Orleans Square in Savannah's historic district

In this column, members of the Georgia Humanities Council and their colleagues take turns discussing Georgia’s history and culture, and other topics that matter. Through different voices, we hear different stories.

By Jamil Zainaldin

James Oglethorpe, founder of the Georgia colony
James Oglethorpe, founder of the Georgia colony

February 12 is Georgia Day, a time for commemorating the founding of the 13th colony in 1733. Our state has many distinctions when it comes to historic sites and architecture, and more than a handful of firsts. On any list of eminent inheritances belongs Georgia’s premier coastal gem, Savannah, the birthplace of the colony and state.

As one of the finest examples of urban historic preservation in North America, Savannah and its historic district rank among the world’s noted tourist destinations. Its downtown includes one of the largest National Historic Landmark Districts in the United States. Laid out by its founder, James Edward Oglethorpe, the city is considered one of the earliest and finest examples of urban planning anywhere in the world.

After a two-month journey across the Atlantic, and a brief stop in South Carolina, the first English settlers of the colony of Georgia landed in February 1733 at Yamacraw Bluff on the Savannah River, about 15 miles inland from the coast. After clearing out a section of pine forest, Oglethorpe planned and began work on what was to become his capital town.

The plan hinged on what Oglethorpe called the “ward,” which surrounded an open “square.” The plan for each ward was identical: ten-house “tything” lots for families, and “trust” lots reserved for churches, schools, and businesses. Each ward contained eight city blocks (two on a side). Because the colony needed to be self-sustaining and, ideally, silk-producing (for export), each ward came paired with a garden lot reserved on an outlying farm.

Savannah city plan, 1770. Credit: Hargrett Rare Book & Manuscript Library, University of Georgia Libraries
Savannah city plan, 1770. Credit: Hargrett Rare Book & Manuscript Library, University of Georgia Libraries

The core of it all was the square — a public space where the jostling interests of family, industry, government, and worship combined. Another advantage was laying wards out in a connecting grid. This allowed the city to grow and spread without sacrificing the intimacy of community (one source of the plan’s continuing appeal to modern city planners). By the time of the Civil War, the number of squares had grown from a few to 28, 22 of which still remain today (each about one acre).

The city layout had another distinct advantage: it formed a natural fortress, with training grounds for militia. Spanish settlement in Florida was a serious threat to the southern colonies, and Georgia’s official role in the New World was to be that of a buffer. (For that reason, Catholicism specifically was prohibited in the plan for the colony.)

What stands out in Oglethorpe’s vision for Georgia is the place of civil society, the very reason for the colony’s creation. At the core of this vision is an ethos of service, relative equality, commitment to community, and economic development. There was room neither for slavery (it was banned by the Trustees and Oglethorpe) nor religious bigotry (persecuted minorities were welcomed). Oglethorpe also practiced an enlightened and respectful policy toward those already living on the land — Chief Tomochichi and his people.

Madison Square in Savannah. Credit: www.betweennapsontheporch.net
Madison Square in Savannah. Credit: www.betweennapsontheporch.net

Still, the mythology of Georgia’s founding as a debtors’ colony lives on — stubbornly. A more accurate depiction of the colony’s founding is that of a New World opportunity for personal freedom and growth. That same New World impulse would become also a source of its undoing. Georgia’s earliest European settlers couldn’t resist the Atlantic slave trade’s allure and the glimmering prospects of wealth held out by its neighbor to the north — South Carolina. There, merchant princes used slaves to work massive estates that produced rice, indigo, and cotton for Old World markets. Within 20 years of Georgia’s founding, the prohibition on slavery (and rum and lawyers, too) passed away, replaced by that more recognizable society that assumed statehood in 1789, spreading ever westward to its present-day boundaries.

The modern visitor to Savannah will find an historic and enduring Atlantic port city on the make, reclaiming its past in order to embrace its future. For those who look deeper, they will also see remnants of a city plan that blends civic, religious, business, and residential society. The open quality of the 22 squares hints at an “urban forest of unsurpassed beauty and utility,” as city planner and New Georgia Encyclopedia author Beth Reiter puts it.

As the squares urge upon us a pause, a beckoning even to stroll, they may also inspire a renewed appreciation of Oglethorpe’s lofty vision (surely the loftiest of all the colonies), what Georgia’s former poet laureate, David Bottoms, calls “Oglethorpe’s dream.” To misread Georgia’s founding as a “debtors’ colony” is a misreading not only of history but also of the forces that drive it. More than 280 years later, the best of Oglethorpe’s dream still lives.

Kelly Caudle of the New Georgia Encyclopedia provides editorial assistance for the “Jamil’s Georgia” columns.

Jamil Zainaldin is president of Georgia Humanities, a nonprofit organization working to ensure that humanities and culture remain an integral part of the lives of Georgians. The organization is a cultural...

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  1. lcurtrig Yes, it seems like a contradiction, and is in the case of the Catholics, though there were military and crown considerations that governed that (the Spanish were immediately to the South of colony, a threatening presence at the time).  Otherwise, Georgia was remarkably diverse.  Here is an excerpt form the New Georgia Encyclopedia: “In addition to its founding English settlers, http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/arts-culture/judaism-and-jews arrived from London in the summer of 1733; they later founded the http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/arts-culture/congregation-mickve-israel, the oldest Jewish congregation in the South. In the spring of 1734 came Evangelical http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/arts-culture/lutheran-church from Salzburg, known as http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/salzburgers, who settled on the Savannah River at a town they named http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/ebenezer. Scottish Highlanders and German http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/arts-culture/moravians came in 1736, followed by Dutch, Welsh, and Irish settlers. http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/arts-culture/john-wesley-1703-1791 and http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/arts-culture/charles-wesley-1707-1788 conducted http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/arts-culture/anglican-church services. In 1737 the Reverend http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/arts-culture/george-whitefield-1714-1770 arrived and soon after founded http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/arts-culture/bethesda, colonial America’s first orphanage.”

  2. JamilZ lcurtrig  From the Georgia Encyclopedia:

    “Oglethorpe led the British effort to establish a colony in Georgia. He hoped to create an enlightened society in Britain’s southernmost American colony, while the British wanted Georgia to serve as a buffer zone between (Protestant) British Carolina to the north and (Catholic) Spanish Florida to the south. Oglethorpe encouraged such diverse, often oppressed, groups as the http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/salzburgers, who established the http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/ebenezer settlement, and Spanish and German http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/arts-culture/judaism-and-jews to settle in the new colony. In recognition of its role as a military buffer and a haven for religious outcasts, however, the colony forbade the practice of Catholicism. When Georgia converted to a http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/royal-georgia-1752-1776 in the 1750s, the ban on Catholicism remained.Catholics would not find acceptance in Georgia until the http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/revolutionary-war-georgia (1775-83). The values of the Revolution and its emphasis on individual liberty, including the freedom of religion, overcame some of the prejudice against Catholics. Furthermore, a group of nearly 3,900 http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/french-presence-georgia, Haitian, and Irish Catholic troops fought for the new nation at the http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/siege-savannah in 1779. The people of Georgia did not forget these brave soldiers, among them the Polish Count http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/casimir-pulaski-georgia, for whom http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/fort-pulaski is named. The http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/government-politics/georgia-constitution of 1777 rewarded Catholics with some rights, although it prevented them from holding political office. Catholicism remained dormant in Georgia until the formal acceptance of the U.S. Constitution in 1789, when Catholics received equal rights under http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/government-politics/government-and-laws-overview.”

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