The Founding of Savannah, Georgia

By Joseph Harris Chappell, 1905

Ship from England called Anne

Ship from England called Anne

At high noon on November 16, 1732, the good ship Anne spread her white sails and, like some great canvas-winged bird of the sea, flew from the shores of England westward over the Atlantic Ocean, carrying with her, British general, Parliament member, and, philanthropist, James Oglethorpe, and his 120 emigrants. She did not sail straight for Georgia but for Charleston, South Carolina, where Oglethorpe wished to get the advice and help of the Governor of that province in settling his colony. The ship reached Charleston on January 13, 1733, and cast anchor just outside the harbor bar. Oglethorpe, leaving his people on board, was rowed to shore in an open boat and was received with great honor by Governor Robert Johnson and the Legislature of South Carolina, which was then in session.

The governor had been notified several weeks before that Oglethorpe was coming, and he was prepared to extend him a hearty welcome. The people of  South Carolina were very glad that an English colony was to be planted in Georgia, for they knew well that it would protect them against the fierce Spaniards of Florida.

Governor Robert Johnson offered to do anything in his power to help Oglethorpe. He appointed Colonel William Bull, one of the most prominent men in South Carolina, to act as Oglethorpe’s guide and assistant in settling his colony in Georgia and offered to take care of the emigrants until a suitable location could be found for them.

The good ship Anne was taken down to Port Royal Bay, where it was safely moored in the harbor. At the head of the bay was the little town of Beaufort, where 100 South Carolina soldiers garrisoned a fort. A new barracks building had just been erected for the soldiers, but they had not yet moved into it. Governor Johnson turned this building over to the use of the emigrants, and here, they were comfortably housed until Oglethorpe could locate a permanent home for them.

Having seen his people thus comfortably provided for, Oglethorpe started out in search of a favorable spot on Georgia soil on which to plant his little colony. From studying the maps, he had already decided to locate the settlement somewhere on the banks of the Savannah River, that broad and beautiful stream which, coming down from the northwest, flows for 150 miles as a boundary line between South Carolina and Georgia the left in a graceful scythe-like curve and pours its wealth of waters into the great Atlantic Ocean.

On January 16th, Oglethorpe, accompanied by Colonel Bull, left Port Royal in a little vessel manned by four sailors and lent to him by Governor Johnson. He sailed down the South Carolina coast and entered the Savannah River, where Tybee Island juts out as a headland into the ocean. As he ascended the river, he passed many low-lying barren islands and flat salt marshes covered with rank seagrass. It was an ugly country, and perhaps Oglethorpe’s brave heart sank within him as he surveyed the dreary prospect. But, about 18 miles up the river, the lowlands on the south bank suddenly rose into a bold, forest-covered bluff 45 feet high. Here, the little vessel was stopped, and Oglethorpe and Colonel Bull climbed up the bluff. On top, they beheld an extensive level plain covered, as far as the eye could see, with great woods of majestic pines interspersed with broad, spreading live oaks. For several moments, Oglethorpe stood enraptured and then exclaimed, “Surely a merciful God has designed this glorious spot as a restful home for my poor, persecuted people!”

James Edward Oglethorpe, Founder of Georgia

James Edward Oglethorpe, Founder of Georgia

Colonel Bull, who had visited this region before, told Oglethorpe that at the other end of the bluff, about three miles from where they stood, there was a small, isolated Indian tribe called the Yamacraw and that they were the only Indians within 40 miles. Oglethorpe knew that it was important that he should gain the goodwill of these natives before making his settlement, so, accompanied by Colonel Bull, he went in search of the Indians. He found their little town of 30 wigwams scattered about under the trees in a beautiful spot on the bluff’s edge, in full view of the river. The chief, or mico, of the tribe, was a wonderful old man named Tomo-chi-chi. He was 90 years old but was still strong and robust in body and mind. He was over six feet tall and stood straight as the great pine tree under which his wigwam was pitched. His immediate family consisted of his wife Seenawki and his nephew Toonahowi, a 13-year-old boy whom he had adopted as his son. He had no living children of his own.

On reaching the village, Oglethorpe called for Tomo-chi-chi, and the old chief stepped forth like a king. He was not surprised to see the white men. He had often seen white people before, for he had once gone to Charleston, where he spent several days while making a treaty with the Governor and the Legislature; moreover, English and Spanish traders had frequently visited his village. Indeed, at this very time, there stood out in the woods, a few hundred yards from his wigwam, a log hut occupied as an English “trading post” by a white man named John Musgrove. Musgrove’s wife, Mary Musgrove, was a half-breed Indian woman who had been reared and educated among the whites in South Carolina and could speak both the Indian and the English language fluently. On the occasion of Tomo-chi-chi’s visit to Charleston, she had acted as his interpreter, and he sent for her now. In a little while, she came, and the interview began.

Oglethorpe told Tomo-chi-chi that he wished to settle with his colony in the woods nearby but that they would not interfere in any way with the Yamacraws; that they would do no harm but only good to the Indians, would give them blankets, hatchets, guns, and other things, and would help them in many ways. He hoped they might always be good friends and live as peaceful neighbors. Oglethorpe’s noble countenance, kind manner, and fine promises completely won old Tomo-chi-chi’s heart, and he said: “There is plenty of room here for both red men and white men. Bring your people onto our woods. As soon as they get settled, we will call to welcome them.” Tomo-chi-chi was a wise statesman. He knew that the whites might be of great benefit to the  Indians and that to make enemies of them would bring certain ruin to the  Indians. Such was the first meeting between these two remarkable men who afterward became such fast friends and who worked together harmoniously for the founding of Georgia.

The landing of James Oglethorpe in Georgia

The landing of James Oglethorpe in Georgia

Oglethorpe and Colonel Bull spent several days surveying the surrounding country. Accompanied by two or three Yamacraw Indian guides, they would tramp all day long through the deep, dark, beautiful woods, returning at night to sleep in their little boat at the foot of the bluff. The more Oglethorpe saw of the country, the better he liked it. The high bluff extended more than a mile along the river bank and stretched back from the stream five miles in a level plain. Standing on the bluff’s edge, he could see the broad sweep of the Savannah River for miles above and below as it flowed onward toward the sea. The water under the bluff was so deep that big ships could come right up to the bank.

On February 5th, Oglethorpe, having finished his survey, got aboard his little vessel and sailed back to Port Royal. He found that during his ten days’ absence, his colonists had been treated most kindly by the soldiers and the people of Beaufort. Many of the folk from the surrounding country, too, had called to see them and had brought them presents of fat pigs, fowls, eggs, butter, and homemade bread. They were in good health and fine spirits, and no wonder, for they had been treated like heroes and had lived on the “fat of the land.” On the night after his return, Oglethorpe got them together and described to them the beautiful spot in Georgia that he had selected for their home and told them about the Yamacraw Indians. He instructed them to be ready, bag and baggage, to start for Savannah (as he had already named the place) early on the next Monday morning.

On the Sunday morning before leaving South Carolina, the colonists held a special Thanksgiving service. After the service, Oglethorpe gave, at his own expense, grand dining, to which, in the name of the colonists, he invited the soldiers and all the good South Carolina people who had been so kind to them. More than 300 people partook of the feast, at which was served, four fat hogs, two fine English beeves, eight turkeys, one hundred chickens and ducks, a hogshead of rum punch, a hogshead of beer, and a barrel of wine. Notwithstanding the large quantity of liquor consumed, not a man got drunk, and perfect order was preserved. This was the first Georgia barbecue, for, though spread in South Carolina, it was given by the first Georgian and was served in that abundant and generous way that has since made barbecues the most famous of feasts.

The next morning, the colonists boarded four little vessels and sailed away for Georgia. On the afternoon of February 12th, 1733, they landed at the high bluff on the Savannah River. By sunset, they had spread four big, white tents under the tall pine trees, and in these, the whole colony, 120 souls — men, women, and children — were stored away “as snug as a bug in a rug.” Thus, they spent their first night on Georgia soil. Oglethorpe occupied by himself a little tent pitched under a group of three tall pine trees.

Early the next morning, the colonists were assembled in front of Oglethorpe’s tent for prayers, which were conducted by the Chaplain, Reverend Henry Herbert. After prayers, Oglethorpe gave them a kind, fatherly talk, and some good advice, and then they went about their work, the men unloading the boats and the women putting their household goods in order.

About eleven o’clock, while they were busy with their tasks, they were startled by hearing in the distance strange shouting of voices and the beating of some instrument like a drum. Looking in the direction of the sound, they saw a band of Indians approaching them far away through the level pine forest. The people were much frightened and began gathering around Oglethorpe’s tent, the men with guns in their hands; but, he soon calmed their fears, for he knew that it was only old Tomo-chi-chi and his followers coming to fulfill his promise, “As soon as your people get settled, we will come to welcome them.”

Yamacraw Indian Chief Tomo-chi-chi and nephew.

Yamacraw Indian Chief Tomo-chi-chi and nephew.

In front of the band of visitors marched the Yamacraw priest, or “medicine man” as the Indians call him. He was dressed in a gaudy and grotesque style; his face and the upper part of his body were painted red, blue, yellow, and black; on the top of his head were the antlers of a young stag, and over his shoulders were thrown the skin of a fawn. In each hand, he carried an outspread fan of eagle’s feathers attached to a long handle which was strung from top to bottom with little jingling bells. As he approached, he cut all sorts of queer but graceful antics, now crouching low down to the ground, then straightening up to his full height, and every now and then leaping high into the air, all the time jingling his bells and keeping up mighty jabber in the Indian language, while those marching behind him uttered a strange grunting sound, “Ugh, ugh!”

As the procession drew near, Oglethorpe stepped a few paces in front of his tent to meet them. Suddenly, they all stopped still except the “medicine man,” who advanced, walked slowly, with a stately stride, around Oglethorpe, and, stroking him from head to foot with the outspread fans, said, or rather chanted, over and over again in the Indian language, “May there be eternal peace between your people and our people!” After this ceremony was over, old Tomo-chi-chi, taking a buffalo robe from one of his attendants, stepped forward and said to Oglethorpe:

“We have come to welcome you as I promised. I have brought you a present. This is the skin of a buffalo, which is the strongest of all beasts; in the inside, you see painted the head and feathers of an eagle, which is the swiftest and farthest flying of all birds. So the English are the strongest of all people, and nothing can withstand them; and they have a swift and far flight like the eagle, seeing that they have flown hither from the uttermost parts of the earth, over the vast seas. The eagle’s feathers are soft and signify love; the buffalo’s robe is warm and signifies protection; therefore, love and protect our little families.”

As he made the speech, Mary Musgrove stood by his side and interpreted what he said, sentence by sentence. Oglethorpe was deeply touched. He made a kind, noble speech in reply while the colonists — men, women, and children — stood behind him, looking on in wonder at this strange, impressive scene.

Oglethorpe invited his visitors to stay for dinner, and they readily accepted. The women of the colony bestirred themselves mightily to get up a “company dinner” for their distinguished and unexpected guests, and they managed to prepare a fine repast. By two o’clock, it was ready. In the meantime, the men had no difficulty in entertaining the Indians by showing them the many wonderful things they had brought from England. After dinner, as the guests were leaving, Oglethorpe made each of them a present: a scarlet shawl with a heavy fringe to Tomo-chi-chi, a blanket and a hatchet to each of the other men, and to each of the three women of the party, a string of beads and a looking glass. Then he bade them goodbye and asked them to call again. Such was the first “state dining” ever given in Georgia.

For more than a year, Oglethorpe continued to live in his little tent under the three great pine trees overlooking the river while he directed the work of the colonists, all of whose hardships and privations he shared. He laid off in the great forest the plan of the town that was to be built there. That plan is perfectly preserved in the city of Savannah of today, though, of course, the original streets have been lengthened, and many new streets and squares have been added. Oglethorpe’s six streets — Bull, Bryan, Drayton, Abercorn, St. Julian, and Whitaker — are still the principal thoroughfares of the city. Bull Street, he named for Colonel William Bull, who so greatly helped him in planting his colony, and the others he named for benevolent persons in England and South Carolina who had helped the colony by contributions in money and in other ways.

In the mighty work of clearing the forests, building homes, erecting forts, and cultivating gardens, the colonists were greatly aided during the first year by the generous South Carolinians, who furnished many laborers and mechanics free of charge. The Legislature of South Carolina also gave them a herd of 105 cows and a drove of 80 hogs, and private citizens of the same colony presented them with flocks of sheep and a number of horses.

From time to time, new emigrants, sent over by the Trustees, arrived so that by the end of the first year, the colony numbered about 600 people, all under the fatherly care of James Oglethorpe.

Such is the story of the founding of the beautiful city of Savannah and the beginning of the great State of Georgia.

©Joseph Harris Chappell, 1905. Last updated by LOA February 2024.

Editors note: After the city was founded, Savannah became the colonial capital of the Province of Georgia and later the first capital of the state. After the American Revolution, the revolutionary state government made Savannah its capital. Today, Savannah, Georgia, is the county seat of Chatham County and boasts a population of more than 142,000 people. It is Georgia’s fifth-largest city and attracts millions of visitors each year who enjoy the city’s architecture and historic buildings, its history, access to the coastal islands and the Savannah Riverfront, and visits to historic landmarks such as Fort Pulaski and the nearby Wormsloe Plantation. Tybee Island, formerly known as “Savannah Beach,” is the site of the Tybee Island Light Station, the first lighthouse on the southern Atlantic coast. Other picturesque towns adjacent to Savannah include the shrimping village of Thunderbolt and three residential areas that began as summer resort communities for Savannahians: Beaulieu, Vernonburg, and the Isle of Hope.

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About the Article: This first part of this article was, for the most part, written by Joseph Harris Chappell and included in a chapter of his book, Georgia History Stories, published in 1905 by Silver, Burdett & Company. However, the original content has been heavily edited, truncated in parts, and additional information added. The follow-up to Cappell’s story was compiled and written by Kathy Alexander of Legends of America.

Also See:

James Edward Oglethorpe

A Tour Along the Georgia Coast

Haunted Historic Sites in Savannah You Must Visit

Georgia – The Peach State

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