Savannah welcomes about 17 million visitors a year. And if they take any sort of tour, they’re bound to leave thinking that our history begins with James Oglethorpe in 1733.
Yes, the English founded the Georgia colony at Savannah. But there were thousands of years of human history here before even the idea of Georgia came into anyone’s head!
Archaeologist David Hurst Thomas of the American Museum of Natural History in New York has made it his life’s work to uncover, interpret and share this important history.
The Ossabaw Island Foundation welcomed the famed artifact-seeker at its “Coastal Nature, Coastal Culture” symposium, a remarkable assembly of minds in February.
“It’s not what you find, it’s what you find out,” Thomas told the gathered crowd. And he’s found a staggering amount of archaeology on St. Catherine’s Island in particular.
That’s where the Spanish had a mission that was lost to history for 300 years until Thomas discovered it 1981. The mission site has been a treasure trove for historical researchers.
“There’s more 16th and 17th Century religious paraphernalia from this one site than from all the other 16th and 17th Century missions put together in this country,” he said.
And that’s not the only superlative that Thomas shared about Georgia’s pre-Oglethorpe history. Did you know that the first slave revolt in this country happened in Georgia?
It took place in 1526 at San Miguel de Gualdape. Spanish explorer Lucas de Ayllon established the settlement quite possibly in present day McIntosh or Liberty Counties.
“He set up a community that we can’t find,” Thomas said. “I would love to tell you the archaeology of San Miguel de Gualdape. But I can’t because we don’t know where it is.”
This was the first European settlement in what’s now the United States. And don’t you call that pretty darn special? Tell the tour guides! Oh, wait. I am a tour guide!
Of course, all of these Spanish were interacting with Native American people. Thomas goes into their history as well, interpreting as much as he can from bones and artifacts.
One thing he knows for certain is that the oldest of these native peoples – the ones who didn’t turn to corn for food because of social-political reasons – thrived on the land.
“The healthiest people who lived on St. Catherine’s, including us, lived 4,000 years ago,” he said. “They had a mixed diet. They had no tooth decay. They were incredibly robust.”
And just like some native populations succeeded while others did not, the Spanish also came to this coast in differing waves and had differing experiences of success or failure.
As Thomas describes it, the earliest Spanish missionaries, the Jesuits, took a hard line on natives. They attempted to missionize them, that is, convert them to the Spanish lifestyle.
It was a failure in Spanish eyes. Not one baptism was performed. The later missionaries, the Franciscans, however, kept the Indian social structure intact while creating converts.
“Friars were invited in because the Indians understood that they could keep being Indians,” he said. “So it’s realistic to think of the Franciscan Order as the Peace Corp.”
Of course, there’s so much more to Georgia’s “pre-Georgia” history. And much of it is threatened by sea level rise. So, if we’re to know our past, the time to discover it is now!
Thomas’ 35-minute lecture is an excellent crash course in expanding historical timelines. And going beyond the surface history is what this three-day symposium was all about.
I’m thrilled to bring you the “Coastal Nature, Coastal Culture” symposium this year with support from the Ossabaw Island Foundation. Expect a new lecture about once a month.