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History of Savannah, Georgia

The city of Savannah, Georgia, the largest city and the county seat of Chatham County, Georgia, was established in 1733 and was the first colonial and state capital of Georgia. It is known as America's first planned city and attracts millions of visitors who enjoy the city's architecture and historic structures such as the birthplace of Juliette Gordon Low (founder of the Girl Scouts of the United States of America), the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences (one of the South's first public museums), the First African Baptist Church (one of the oldest black Baptist congregations in the United States), Temple Mickve Israel (the third oldest synagogue in America), and the Central of Georgia Railway roundhouse complex (the oldest standing antebellum rail facility in America). Today, Savannah's downtown area is one of the largest National Historic Landmark Districts in the United States (designated in 1966).

Historical timeline

Native settlers

Although Savannah was the first permanent English settlement in Georgia, it was far from the first European encroachment into Yamasee/Creek/Guale lands. As early as the 16th century, Spanish missions and presidios (military outposts) were established all along the Georgia coast. Spanish missions such as Santa Catalina de Guale and Santo Domingo de Talaje, attacked and weakened by the Guale Revolt of 1597, were finally abandoned by the 1680s as a result of continuous encroachment by traders from the Carolina Lowcountry. Hoping to capitalize on the power vacuum created by the Spanish withdrawal to Florida, the British Crown allied itself with the native bands on the Georgia coast, such as the Yamasee, a relatively new Indian group made up of remnants of earlier groups including the Guale.
The Yamacraws, a Native American tribe, were the first known people to settle in and around Savannah. In the 18th century AD under their leader Tomochici, they met the newly arriving European settlers.

Arrival of the British

In November 1732, the ship Anne sailed from Britain carrying 114 colonists, including General James Oglethorpe. On February 12, 1733, Oglethorpe and his settlers landed at Yamacraw Bluff and, in an example of some of the earliest "Southern hospitality", were greeted by Tomochici, the Yamacraws, and John and Mary Musgrove, Indian traders. (Mary Musgrove often served as a translator.) The city of Savannah was founded on that date, along with the colony of Georgia. Because of the friendship between Oglethorpe and Tomochici, Savannah was able to flourish unhindered by the warfare that marked the beginnings of many early American colonies.

Much has been written about Oglethorpe, his reputation as a reformer and his friendship with the Yamasee and Creek peoples. However, it should be stressed that the alliance between the Yamasee and the English was tenuous at best. Earlier in the 18th century the Yamasee, having become deeply indebted to Carolina traders, were increasingly convinced that this debt would be paid through their enslavement. The Yamasee War of 1715-1717 left the Yamasee weakened and opened their lands to settlement; the Yamasee War enabled the English to establish permanent settlements on the Georgia coast.

Growth in the colony

In midsummer 1733, five months after the English colonists, Sephardi Jews from Spain and Portugal arrived in Savannah. Over the next century and a half the city welcomed other non-English and non-Protestant immigrants: Irish Catholics, French Catholics and Huguenots, Greek Orthodox, and others. Savannah remains to this day one of the most cosmopolitan and diverse cities in the South.

In 1740, George Whitefield founded the Bethesda Orphanage, which is now the oldest extant orphanage in the United States.

Solomon's Lodge, a Masonic Lodge was founded in 1734 by James Oglethorpe and claims to be the oldest continuing operating lodge in America. It wasn't called Solomon's Lodge until 1776, previously being known as "The Lodge at Savannah."

British colony

In 1751, the great experiment came to an end as Savannah and the rest of Georgia became a Royal Colony. Entrepreneurs and slaves were brought into the struggling colony, and Savannah was made the colonial capital of Georgia. The low marshes were converted into wild rice fields and tended by skilled slaves imported from West Africa (where these strains of rice were native). The combination of English agricultural technology and African labor and knowledge proved to be of great benefit for the city.

Initially, Creek groups gradually ceded lands to European settlers that they were not utilizing. In 1763, the Creeks agreed to the first of several large land cessions. This first agreement gave Georgia the land between the Savannah and Ogeechee rivers, south of Augusta, along with coastal land between the Altamaha and St. Marys rivers. An additional two million acres (8000 km²) of land between the Ogeechee and Altamaha rivers and the headwaters of the Oconee and Savannah rivers was ceded to Georgia by the Creeks and Cherokees in 1773.

Additional fortune came to the city in 1763 following the Treaty of Paris, which opened the interior of North America to British economic interests. This was an important milestone in the development of Savannah, as it marks the beginning of economic ties to the interior. Trade, particularly the trade of deerskins, flourished along the upper Savannah River where skins were sent to Augusta and finally through Savannah for export to Europe. The establishment of a trading network on the Savannah River also curtailed Charleston’s monopoly on the South Atlantic deerskin trade. Between 1764 and 1773 Savannah exported hides from 500,000 deer (2 million pounds), which established the city as a significant commercial port on the South Atlantic coast.

American Revolution

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In 1778, during the American Revolutionary War, Savannah came under British and Loyalist control. At the Siege of Savannah in 1779, American and French troops (the latter including a company of free blacks from Haiti) fought unsuccessfully to retake the city.

Late 1700s

On January 27, 1785, members of the State Assembly gathered in Savannah to found the nation's first state-chartered, public university—the University of Georgia (in Athens). In 1792 the Savannah Golf Club opened within a mile of Fort Jackson, on what is now President Street. It is the first known American golf club.

U.S. Civil War

For additional information on Savannah and the U.S. Civil War you may wish to view the following articles:

After capturing the city of Atlanta, General William Tecumseh Sherman began his march south in 1864, with 62,000 men to the port of Savannah, living off the land and causing, by his own estimate, more than $100 million in property damage. Sherman called this harsh tactic of material war "hard war", which is now, in modern times, known as total war.

At the end of this campaign, known as Sherman's March to the Sea, his troops captured Savannah on December 22 1864. Sherman then telegraphed his Commander-in-Chief President Abraham Lincoln, offering him the city as a Christmas present.

19th century

As the 19th century continued, Savannah’s population increased slightly, its wealth exponentially and its ranking among the largest U.S. cities steadily dropped. The city went from 41st in 1860 to 62nd in 1880 (the first year Atlanta exceeded Savannah as Georgia’s largest city), to 86th in 1910 until it was no longer ranked in the top 100 most populous cities in 1930.

Original design

According to Merriam-Webster's Dictionary (with etymologies), the name "Savannah" means "Shawnee"; it derives from a Muskoghean Indian word—a variant of Sawanoki, the native name of the Shawnees. Georgia colonists adopted this name for the Savannah River and then for the city. Residents of Savannah are known as Savannahians ().
Savannah's physical layout was the subject of an elaborate plan by the Georgia colony's founders. Oglethorpe's Savannah Plan consisted of a series of wards built around central squares, with trust lots on the east and west sides of the squares for public buildings and churches, and tithing lots for the colonists' private homes on the north and south sites.

The orderly, Neo-classical design of Savannah’s central city was connected to the exterior by three main roads: the Savannah-Augusta to the north, the Savannah-Dublin Road to the west and the King’s Road, which connected Savannah to the English military settlements of Forts Argyle, Barrington and Frederica to the south. Spur roads were located off the King’s Road as well, and connected plantations such as Wormsloe, home of Noble Jones, to the expanding and increasingly urban market in Savannah.

Economic development

Cotton industry

The Savannah Cotton Exchange was established in 1876 and made its permanent home on Bay Street in 1883. The exchange was established to provide cotton factors, brokers serving planters’ interest in the market, a place to congregate and set the market value of cotton exported to larger markets such as New York or London. By the end of the 19th century factorage was on the decline as more planters were selling their product at interior markets, merely to be shipped from Savannah via the extensive rail connections between the city and the interior.

By 1870, three principal railroads — the Central of Georgia, the Savannah and Charleston and the Savannah and Gulf — connected the city to markets along the coast and the interior. The Central of Georgia, whose principal shareholder was the city of Savannah, established its own docks and canals to the west of the existing Savannah riverfront. This marks the first shift of industrial-commercial activity outside of the central plan of the city. An additional railroad was built extending from the Drayton Street Depot out to Tybee Island in 1887. The rate, 1 cent per mile or 17.7 cents each way, enabled city dwellers to escape to the ocean and spend their newfound leisure hours at the beach on Tybee Island. This becomes the first commuter line from Savannah to an outlying area.

Nineteenth-century development in Savannah was dominated by the emergence of cotton as a widespread cash crop and a subsequent shift in the economy of the city. The invention of the cotton gin in 1793 by Eli Whitney changed the face of agriculture in the American South. Whitney’s gin was produced in response to the state of Georgia’s appointed commission for the promotion of a gin suitable to remove seed from fibers on the short-staple, green-seed cotton. Whitney developed the gin at Mulberry Grove Plantation outside Savannah while he was a tutor to the children of Revolutionary War General Nathanael Greene. Sea Island or long-staple cotton had been very profitable in the years immediately following the Revolutionary War, but the production of this variety was relegated to the narrow coastal zone and would not grow in the upland interiors of the South. Green-seed cotton could be grown in the uplands but was difficult to process with the pre-1793 roller gin; consequently, Whitney’s invention opened the interior of the South to widespread cotton production.

The development of Georgia’s interior had a tremendous impact on Savannah, as cotton production was focused on lands, newly appropriated from the Creeks, along the upper Savannah River. Planters on both the Georgia and South Carolina sides of the river shipped their cotton downriver to market and export at Savannah. This increase in trade corresponds to the increase in population, as Savannah is the 18th-largest urban area in the United States by 1820. In 1818 shipping and business stopped temporarily when the city fell under quarantine due to a yellow fever epidemic.

This monopoly on the interior markets does not last long; in 1833, the South Carolina Railroad, extending from Charleston to Hamburg, South Carolina, was completed. The longest rail line of its day, the South Carolina Railroad was primarily built to redirect the export of cotton grown along the Savannah River through Charleston. The siphoning-off of cotton markets along the upper Savannah prompted the increased interest in the development of north Georgia. The Central of Georgia Railroad is organized in 1833 to open a commercial line between Savannah and the vast interior of Central and North Georgia. The forcible expulsion of nearly 18,000 Cherokees, following the Indian Removal Act, ensured that north Georgia would be open to settlement and cotton production. The Central of Georgia Railroad extended to Macon by 1843 and to Terminus (later known as Atlanta) by 1846.
In 1828, construction began on the Savannah-Ogeechee Canal, a 16.5-mile canal connecting the Ogeechee River to the southwest (near present-day Richmond Hill) and the Savannah River, slightly to the west of Savannah’s newly established riverfront. The canal was completed in 1831, directing the resources of Georgia’s south-central interior to Savannah.

Despite its small population, Savannah amassed an enormous amount of wealth. By 1820, Savannah was exporting $18 million worth of goods. It is important to recognize, however, that this wealth came about as the result of both the removal of indigenous people from the interior as well as the slave trade. Although originally banned from Georgia, the slave population exceeded the free population in Savannah by the end of the 18th century (5,146 free, 8,201 slave in 1800). Little is known about the slave population of Savannah beyond what can be read in census information. We know that between 1810 and 1830, there was a decrease in the number of slaves in the city, which was followed by an increase in the slave population from 9,478 in 1830 to 14,018 in 1850. As the overall free population of the city grew by 68 percent between 1850 and 1860, the slave population remained relatively constant. Additionally, Savannah retained a consistent number of free African Americans throughout the antebellum years (725 in 1860) who engaged in a variety of entrepreneurial activities.

Heavy industry and manufacturing

Diversification in Savannah’s economy arrived as heavy industry and manufacturing entered into the region during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Union Camp mill, a division of the American Pulp and Paper Company, was established around the turn of the century, locating their mill upriver from the historic core of the city. Contributing to the trend of upriver industrial development, the Kehoe Iron Works was established in 1883 by Irish immigrant William Kehoe. As working-class residents began to move into neighborhoods adjacent to the new industries, the population of the densely packed historic core of the city began to dissipate. Additionally, building continued to the south of town as the city experienced a 65 percent increase in population between 1900 and 1920 (54,244 in 1900 to 83,252 in 1920).

An additional boost to Savannah's economy arrived with the increased export of naval stores. Items such as pitch and turpentine, recovered from South Atlantic yellow pine, were essential in the manufacture and upkeep of wooden ships. In 1902, the naval stores industry was revolutionized by former University of Georgia chemist Charles Herty. Herty devised a method of collecting the raw sap from yellow pine that was not only more effective than previous methods of extraction but also enabled the trees to live into maturity and be eventually harvested. The harvesting of yellow pine further diversified Savannah’s economy as a lumber exporter. By this time Savannah, with vast yellow pine forests extending far into Georgia’s coastal plain, became the chief exporter of naval stores in the world.

The boll weevil outbreak of the 1920s dealt a devastating blow to the cotton market of Savannah and the South in general. The naval stores industry also fell into decline by World War II as iron had largely replaced wood in the manufacture of ships. Savannah’s economy continued to shift as more heavy industry was added upriver. During World War II, Savannah manufacturing aided the war effort through the construction of Liberty ships, further shifting the population out of the historic core of the city.

Development of the tourism industry

In the 1930s and 1940s, many of the distinguished buildings in the historic district were demolished to create parking lots. Squares had been bisected by streets and fire lanes to speed traffic flow. The demolition of the 1870 City Market on Ellis Square and the attempted demolition of the 1821 Davenport House prompted seven Georgia women, led by Davenport descendant Lucy Barrow McIntire, to create the Historic Savannah Foundation, which was able to preserve the city from destruction. In 1979, the Savannah College of Art and Design was founded, and began a process of renovation and adaptive reuse of many notable downtown buildings, rather than building a centralized campus. This effort, along with the work of the Historic Savannah Foundation and other preservation groups, has contributed greatly to Savannah's now-famous rebirth.

The city's popularity as a tourist destination was solidified by the best-selling book and subsequent movie Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which were set in Savannah.

Downtown Savannah's Historic District is one of only five places in the United States where possession and consumption of open containers of alcoholic beverages are allowed on the street (but not in a vehicle), although they remain prohibited throughout the rest of Savannah. Only one open plastic container is allowed per person over the age of 21, and it can be no larger than 16 ounces.
Savannah has also become a popular destination for people to celebrate St. Patrick's Day, including the second largest parade in the U.S. This is aided by a very lenient public drinking policy which allows open alcoholic beverages every day of the year in the Landmark Historic District.


A.Savannah had 24 original squares. Today 21 are still in existence. See Squares of Savannah, Georgia for additional information.


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