- Historic Sites
The Heart Of Savannah
An aging southern belle fights for a new lease on life
December 1970 | Volume 22, Issue 1
By July 7 things were far enough advanced to permit a pause for formalities. The South-Carolina Gazette reported the occasion: ”… the Inhabitants were assembled, on the Strand Prayers were read, by way of Thanksgiving. The people proceeded to the Square. The Wards and Tythings were named, each Tything consisting of ten Houses, and each Ward of fourty things. An House Lott was given to each Freeholder. All the people had a very plentiful Dinner. … Some of the People having privately drank too freely of Rum are dead; and that Liquor which was always discountenanced here, is now absolutely prohibited.” (Prohibition remained on the books until 1742, when it succumbed to reality.)
The house lot each settler received was a precise 60-by-90-foot rectangle. Two ranks of five side-by-side lots made up a tything, and two pairs of tythings faced each other across each 270-by-315 foot square. Thus, forty house lots made up each ward. (See illustrations, page 54.) The remaining two sides of the squares, to the east and west, were kept as “trust lots,” for public buildings, stores, churches, etc.
In addition to a house lot, each family was assigned a five-acre garden plot in the city common just south of the residential section and a farm of almost fortyfive acres just beyond that, for a total of fifty acres per family. To prevent land speculation and concentration of capital—land—these grants were nontransferable. More privileged colonists, called “adventurers,” who came to the New World on their own impulse and their own cash, were given discretionary title to five-hundred-acre plots on the outskirts of the settlement.
Although the precise rationale for this design is lost to us, its military geometry probably signals the fundamental consideration. Each house was required to contribute one armed man to the local defense forces, and the open squares undoubtedly served as drill grounds, as well as safe refuges for outlanders and livestock that would be driven into the city in case of enemy attack. The pattern for Savannah’s inner city was set by the original four wards laid out by Oglethorpe, to which he added two more before 1736.
Oglethorpe sailed home to England land for good in 1743 after ten years of colonizing, treating with the Indians, fighting the Spanish, and serving as legislator and lobbyist for the Georgia settlement. He lived to sympathize with the American Revolution, and died in June, 1785, after welcoming to London John Adams, the first American ambassador.
For the first sixty years of its existence Savannah struggled along as a military outpost for the more prosperous colonies to the north. Without any great economic function in the colonial scheme and overshadowed by nearby Charleston, Savannah’s fortunes rose and fell according to military necessity and political chance. By the time of the Revolution, which the city lived through almost from beginning to end in the hands of the British, suffering one abortive and very destructive French-American liberation attempt, Savannah could claim only about three thousand citizens. A member of the British occupying forces noted that “the Houses lie Scattered and are poorly built mostly of wood —in Short, the whole has a most wretched miserable appearance.” One Ebenezer Hazard, in 1778, dismissed Savannah as “a small Town, situated on the Top of a Sand-Hill.”
(By 1791, things had evidently improved somewhat. President Washington, on a visit that year, failed to record his impressions of the terrain or the architecture, but he did note “about 100 well dressed and handsome ladies.”)
The success of Savannah remained doubtful until 1793, when it was decided for the next century. The year before, a young New Englander arrived to visit a plantation near Savannah after an unpleasant boat trip during which, he reported home, “I was very seasick for six days, in which time I ate nothing that I did not puke up immediately.” After his recovery, young Eli wrote to Mr. and Mrs. Whitney back home, “I heard nuch said of the extreme difficulty of ginning cotton. … I involuntarily happened to be thinking on the subject and struck at a plan, a machine with which one man will clean ten times as much cotton as he can in any other way… .”
Savannah had found its true vocation and its salvation: cotton. Total U.S. exports of the white miracle fiber increased from 200,000 pounds just before Whitney’s invention to 64,000,000 pounds little more than a decade later. Much of it passed through the factoring houses that rose along the Savannah river front. In 1794 exports from the port totalled less than $500,000; by 1819 they had risen thirtyfold to $14,000,000, and Savannah was the sixteenth largest city in America, launching the first steam-powered ship to cross the Atlantic, bearing the name of her home port proudly on her bow.