friend, playmate, and eventually manservant to young “Lordy” King.
The two boys grew to be fast friends. They did everything together. They hunted in the rich forests of the island. They fished and swam up the east beaches (where the King and Prince stands now, and up to where the old Coast Guard Station would later be built).
They took their lessons together, and although it was rigorously against the law, Mrs. King also taught Neptune to read and write. While Neptune was not free and in the service of his master, the relationship seems to have been more secured by friendship than slavery.
Lordy King grew up to study law and opened a practice in Savannah. On the plantation, Neptune married his true love and had a daughter.
The hostilities between the states broke out, and in 1861 Lordy King enlisted to fight. As was the custom amongst aristocratic families, the men took a manservant with them, and Neptune went north to serve his young man.
King fought valorously at the Peninsula in Richmond and at Sharpsburg, and witnessed the fall of Harper’s Ferry. He seemed invincible, and when a dangerous mission emerged, he was the first and only volunteer.
Lordy was the aide-de-camp of the commander of the division. During the battle at Fredericksburg in December 1862, orders needed to be carried across the battlefield to one of the Brigadier Generals. Instructing Neptune to stay at the camp, Lordy set off to deliver those orders. When night fell, Lordy King had not returned. In the black of night, Neptune went out onto the battlefield to find his friend, and found him killed.
At that point, Neptune was a free man. The law had emancipated him, and his ”owner” was dead. He could simply have walked away. Instead, Neptune Small gathered up the body of Lordy King, and braving the shells and fire of the battle, took him off the battlefield, built a coffin, found a wagon, and carried him from Fredericksburg, Virginia all the way home to Saint Simons Island.
Lordy’s younger brother Richard had enlisted, and Neptune went off to be his servant and protector. He was told that he could stay home with his family, but he refused.
When the war ended, Neptune returned, with Richard unharmed. But they returned to a devastated, destroyed Retreat Plantation, occupied and then razed by Union troops. There was no food and no money, but as recognition for his bravery and loyalty, the King family granted a parcel of land from the old plantation site to Neptune Small. He lived there until his death in 1907.
Lordy King and his family are buried at the cemetery at Christ Church, in a majestic family plot, like those of the other plantation and luminary families of Saint Simons Island. Neptune Small is buried at the former Retreat Plantation, presently the site of the Sea Island Golf Club.
A more fitting memorial, Neptune Park, is the former slave’s old homestead at the tip of Saint Simon’s Island. It stands in testament to the simple human attributes of loyalty and friendship honored by all men and women everywhere.
To learn more about the remarkable history of Saint Simons Island, and to see it for yourself, contact the King and Prince Beach and Golf Resort at www.KingandPrince.com.