Savannah’s history begins in February 1733. General James Oglethorpe landed on a bluff high along the Savannah River. Oglethorpe named the 13th and final American colony “Georgia” after England’s King George II. Savannah became its first city.
The plan for Savannah was to offer a new start for England’s working poor and to strengthen the colonies by increasing trade. Under the original charter, individuals were free to worship as they pleased and rum, lawyers and slavery were forbidden – for a time.
Upon settling, Oglethorpe became friends with the local Yamacraw Indian chief, Tomochichi. They each pledged mutual goodwill and the Yamacraw chief granted the new arrivals permission to settle Savannah on the bluff. As a result, the town flourished without warfare or hardship that burdened many of America’s early colonies.
Savannah is known as America’s first planned city. Oglethorpe laid the city out in a series of grids that allowed for wide open streets intertwined with shady public squares and parks that served as town meeting places and centers of business. Savannah had 24 original squares; 22 squares are still in existence today.
During the American Revolution, the British took Savannah in 1778 and held it into 1782. After independence was secured, Savannah flourished. Soon, farmers discovered that the soil was rich and the climate favorable for cultivation of cotton and rice. Plantations and slavery became highly profitable systems for whites in the neighboring “Lowcountry” of South Carolina. So Georgia, the free colony, legalized slavery. The transatlantic slave trade brought many African-Americans through the port of Savannah. Many who stayed in the area formed the unique Gullah culture of the coastal communities in Georgia and South Carolina.
With the wealth brought by cotton, residents built lavish homes and churches throughout the city. With the invention of the cotton gin on a plantation outside of Savannah, many of the world’s cotton prices were set on the steps of the Savannah Cotton Exchange. The building is still in existence.
But Savannah was not spared from misfortune. Two devastating fires in 1796 and 1820 each left half of Savannah in ashes but residents re-built. An outbreak of yellow fever in 1820 killed a tenth of its population. Savannah also survived hurricanes, other fires and epidemics but always bounced back.
Pre-Civil War Savannah was praised as the most picturesque and serene city in America. It was known for its grand oaks draped with Spanish moss and its gracious hospitality.
The city itself did not fall until Union General William Tecumseh Sherman entered in mid-December after burning the city of Atlanta and everything else in his path on his “March to the Sea.” Upon entering Savannah, Sherman was said to be so impressed by its beauty that he could not destroy it. On December 22, 1864, he sent a telegram to President Abraham Lincoln, offering the city as a Christmas present.
After the end of the Civil War, reconstruction began in Savannah. Despite many hardships and the added burdens of prejudice, the freed slaves who remained in Savannah built a thriving community, with its own churches, schools and economic strength. Savannah became one of the most historically significant African-American cities in the nation.
At the turn of the 20th century, cotton was king again. Savannah thrived, as did new industries, including the export of resin and lumber. Then boll weevils came and destroyed most of the cotton and the state’s economy.
It wasn’t until the post-war years that Savannah bounced back again, not just economically but also culturally and aesthetically. A group of women in the 1950s came together to preserve historic structures threatened by demolition and began the Historic Savannah Foundation, which is credited with saving the beautiful architecture that was the foundation of Savannah’s charm.
Savannah’s Historic District was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1966. It is one of the largest historic landmarks in the country. 13 million people per year come to visit Savannah, drawn by its elegant architecture, ornate ironwork, fountains and green squares. Savannah’s beauty is rivaled only by the city’s reputation for hospitality. It has become one of the country’s most popular vacation spots.