A Brief History of the City of Savannah

Savannah, GA River Side Water Ferry
Savannah, GA River Side Water Ferry

Savannah was founded by James Edward Oglethorpe and his team of colonists in 1733. It’s the oldest city within the state of Georgia and is a shining example of 18th-century city planning in the United States.

By design, Savannah was instrumental in the establishment of the state of Georgia, which was awarded its charter in 1732 by King George II. It was the last American colony controlled by the English. The plan sought to ensure better labor conditions for England’s weaker sections and boost the condition of the colonies through trade. Georgia’s charter was intended to protect South Carolina, which was being threatened by Spanish colonists in Florida.

The original charter allowed everybody to enjoy complete freedom of religion. Slavery and alcohol were banned for a while within the colony.

Colonial History

Savannah recorded history starts off in 1733 when Gen. James Oglethorpe reached the Savannah River along with 120 other passengers abroad the ‘Anne’. He decided to name this colony as ‘Georgia’, in honor of King George II. Savannah was deemed to be the first city in this new colony.

Oglethorpe established friendly relations with Tomochichi, the Indian chief of the local Yamacraw tribe. Both of them pledged their mutual friendship and established good relations. The chief also granted them permission to set up and establish their colony. This way, no warfare was needed to establish the town, unlike other early American colonies, which often had violent beginnings.

Savannah was also the first planned American city. Oglethorpe established cordial and friendly relations with Tomochichi and Mary Musgrove, who was an Indian liaison and trader. He proceeded to plan out Savannah’s overall layout. His co-planner was William Bull from South Carolina, who was instrumental in preparing a town layout based on London’s town model. However, it also featured tything lots for the homes of settlers on the south and west sides of the squares and trust lots on the west and east sites of the squares, and wards near the central squares.

While Savannah originally had 24 city squares, around 22 city squares remain in existence currently. The city was divided into a series of residential and commercial grids, which enabled open streets to be linked with public parks and squares, which served as important business centers and town meeting places.

Revolutionary War Era and the Antebellum Period

In 1778, the American Revolution saw the English capture Savannah back. They continued to hold it for 4 years. Although a combined army of American and French troops mounted a sea-land attack in 1778, their siege and direct assault attempts were a failure.

After Savannah’s independence, the city began flourishing monumentally. Slavery and plantations turned out to be highly profitable ventures in South Carolina’s ‘Lowcountry’ region as well, helping white businessmen make a fortune. The agricultural community realized the richness of the soil and how the climate was ideal for cultivating rice and cotton.

Like many other coastal cities, Savannah underwent numerous cataclysmic disasters, including disease breakouts, floods, and fires throughout the 19th century.

Destructive fires damaged the city’s commercial districts in 1796 and 1820, ruining most of the city. The city’s local cotton and rice plantations were ravaged by a hurricane in 1854, which damaged the shipping and port industry of the city. Add to that, the yellow fever epidemic damaged the city’s commercial enterprises severely in 1820 and 1854. Over 700 people passed away due to the epidemic in 1820, with over 1000 recorded deaths in 1854 as well. The city has braved hurricanes, disease outbreaks, and fires consistently yet were always able to bounce back as a champion.

Establishment of the Savannah Cotton Exchange

With cotton profits filling up their coffers, residents started building extravagant churches and houses in the city. Thanks to cotton gin, which was invented near a Savannah plantation, the city’s commercial port facilities were equal to that of Charleston. The Savannah Cotton Exchange dictated international cotton prices for a considerable period of time. It’s worth noting that this building remains intact even today.

American Civil War

Before the Civil War broke out, Savannah was one of America’s most picturesque cities. The city’s genteel citizenry and grand oaks dotted with green Spanish moss were famous around the country. This era saw the establishment of the Georgia Historical Society. The pleasing ornate fountain present in Magnificent Forsyth Park was also set up during this period.

However, the city was under sea blockades for a long period of time during the Civil War, which devastated the local economy. Add to that, Fort Pulaski, which was deemed impenetrable at the time, was taken by the Union army in 1862. However, the city did not surrender until the Union army’s Gen. William Sherman occupied it in December after his troops had burned Atlanta to the ground during his famous ‘March to the Sea’. However, Savannah’s beauty was so impressive to him that he couldn’t destroy it like Atlanta. In 1864, he gifted the city to President Lincoln for Christmas.

20th Century

Savannah turned into a major market leader in the food processing and paper pulp processing industries, thanks to the launch of the Savannah Sugar Refinery and large-scale manufacturing facilities in Union Bag. The city’s port facilities played an instrumental role during WWII as well.

During the 50s and the 60s, the civil rights movement had a vital presence in Savannah. African-American residents staged nonviolent protests throughout the city, thus helping the cause substantially.

Ralph Gilbert, who headed the Savannah chapter of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) during the 40s and 50s, is widely regarded to be a major figure in the civil rights movement. He launched huge voter registration rallies for the black residents in Savannah and encouraged local law enforcement integration efforts. His efforts were largely instrumental in the Savannah police department’s decision to employ African American police officers, which was widely considered to be a monumental achievement.

South of Victory Drive, the streetcar suburbs underwent a significant expansion after WWI, signaling the city’s growth away from its Victorian and historic districts. Savannah’s expansion began to taper off by the 60s, by which it point it was occupying an area of 65 square miles. The development of the southside and suburban midtown residential and commercial sections are underway well into the 21st century.