12 February 2012

12 February - Georgia Day

Weather:  If it storms on the 12th, 13th, and 14th of February, it is a good omen.

(On the other hand)

If the sun shines on St. Eulalia’s day,
It is good for apples and cider, they say

[Either way, we win]

"Not for ourselves, but others." 
(motto of the Trustees of Georgia)

Today is Georgia Day, commemorating the arrival of the first colonists at Savannah in 1633.

Georgia was the last colony to be settled, and its establishment was primarily a philanthropic endeavor by a set of men who desired to provide more material aid to a group denominated “the worthy poor”, those hard-working, enterprising souls who through unlucky investments, ruinous litigation, or business failures based on unforeseen events were now reduced to penury and debtors’ prison from which they could not escape.

[A slight digression here.  Were we under the laws of the time, much – if not most – of the population of this country would be in debtors’ prison, for remember, there was no Social Security, no Aid to Families with Dependent Children, no Disability Insurance, no Welfare, no Unemployment Insurance, no Public Assistance, no Government Bailouts.  There were charities, there was “on the Parish”, and there was debtors’ prison.  The first two did what they could with what resources they had, and had their own rules as to who could be benefited, but debtors’ prison was more democratic.  It was open to anyone who, for any reason, their own fault or not, could not pay their bills.

  • Your company has gone bankrupt? No government bailout here. Debtors’ prison.
  • You have lost your job and can’t pay your bills? Debtors’ prison.
  • You are chronically ill or disabled and cannot hold a job? Debtors’ prison.
  • Your bank has absconded with your funds? Yes, we understand that it’s not your fault, but – Debtors’ prison.
  • You’ve lived well beyond your means and over-extended your credit? (nod your heads, most of you) Debtors’ prison.
  • The Bubble has burst and your investments have gone south? Debtors’ prison.

Once in debtors’ prison, you could not leave until you paid your creditors – but where are you going to get the money to pay your creditors if you are in prison?  Bribe the jailers and you might be able to carry on a small business.  Oh, and while you are enjoying your stay with us, you are required to pay for your room and board, the amount and quality of which is commensurate with what you pay.  Hope you have friends who can cough up something for your keep.]

Back to Georgia:
The philanthropists, one of whom was James Oglethorpe, formed themselves into a group as trustees, as they considered that the monies collected and the land acquired was to be held by them in trust for the poor.  They received none of it, nor was there any thought of making a profit for themselves from the venture.  Even Oglethorpe, authorized by the trustees to act as Colonial Governor, was not given any salary or recompense.

On 9 June 1732, they received from George II the charter granting them the land from the west side of the Savannah River (the southern border of South Carolina) south and west to the Altamaha River, and all land west of that to the South Seas (the Pacific).  The proposed colony was promptly named Georgia in his honor.  That it would provide a buffer between the prosperous Carolina colony and the Spanish of Florida (who claimed South Carolina as Spanish territory) might have aided the acquisition of the charter.  That reason alone was uppermost in the mind of South Carolina’s governor, who gave it his whole-hearted support.

Seal of the Trustees
With charter in hand, the work began of soliciting funds and finding colonists.  Oglethorpe wrote tracts explaining how the worthy poor could, instead of being a drain on the resources of the country, contribute to its wealth.  In this new land – previously described as “in the same parallel as Palestine and pointed out by God’s own choice” and “the most amiable country in the universe” – men and women could be given a chance to start over and make good. 

Oglethorpe’s own pet project was the establishment of a silk industry which would make Great Britain less dependent on the silk producers of Italy and the Orient.  Having learned that the mulberry was indigenous to the proposed colony and the climate therein suitable for the silkworm, he and his fellow trustees determined that here would be fitting employment for those who could not do the harder work of laborers, such as women and children, the old and the infirm.

A committee was appointed to investigate the character and circumstances of those who applied to emigrate and to obtain the discharge of such poor prisoners as were deemed worthy.  Only those who had fallen due to the misfortunes of trade and not through laziness or immorality were considered, and they could not leave wives or families without support.

At the same time, the trustees solicited donations of money and stores to feed, clothe, and transport those selected, and to purchase implements for the various trades.  As it was to be a buffer between the British and Spanish colonies, the men chosen were also supplied with arms and drilled daily before they embarked.

Within five months of the receipt of the charter, the first group of settlers had been chosen and their stores purchased.  One hundred and fourteen individuals, most of them in one of 40 families, sailed from Gravesend in November in the ship ‘Ann’.  With them were Oglethorpe as Governor, a doctor, and a pastor.  On this two-month voyage, one stop was made at the island of Madeira to take on five tons of wine and the rest of the time spent crossing the Atlantic, during which time two babies died.  One hundred and twelve settlers arrived in Charleston in January of 1733, where they were warmly greeted by the governor of South Carolina.  From there they sailed to the sheltered town of Port Royal and subsequently to nearby Beaufort, where they could wait in relative comfort while Oglethorpe and an exploration party looked for a settlement site.

South Carolina’s governor wanted them to settle on the Altamaha River, but such a position so close to the Spanish was unfavorable this early in the game, at least until the colony could put up forts and find the men to fill them, and Oglethorpe wisely decided that the first settlement would be on the Savannah River.  Consequently, he and his party scouted along the Savannah for a suitable site, and found it about 18 miles from the mouth of the river, on a high bluff on the western side known as Yamacraw Bluff.

Leaving some of the men to construct a wooden staircase from the river landing to the top of the bluff, Oglethorpe returned for the colonists waiting at Beaufort, and finally, on 1 February (Old Style) / 12 February 1733 (New Style) they landed at the site of present-day Savannah, and began the work of clearing the land.

Savannah in 1734
Oglethorpe described the new settlement in his report to the trustees, 10 February 1733: “The river here forms a half-moon, around the south side of which the banks are about forty feet high, and on the top a flat, which they call a bluff.  The plain, high ground extends into the country about five or six miles, and along the river for about a mile.  Ships that draw near twelve feet of water can ride within ten yards of the bank.  Upon the riverside, in the center of the plain, I have laid out the town, opposite to which is an island of very rich pasturage, which, I think, should be kept for the trustees’ cattle.  The river is pretty wide, the water fresh, and from the quay of the town you see its whole course to the sea, with the island of Tybee, which forms the mouth of the river.  For about six miles up into the country the landscape is very agreeable, the stream being wide and bordered with high woods on both sides.”

In his next letter, after detailing his amicable dealings with the local nations, whom he calls the “Upper Creek”, “Lower Creek”, and “Uchees”, he describes the growing colony: “This province is much larger than we thought, being one hundred and twenty miles from this river to the Altamaha.  The Savannah has a very long course, and a great trade is carried on by the Indians, there having above twelve trading boats passed since I have been here…Our people still lie in tents, there being only two clapboard houses built, and three sawed houses framed.  Our crane, our battery cannon, and magazine are finished.  This is all we have been able to do by reason of the smallness of our number, of which many have been sick, and others unused to labor, though I thank God they are now pretty well, and we have not lost one since we have arrived here.”

Thank God, indeed.  But that was not to last.  The land was fruitful and the climate warm, and both bred disease-carrying mosquitoes.  Within twelve months of their landing, nearly a quarter of the original colonists died, most of them during the summer, and within two years, another 15 were buried. 

But that was in the future.  In May, the ship 'James' arrived with more English colonists and supplies, and the bluff hummed with activity as streets were laid out and more dwellings built.

Oglethorpe’s dealings with the new colony were delineated in an admiring article from the South Carolina Gazette: “Mr. Oglethorpe is indefatigable, and takes a vast deal of pains.  His fare is but indifferent, having little else at present but salt provisions.  He is extremely well beloved by the people.  The title they give him is Father.  If any of them are sick, he immediately visits them and takes great care of them.  If any difference arises, he is the person who decides it.  Two happened while I was here and in my presence, and all the parties went away to all outward appearance satisfied, and contented with the determination.  He keeps a strict discipline; I neither saw one of his people drunk, nor heard one swear all the time I have been here.  He does not allow them rum, but in lieu gives them English beer.  It is surprising to see how cheerfully the men go to work, considering they have not been bred to it.  There are no idlers, even the boys and girls do their part.  There are four houses already up, but none finished; he hopes that he has got more sawyers to finish two houses a week.  He has plowed up some land, part of which is sowed with wheat, which is come up and looks promising.  He has two or three gardens which he has sowed with divers sorts of seeds and planted thyme with other pot-herbs, and several sorts of fruit-trees.  He was palisading the town around, including part of the common.  In short, he has done a vast deal of work for the time, and I think his name deserves to be immortalized… The Indians who are thereabouts are very fond of Mr. Oglethorpe and assist him what they can; and he, on the other side, is very civil to them…”

More colonists arrived by the end of the year, including a group of Jews who came at their own expense.  Oglethorpe welcomed these latter in the teeth of opposition from some of the charitable- minded people of England who threatened to withhold any further donations.  Other persecuted groups soon followed including Protestant Salzburgers from the Catholic principality of Salzburg and Moravians.  The only religious group not allowed within the colony were Catholics.

Despite the death toll, Georgia was growing and Oglethorpe felt he could take the time now to look for suitable sites to establish forts and other defenses.  Consequently, in January of 1734, he and a party of 17 set out to explore the coastline, finding St. Simons Island, where he determined to build Fort St. Simons and Fort Frederica, and the lands on the Altamaha, where New Inverness (Darien) was established by Scots Highlanders on the site of the abandoned Fort King George..

More information can be found at Our Georgia History, including time-lines like this one on James Oglethorpe and articles on the trip over on the 'Ann' and the establishment and early years of Savannah.  I particularly enjoyed the admirably restrained line in the latter: "Members of the colony were concerned about the occasional alligators that would pass through the streets of the new city."

Artwork: Engraving of the Seal of the Trustees of the Colony of Georgia found in Historical Collections of Georgia by George White (1855), p. 319.

Engraving of Savannah in 1734, found in James Oglethorpe: the Founder of Georgia by Harriet Cornelia Cooper (1904), p. 58.