Colonial Savannah- Not A Pretty Sight

Today the city of Savannah is visually stunning. During it’s early days, not so much.

To build their primitive houses the colonists cut down numerous trees and quickly used the lumber to construct buildings. The lumber had not been cured properly so the boards warped and the small homes were soon distorting and becoming ramshackle. Streets were unpaved and were simply churned mud, polluted by manure from horses and even human waste. Chamber pots were emptied into the roadways.

Mosquitoes thrive in the low country and were a constant nuisance and an incredible health hazard to our early colonists. Many quickly died of such mosquito born illnesses as yellow fever and malaria, including the only doctor on the initial ship, William Cox. The primitive graveyard, located just south of Wright Square and occupied by a block of buildings today, was filling up quickly. In fact 50 of the 133 original colonists died in the first year!

The Savannah River was much more shallow in 1733 and alligators occasionally clambered up the banks, terrifying the English colonists. 

The idyllic Trustees Garden which was initially off to a good start soon fell prey to drought, frost and neglect and was largely gone by 1738. By 1751 all that remained were a couple of fruit and olive trees. Farm plots suffered from neglect as well and were often simply left uncleared and uncultivated.

Indentured servants were  introduced to assist the colonists. An indentured servant was a person who wanted to come to the New World but could not afford the passage. They would enter into a contract to be a servant for a certain period of years and their passage was then paid. An early colonist complained that their masters were “beating them in the streets”. A group of Irish indentured servants entered into a plot to slaughter the colonists and flee. Fortunately for the colony this was discovered before it was acted upon and more public lashings ensued. 

Rum and highly alcoholic spirits were initially banned but were easily available. Publick Houses, early taverns, abounded and in 1735 a colonist wrote that the Tybee Island lighthouse would never be completed because the workmen lay around drunk all day. In 1737 Elisha Dobree wrote from Frederica, “When people are driven to poverty, distress, they will drink when they can get it to keep up their courage….Our people are almost mad and I am obliged to drink with them”.

Colonists began to flee to Charleston SC and back home to England. The situation in Savannah deteriorated steadily throughout the next decade. Three of four houses stood empty. The Tybee Island lighthouse which had been completed , fell down in 1741. The squares were overgrown with weeds and full of vermin. The founder of Georgia, James Oglethorpe, left for England in 1743, never to return. 

The first decade of Savannah Georgia was hardly the utopia that had been envisioned by those who conceived of it and certainly not an accurate harbinger of the stunning city we have today. 

74 thoughts on “Colonial Savannah- Not A Pretty Sight

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