Savannah history, shaped by fascinating people and dramatic, and often times tragic events, is rich, colorful and compelling.
In 1733, General James Oglethorpe, and 114 men women and children aboard the two hundred-ton galley ship “Anne” landed on a high bluff along the Savannah River called Yamacraw Bluff by the local Creek Indians. Chief Tomo-chi-chi, a tall, ageless Indian, and his wife Senauki were there to greet the settlers on their arrival. The gentle and civilized Indians, with painted faces, sliced ears and tattooed skin, pledged their friendship and granted the colonists permission to settle on the bluff. Oglethorpe and the chief became lifelong friends. The Yamacraw Indians would prove instrumental to the success of Savannah, and the town flourished without the warfare and hardship suffered by so many of the other colonies.
Oglethorpe named the thirteenth colony Georgia after King George II, and Savannah became the first city. Under the charter, the colony was to benefit the poor, increase trade, and to provide a protective buffer between the northern English colonies and the Spanish in Florida. The last and poorest of the colonies would serve as a religious haven for all but Catholics who were originally banned from the new colony.
The Trustees selected only those were not able to support themselves in England. The colonists had to agree to stay for three years, spending the first year on public works. They had to plant 100 mulberry trees on every ten acres of their land to feed silkworms, an industry that never materialized. They could claim no more than 50 acres of land and it could not be sold or mortgaged and only inherited by a son.
No Slaves, No Liquor, No Lawyers!
In 1734, the only three formal laws ever enacted during the 21-year trust period were laws against:
1. The Importation and Use of Rum and Brandies. Oglethorpe tried to curb strong spirits, but permitted ale, beer and wine.
2. The Importation and use of Black Slaves or Negroes. Oglethorpe believed slavery would create an idle upper class, “destroy all industry among the White inhabitants” and would create a potential for violent uprisings. Many of the colonists believe that slaves were necessary for the cultivation of Georgia and the work too difficult. Still the ban was upheld until 1750.
3. A Statute requiring compliance with the Law for Maintaining Peace with the Indians.
Lawyers were also banned from 1733 to 1755. Georgia was to be “free from that pest and scourge of mankind called lawyers.” Oglethorpe and the Trustees detested them, believing each colonist was capable of pleading his own case.
Oglethorpe and his engineers designed “America’s first planned city” around a system of wards and shady public squares, which were used for public services and as meeting places. Homes and shops were built on the town lots, while the larger trust lots facing the squares east and west were reserved for churches and other public buildings. The squares provided for good defense and an equal division of labor. Savannah’s historic squares have been designated as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.
Forty-two Jewish refugees arrived on July 11, 1733, having fled persecution in Portugal. The colonists welcomed them, especially when they learned there was a doctor among them, for their own doctor had recently died. Most of the Jewish families settled in the area of Ellis Square. Descendents of two of the families; the Sheftalls and Minis’s, are prominent Savannah families today. The Mickve Israel synagogue now sits on Monterey Square and houses the South’s oldest Jewish congregation, the third founded in America. A marble monument at the corner of Bull and Oglethorpe Street marks the site of the original Jewish burial ground established by Oglethorpe in 1733. Over the next ten years, thousands of colonist from many different countries and faiths came to Georgia to start a new life including Moravians and Salzburgers from Germany, Scottish Highlanders, French Huguenots, Irish Catholics, Italians, Greeks and Swiss.
Most of the Georgia colonists embraced the revolution and colonial insurgents took the city at the outset of the war. However, British forces easily recaptured Savannah in 1778 with the help of a slave who reportedly showed the troops a secret passage behind the American lines. In October 1779, American Patriots, assisted by their French allies, tried to recapture Savannah with a French fleet of 22 vessels and 4000 soldiers. After a four day bombardment and a furious direct assault, the allies were forced to abandon the siege. The battle was the second bloodiest of the war with 264 British losses, 600 French losses, and 600 American losses. American forces included Count Casimir Pulaski, the Polish adventurer who was Washington’s first cavalry commander, and Sergeant William Jasper, a hero of 1776 battle of Charleston. Jasper was wounded in the fighting and would die here with hundreds of others. Mortally wounded while leading a desperate charge, Count Pulaksi died several days later aboard a ship and was buried at sea. Both have been memorialized with their own beautiful monuments on Monterey and Madison squares.
Nathanael Greene Monument
Finally liberated in 1782 by forces under the command of Rhode Islander Nathanael Greene, Lieutenant Colonel James Jackson and his Georgia Legion were given the honor of entering the deserted streets of Savannah to receive the keys to the city on July 11, 1782.
In 1793, a tutor and Yale graduate named Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin at Mulberry Grove, a Savannah plantation owned by Revolutionary War hero, Nathanael Greene. The cotton gin revolutionized the cotton industry and cotton production soared. “King Cotton” became Savannah’s dominant export crop. In 1790 Savannah exported 1000 bales of cotton, but by 1820, they were exporting ninety thousand bales a year.
During the 18th century, factors and traders had conducted their business from the decks of ships and the wharves along the river. Now warehouses and offices were built at the foot of the bluff, tall enough to rise to the level of the town, connected to Bay Street by wooden bridges and cast-iron arches. Four generations of Savannah merchants would erect counting houses and warehouses along the river, creating a fascinating group of buildings – called “Factors Walk” – devoted to the nineteenth century cotton trade.
Rich merchants wanted fancy homes and builders and architects were only too happy to comply. Noted among the builders were Adrien Boucher, a builder from New York, Isaac Robins from Maine, John Holden Greene of Rhode Island, Amos Scudder from New Jersey, and Isaiah Davenport from Rhode Island.
Twenty-three-year old architect William Jay arrived in 1818 from London. He stayed in Savannah for seven years before returning home. The buildings that he designed in Savannah are architectural masterpieces and include such homes as the Owens-Thomas House, the Scarborough House, and the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences. Many others were destroyed over the years.
The Scarborough House was built for William Scarborough, a wealthy English merchant. He and 21 others bought a ship built in New York, a sailing ship with paddle-wheel steam power. This was not the first ship to be powered by steam but it would be the first to make an ocean crossing. After giving a ride to President Monroe on his visit to Savannah, the SS Savannah sailed for Liverpool on May 22, 1819, a record-beating 29 days and 11 hours. Two years later the SS Savannah was pounded to pieces in a gale on the shores of Long Island.
Savannah would face one of the darkest periods of her history in 1820. On January 11, a fire broke out in a livery stable behind a boarding house off Bryan Street. By the next afternoon Savannah was in ashes from Bay to Broughton and Jefferson to Abercorn. Two-thirds of the population were burned out of their homes. Arson was suspected and two Spaniards from Florida were said to have later confessed. Some 463 buildings were destroyed and damage was estimated at $5,000,000. An earlier fire in 1796 had destroyed 229 houses and 146 outbuildings. Unfortunately, few buildings remain from the early period.
On May 1820, the first the deaths from yellow fever were recorded. By December of that year, 666 Savannahians, over one-tenth of her population were dead. Although 1820 is associated with the Year of the Yellow Fever, more than 4000 people had died from the fever from 1807 to 1820. Nine more epidemics would follow. In 1856, 560 people died and in 1876, another 1,066 Savannahians died from yellow fever.
In January 1861, Georgia became the fifth state to secede from the United States, and in March, a convention at Savannah ratified the constitution of the new Confederate States of America. Local militia units, including the Chatham Artillery, Georgia Hussars, Jasper Greens, Phoenix Riflemen and Oglethorpe Light Infantry, were now joined by colorful new outfits like the Rattle Snakes and Hyenas. Young boys enlisted in the Savannah Cadets.
After the state of New York refused to release a shipment of guns to the South, Georgia Governor Joseph Brown ordered all New York vessels in the port of Savannah seized. In retaliation, a Federal fleet of 41 vessels sailed to South Carolina and landed just 25 miles from Savannah in October 1861. Federal cannons breached the walls of Fort Pulaski after only a few hours of bombardment, and the Confederate forces surrendered. That would be the last of the fighting in the area around Savannah.
In May 1864, General William T. Sherman began his famous March to the Sea. Following the tracks of the railroad running from Chattanooga to Atlanta to Macon and Savannah, Sherman and his 62,000 soldiers left a wake of destruction, 30 miles wide and 300 miles long. By December, the Union army reached the outskirts of Savannah.
When Federal troops drew near, local commanders prepared to abandon the city. Three river gunboats were sent to the river to protect Confederate communications and supply lines. Ships and shipyards were destroyed, and Confederate troops retreated across the river into South Carolina over pontoon bridges.
On Dec. 21, 1864 Federal troops marched unopposed into the City of Savannah. A prison camp was set up on Bay Street and temporary quarters were erected in the squares. The following day, Charles Green, a wealthy English cotton merchant, hoping to buy Sherman’s good will and keep his inventory of cotton safe from confiscation, offered his mansion on Madison Square for military headquarters. It was here that Sherman penned his famous message to President Lincoln…“I beg to present to you, as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah, with one hundred and fifty guns and plenty of ammunition and also about 25,0000 bales of cotton.” It appears that Sherman occupied Green’s home, now known as the Green-Meldrim House, until he left for Beaufort, South Carolina, on the 21st of January, 1865.
The Port of Savannah flourished after the Civil War. Cotton again proved to be Savannah’s salvation, and it remained the most important single commodity shipped across Savannah’s wharves. In 1886-1887, the Cotton Exchange was constructed as a world center for the cotton trade. But by the early 1890s hard times were back. Cotton production increased and prices started falling. To make matters worse, in 1915, the cotton-destroying boll weevil invaded Georgia and eventually destroyed half of the state’s cotton.
By the 1920s King Cotton was dead. Then came the Depression, which followed the stock market crash of 1929. WWII helped end the Depression, and the military buildup saved the economy, but the growth came to a halt with the war’s end. Property values plummeted and stately homes degraded into slums.
The city faced destruction in the 1950s as a number of architecturally significant buildings were demolished. Old buildings were replaced with parking garages, gas stations and vacant lots. In 1954, the old City Market was demolished and replaced with a steel and concrete parking deck. There was even discussion abut opening up the squares to traffic, and paving traffic lanes through the center of the squares.
When the Davenport House was threatened in 1955, seven local women formed the Historic Savannah Foundation and raised $22,500 to purchase and preserve the historic home that was to be turned into a parking lot for a nearby funeral home. In 1964, the foundation established a revolving fund to purchase and resell endangered properties, saving them from demolition until private owners could be found to restore them. Still many homes were lost and streets were closed.
In 1966 the area from East Broad Street to Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. and from the Savannah River to Gaston Street was officially designated a Historic Landmark District. It is one of the largest such areas in the United States with thousands of architecturally significant buildings in the 2.2 square mile area including many examples of Federal, Victorian, Regency and Italianate architecture.
Preservation efforts continued. In the 1970s, millions of dollars were invested in the revitalization and restoration of the historic riverfront. The founding and success of the Savannah College of Art and Design in 1978 lead to the preservation of more than 40 buildings in the historic district. Today most of the historic district has been “restored” to its former glory. Some critics complain that there has been too little attention to detail and authenticity, and that many builders have succumbed to the temptation to make the buildings appear older and grander than they really are – or were. But a local tour guide claims that is just part of the charm of Savannah.
Despite all of the preservation and restoration efforts in the historic district, Savannah remained relatively unknown until 1994 when a book was published that turned Savannah into one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country. John Berendt’s bestselling book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, revealed a side of Savannah that everyone wanted to experience for themselves. While the book focuses on the murder trial of Jim Williams, a prominent antiques dealer, it draws attention to some of Savannah’s more unusual characters and social traditions. The book was made into a movie, directed by Clint Eastwood, and filmed in Savannah. It is doubtful that there has ever been another book with a greater impact on an American City. Tourists from all over the world flock to Savannah to see all the places mentioned in “the book.” An estimated 6 million people visit Savannah every year.
Isn’t it time you visited Historic Savannah?
Most of the tour buses and shuttles stop at or near Savannah history attractions. For more information: Savannah Tours