Yesterday morning we bundled up LeuC and left the Okefenokee Swamp and its alligators behind us. Our destination for the day was another wetlands area, this being the Fort McAllister State Park, nestled in the tidal marsh just to the south of Savannah, Georgia. We will be staying there for a week, allowing us time to leisurely explore Savannah and its environs.
We have never been to Savannah but have always heard great things about it so we are anxious to explore it. This area has played pivotal roles in the establishment of our country and its development. In February 1733, General James Oglethorpe with 120 passengers on the English ship “Anne” landed along the Savannah River. Oglethorpe named the 13th and final American colony “Georgia” after England’s King George II. The plan was to offer a new start for England’s working poor and to strengthen the colonies by increasing trade. However, its underlying political goal was to start the colony as a buffer zone for South Carolina, protecting it from the advance of the Spanish in Florida. South Carolina is located just across the Savannah River to the north.
Upon settling, Oglethorpe became friends with the local Yamacraw Indian chief, Tomochichi. Oglethorpe and Tomochichi pledged mutual goodwill and the Yamacraw chief granted the new arrivals permission to settle Savannah on the bluff. As a result, the town flourished without warfare and accompanying hardship that burdened many of America’s early colonies.
Savannah is known as America’s first planned city. Oglethorpe laid the city out in a series of grids that allowed for wide open streets intertwined with shady public squares and parks that served as town meeting places and centers of business. Savannah had 24 original squares; 22 squares are still in existence today.
As Savannah grew, it proved to be a strategic port city in the American Revolution and later during the American Civil War. In 1778, the British took Savannah and held it until 1782. Eventually, a land-sea force of French and American troops reclaimed the city’s independence.
After this turbulent time, Savannah saw a long period of agricultural flourish. With rich soil and a favorable climate, Savannah and its surrounding land became home to cotton and rice fields as plantations and slavery became highly profitable systems.
The cotton gin, an innovation created by Eli Whitney in 1794, made growing cotton so much more profitable, was invented on a plantation outside of Savannah. Upon graduation from Yale, in 1792, Whitney had moved from Massachusetts initially as a tutor but, upon his arrival, he discovered that his agreed upon salary was to be cut in half. Thus, he rejected that position and accepted a position at the Mulberry Grove plantation outside of Savannah to read law. There he met Phineas Miller, another Yale alum, who was fiancé and manager of the owner’s estate. The owner, Catherine Greene, was a widow whose husband was the famous Revolutionary war hero, General Nathanael Greene. He died in 1786 of sunstroke, leaving his wife to care for and manage the plantation.
Though green-seed cotton was widely available, it took hours of manual labor to properly clean the seed and extract the fiber. With widow Greene’s and Miller’s support, Whitney worked through the winter to devise a machine that was able to quickly and efficiently clean the cotton using a system of hooks, wires and a rotating brush.
When Whitney demonstrated his new cotton gin (“gin” being short for engine) to some colleagues—with the device producing more cotton in an hour than what could be produced by multiple workers in a day—the reaction was immediate. Local planters took to the widespread planting of green-seed cotton.
Whitney and Miller patented the gin in 1794, with the aim of producing and installing gins throughout the South and charging farmers 40% of resulting profits. Their device was widely pirated, however, with farmers creating their own version of the gin. Whitney spent years in legal battles and by the turn of the century agreed to license gins at an affordable rate. Southern planters were ultimately able to reap huge financial windfalls from the invention while Whitney made almost no net profit, even after he was able to receive monetary settlements from various states.
Tomorrow, we hope to going into Savannah and explore a bit. With the next blog I will try to post any pictures we take and continue with a little more of its history.