The Heart Of Savannah

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Oglethorpe became the founding father of this New World social experiment because of his sensational and successful attack on the system under which financial unfortunates—who could be, and often were, men of spotless character, suffering some purely temporary pecuniary embarrassment —were imprisoned under the most inhumane conditions on the flimsiest pretext. Oglethorpe, appointed to head an investigating commission in 1728, led his colleagues in full finery from the House of Commons to hold hearings in Fleet Prison. Oglethorpe’s research was so thorough and his report so convincing that it resulted in legislative reform, the Debtors Act of 1730, which corrected the worst abuses.

 

Fresh from this signal success, Oglethorpe was a natural candidate for the Trustees for the Establishment of the Colony of Georgia in America, chartered by King George II “for the settling of the poor persons of London.” Almost half of the twenty-one trustees were former members of Oglethorpe’s prison reform commission.

Though nothing might have been more predictable than that Oglethorpe would be a trustee of the new venture, it is somewhat surprising that he would elect personally to lead the first shipload of settlers from England to the New World. He was, at thirty-five, in his prime: the head of a wealthy and prominent family, with a prosperous estate, Westbrook, 30 miles southwest of London; and, with his reputation for enlightened social concern, one of the brightest stars in the Parliamentary firmament.

But, whether from a sense of responsibility to the trustees and the Crown, or a compelling interest in the social purpose of the colony, or a sense of military duty, or some purely personal consideration, Oglethorpe was on the deck of the 200-ton frigate Ann as she sailed out of Gravesend Harbor on November 17, 1732. In his charge were forty “sober, industrious and moral” families—114 souls—”all of whom had their creditors’ leave to go, and none of whom were deserting wives or families.” After two months at sea, the Ann arrived in Charles Town, now Charleston, South Carolina.

He reported back to the rest of the trustees in England: “Went myself to view the Savannah River. I fixed upon a healthy situation about ten miles from the sea. The river here forms a half-moon, along the south side of which the banks are about forty foot high, and on the top flat. … Upon the riverside in the centre of this plain I have laid out the town. …”

That simple declarative, “I have laid out the town,” is all we know of the genesis of the city plan for Savannah that persists today as a paradigm of urban design. There is no mention by Oglethorpe of the plan’s derivation or even whether it was brought from England and simply projected on the paper-flat landscape (as the plan’s draftsmanlike regularity and rectilinearity suggest) or decided upon by Oglethorpe after a look at the lay of the land.

Without any evidence from the founding father, historians differ: one commentator asserts, “The plan… had been textbook procedure for two hundred years.” Savannah’s archadmirer, the aforementioned Edmund Bacon, tends to the opposite extreme. As though anything he loves quite so much must have an admirable pedigree, Bacon, in an intriguing speculation, traces Oglethorpe’s inspiration back to the first century B.C. Roman architect Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, via a sixteenth-century Venetian named Pietro di Giacomo Cataneo.

However he came by it, Oglethorpe took great pains to make sure that his plan would be faithfully superimposed on the Georgia landscape. Operating from his tent pitched at the edge of the bluff, at the head of the steps built up from the river and within sight of the derrick used to raise heavy supplies, he personally oversaw all aspects of construction and communitv life, from dealing with the resident Creek tribe—Oglethorpe befriended their chief, Tomochichi, learned their language, and later presented a delegation of Creeks at court—to land clearing, construction, fortification, and lawmaking.

If some of the settlers responded bycalling Oglethorpe “Father,” others complained: “Under the influence of our Perpetual Dictator, we have seen something like Aristocracy, Oligarchy, as well as Triumvirate, Decemvirate, and Consular Authority of famous Republics which have expired many years before.” Under Oglethorpe’s purposeful if stern direction, men, women, and children were assigned to appropriate tasks. The townsite was cleared and the first house begun less than a month after the settlers began work in February, 1733.