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Savannah: History


City Designed by British Colonist

On February 12, 1733, James E. Oglethorpe and 114 colonists from Gravesend, England, arrived at Yamacraw Bluff on the Savannah River to found America's thirteenth colony, Georgia. Many of the new settlers were poor. Their purpose was to increase imperial trade and navigation along the coastal waterway and to establish a protective buffer between Spanish Florida and the northern English colonies during the Spanish War. It is said that Oglethorpe had four rules for his new community: no slaves, no Roman Catholics, no strong drink, and no lawyers. The name Savannah is said to have derived either from the Sawana people who inhabited the region or from a Shawnee word for the Savannah River.

Oglethorpe designed the basic layout of Savannah into blocks of five symmetrical 60-by-90-foot lots. Included in his plan were 24 public squares (21 of which are still in existence). They were intended to serve both as public meetings places and as areas where citizens could camp out and fortify themselves against attack from natives, Spaniards (who ruled Florida), and even marauding pirates. Thus Savannah became "America's first planned city." This system of public squares was intended as central areas of fortification, as well as social areas for the colonists.

Immigrants from around the world were attracted to Oglethorpe's city. By the time the American Revolution started, the population of Savannah exceeded 3,000, making it the twentieth largest town in the American colonies.

Savannah During the Revolution

During the Revolutionary War, Savannah was taken by colonial insurgents. The following year, in 1778, the British recaptured the city. In 1779 the American army was unsuccessful in its attempts to retake the city. Finally, in 1782, the British left the city to return to England. Savannah was the chief city and capital of the Georgia colony until after the war ended in 1783.

Cotton Dominates Economy

From the outset, Savannah was an important seaport. In 1755 James Habersham and Francis Harris organized the first import-export businesses of the colony with the selling of cattle products. Before the American Revolution, the products of agriculture and trade with the Indians were sent back to England. At one time, diked rice paddies almost surrounded the city. Savannah prospered, and many of its historic homes were built. When the scourge of yellow fever swept through the city in 1820, the rice culture was abandoned and cotton became the dominant crop. For nearly a century, trading in the Cotton Exchange on Savannah's waterfront set world cotton prices. Cotton farming was greatly expanded following Eli Whitney's invention of the cotton gin, an event that took place near Savannah in 1793. Shortly thereafter, cotton shipments from the area soared to more than two million bales annually.

Marine History Events

Transportation history was made in 1819 when the SS Savannah became the first steamship to cross an ocean, traveling from Savannah to Liverpool, England. Later, in 1834, the shift from sail to steam was furthered when the country's first all-iron vessel, the John Randolph, was built, owned, and operated in Savannah.

The City During the Civil War and Beyond

Savannah, which had a large free African American population before the Civil War, suffered from the Union navy's coastal blockade during the war. The city was captured by General William T. Sherman in 1864 after the citizens surrendered rather than risk total destruction of Savannah (as had already happened in Atlanta). As a result, Sherman sent a famous message to President Abraham Lincoln in which he said: "I beg to present to you as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah with 140 heavy guns and plenty of ammunition and also about 25,000 bales of cotton."

The capture of Savannah brought on rampant vandalism. Throughout the reconstruction period (1865–1877) and beyond, the city went through hard times. Nevertheless, the first art museum in the Southeast, Telfair Academy of Arts And Sciences, was opened in 1886. Still, it is said that the city's civic pride did not revive until the early 1900s, when the National Park Services restored nearby Fort Pulaski. This revival inspired a group of Savannah citizens to begin restoration efforts. In March 1912, Savannah citizen Juliette Gordon Low formed the first Girl Scout troop in the nation, and later her birthplace was made into the national Girl Scout museum and national program center. World War I and its aftermath put restoration efforts on hold. The years following the war were harsh ones for Savannah. The boll weevil wiped out cotton crops and the city fell into a decline. Many of its beautiful structures fell into disrepair.

Some say it was the proposal to demolish the 1815 Davenport House that galvanized the city. In 1955 city residents created the Historic Savannah Foundation with the purpose of restoring old buildings in the city's original town center. Many sites in and around Savannah received the National Historic Landmark designation in 1966, and the city has been heralded as a masterpiece in urban planning. A multimillion-dollar riverfront revitalization in 1977 peaked the restoration efforts. Today, the historic district encompasses more than 2,300 architecturally and historically significant buildings in its 2.5-square-mile area. Restoration of these buildings continues to the present day. Restoration efforts have also included the existing City Market, including adaptive re-use of historic warehouses. Construction of the $83 million waterfront complex of the Savannah International Trade and Convention Center was completed in May 2000 on Hutchinson Island. The island also boasts a new 409-room Westin Savannah Harbor Golf Resort, featuring a Greenbrier spa and a world-class, 18-hole Troon golf course. These developments are part of the conversion of the island into an upscale community which is to include high-rise condominiums, town houses and single family homes.

Historical Information: Georgia Historical Society—Library and Archives, 501 Whitaker Street, Savannah, GA 31401; telephone (912)651-2125; Library (912)651-2128; Fax (912)651-2831; email ghslib@georgiahistory.com


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