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Early Savannah

James Oglethorpe, Noble Jones, Peter Tondee, brothers John and Charles Wesley , George Whitefield. These were the famous names of early Georgia. The vast majority of colonists and early visitors, however, are long forgotten, inscribed on tombstones and buried in a cemetery. Let's go back to the early days, to a city on a bluff known as Yamacraw and a new town of slightly more than 100 people called Savannah.

Selected by Oglethorpe, Colonel William Bull and Peter Gordon, leader of the Tythings, a small band of militia, the site was cleared for the settlers as Oglethorpe and Bull returned to Port Royal. Governor Johnson had recommended a site further south, along the Altamaha, but that was too close to the Spanish for the fledgling colony. The Tythings also constructed a set of stairs running up Yamacraw Bluff.

On February 1, 1733, (February 12, 1733, New Style) during the mid-afternoon 116 men, women and children made their way up the flight of steps and into a partially cleared and fortified compound. The rise afforded an excellent view of the surrounding area including the Yamacraw (Creek) village a short distance away. Initially, the settlers set up five tents for protection from the mid-winter weather (Oglethorpe had his own, smaller tent).

John Musgrove and his Creek wife Mary owned a trading post (est. 173?) near a settlement of Yamacraws and lived on Yamacraw Bluff. It was John, son of a governor of the Carolinas, who helped Oglethorpe negotiate the first treaty with the local chief, Tomochichi. The Creek chief had been forthright with Oglethorpe, telling him that he did not have the power to make the treaty the Englishman wanted.

Work began on a stockade for protection almost immediately. Once work was completed on this "palisade," a crane was built at the top of the bluff near Oglethorpe's tent. The crane would be used to hoist incoming freight to the fledgling colony. Members of the colony were concerned about the occasional alligators that would pass through the streets of the new city.

The group continued to work "in common," building fortifications, then homes. In the group of settlers were Noble Jones, who would serve in the colonial legislature and be a resounding voice of the radical movement that led to the American Revolution and Thomas Milledge, whose grandson would become a popular Georgia politician at the start of the 19th century.

Colonel Bull returned to the colony four days after the settlers arrived and began to layout the city of Savannah with Oglethorpe. Much of this original layout remains intact. The original plan called for four squares, which would expand to six, and eventually expand to twenty-four squares, surrounded by a network of interconnecting streets. Of these 24 planned squares, twenty-one remain intact. Two are roughly half the size they once were and one is gone completely.

The initial square was Johnson, named for Governor Robert Johnson of South Carolina, who had been a strong supporter of the new colony (although for different reasons than the Trustees). Around the square were 4 wards (for military, not political, purposes). The wards were named Percival (for Lord Percival), Heathcote (MP), Derby (Earl of Derby) and Decker (Sir Mathew Decker). Rounding out the first four squares:Wright, Telfair, Ellis (no longer exists). Reynolds and Oglethorpe were added later.

A frigate, The James, arrived at Port Royal in early May with more people to join the colonists in the new city of Savannah. They were desperately needed. The death rate during the first two years was alarmingly high because the new land offered challenges for the colonists. Pure water was hard to find and the nearby swamps were a breeding ground for disease-baring insects. The only help the colonists received were from the nearby Yamacraw village and the established colony of South Carolina.

Having secured the perimeter of the new town, Oglethorpe's next mission was to extend his presence to the west and south. First in a string of forts built to defend Savannah from the Spanish, French and American Indian problems was Fort Argyle, built on a site currently within Fort Stewart. Named for Lord Argyle, who helped Oglethorpe in many ways, it featured a moat, a large berm, and a stockade. This fort would remain active until 1746. Then, in quick succession, the Georgians built Fort Augusta, Fort Frederica and Fort St. Simon. The outer perimeters appeared to be secure.

Internally, Oglethorpe had officially secured the land, making a treaty with the appropriate Creek chiefs. On May 18, Oglethorpe met with a group of Creek chiefs to "secure their quietude and friendship." About 50 men showed up, negotiated for three days, then signed a treaty. The treaty called for trade with the Creek at established prices, slaves to be returned to masters in South Carolina, and to allow no other whites to settle on their land.

More settlers continued to arrive, including Moravians, Salzburgers, and Jews, three heavily persecuted religious groups. Besides Savannah, colonists were assigned areas to settle: High Gate, 5 miles south of Savannah, was settle by 12 French families. Hampstead, a mile east of High Gate was settled by 12 German families. Thunderbolt was the sight of a fort and a few families. Skidaway was another early fort, along with 10 familes. It was here that Captain Noble Jones and his marines were stationed, near Wormsloe. Josephtown, opposite Argyle Island, was a settlement of Scots. Abercorn, about 15 miles up the Savannah River was another early development.

Oglethorpe welcomed all except Roman Catholics, whom he, and most of England, viewed as being persecutors. Heading back to England in 1734 on a man-of-war (The Aldborough), Oglethorpe took with him with John Musgrove, Tomochichi, Tooanahowi (a relative that Tomochichi called his son), and other Creeks from the nearby town.

Unfortunately, within this first year the struggling colony was failing. The death rate was high; some people fled the colony. Crops could not be produce in the quantities planned (or at all); people were unwilling to work the fields. Faced with mounting organizational and funding problems, its surprising the colony continued to exist.

Each historian who writes about this period in Georgia has their own group or person to blame: the Trustees, Oglethorpe, the settlers, Governor Johnson. All contributed to problems, but it was a complete disregard for reality that caused the failure and near collapse of early Savannah and the colony of Georgia. Many of the men and women who made the journey were unfit for life in America. Oglethorpe was an excellent military mind but a poor administrator. The Trustees expected the colony to raise products that could not be grown elsewhere in America and Gov. Johnson wanted protection without involvement.



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