James Edward Oglethorpe, Founder of Savannah
James Edward Oglethorpe was born in 1696 in London, England. He had an early and successful military career and served on the British parliament for more than three decades. The lessons he learned and the people he met as a young man played a huge roll in shaping Oglethorpe as a man and the future colony of Georgia.
In England, Oglethorpe pushed for penal reform and an end to slavery and religious persecution. He was a man of ideals and dreamt of place where men were productively employed, rather than living in an overcrowded and underemployed city such as London with little choice but to resort to criminal activity and be thrown into prison for their debts. He was inspired to found a new colony in North America where the poor could start over and Protestants could avoid discrimination.
Georgia & Savannah’s Founding
In 1732, Oglethorpe persuaded King George II to grant a charter to create the new colony of Georgia and name Oglethorpe as one of its Trustees to govern it. Oglethorpe and the other trustees held the colony in high regard and wanted to see it succeed. The trustees also wanted a classless society in which inhabitants worked their own land, so they selected colonists that would to bring success to Georgia: honest farmers, bankers, merchants and tradesmen.
In November of 1732, around 120 (the numbers vary by source) men, women, and children set sail on the ship Anne toward their new home in the Georgia colony – and Oglethorpe was among them. The new settlers landed in Charleston, South Carolina two months later, then moved south to Port Royal to rest. Oglethorpe took a band of rangers to scout the nearby land for a place to settle. The scouts found Yamacraw Bluff, a high point of land along the south end of the Savannah River.
Yamacraw Bluff was home to the Yamacraw Indian tribe. Tomochichi, the Yamacraw chief, was familiar with the English from dealings with the Carolinas. Oglethorpe, bent on success, knew that he had to deal fairly with the Indians or risk the fate of his colony. Tomochichi knew that his tribe could benefit from diplomatic relations and a trade settlement in this advantageous location near the mouth of the Savannah River. Because of their mutual respect, Savannah – and a friendship – was born.
Oglethorpe and the colonists began clearing the land around Yamacraw Bluff in February of 1733. The work was quick and Oglethorpe was soon able to begin realizing his plan for Savannah. He envisioned a city based on a grid system with six wards and squares. Though charming as we see it now, the layout was meant to allow room for military exercises and was similar to the military camps with which Oglethorpe was familiar.
Other Contributions to Georgia
One year later Oglethorpe established the first Masonic Lodge, called Solomon’s Lodge, which is touted to be the first freemason establishment in the western hemisphere.
Through his relationship with the Yamacraw, Oglethorpe was able to secure the colony with defensive forts, such as Fort Frederica, where he was successful in defending Georgia against the Spanish in 1742 in the Battle of Bloody Marsh.
Although the parliament called Oglethorpe back to his native England in 1743, he continued to serve on the Board of Trustees of Georgia until 1750.
Oglethorpe in Savannah Today
You can still see James Edward Oglethorpe’s impact in modern-day Savannah. You can see his original city plans in the blocked layout of the oak-lined streets and moss-covered squares
of the downtown historic district. His name lives on across the city, carved into businesses, streets, squares and schools – even an apartment community in nearby Pooler boasts his name.
Oglethorpe Square was one of Oglethorpe’s original six squares. Over the years, Oglethorpe’s square system expanded to Forsyth Park. Though some of the squares have been lost or have been repurposed, the squares continue to be treasured by the city and remain a huge part of the city’s appeal. Oglethorpe’s city plan is such an important part of history that the plan was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1994.
Chippewa Square has been home to Daniel Chester French’s nine-foot bronze statue of the General James Edward Oglethorpe since 1910. Savannahians continue to honor their city’s founder by naming all sorts of things after him. Oglethorpe Avenue bears his name, as well as Oglethorpe Mall, a city tour company, a school and a hotel. There is even a golf tournament in his name.