Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Von Reck Was Here First...

I feel like a Georgian. I came here from Fort Bragg in 1989 and was stationed at Hunter Army Airfield. After retiring from that duty in 1998 I stayed - like many other damned Yankees. Savannah has changed greatly in my 30 years of loving her, but her waterways are mostly the same today as when I first rode on them.

The ships in the river have gotten bigger, but the river is
much the same (albeit deeper) as it was in the 1730s. 
While cruising the river I reflect on the decades of memories; places visited and friendships made. But compared to my favorite local historical figure, Philipp Von Reck, I am a newcomer. Compared to Von Reck, we are all FNGs. He was here first.

Philipp was only 23 years old when he came to Georgia with the first transport of German religious exiles, the Salzburgers. In 1734 he helped them settle Ebenezer - Hebrew for "stone of help" - about twenty-five miles northwest of Savannah on a small creek with the same name. Von Reck went home to Augsburg in the south of Germany and came back with another group of exiles in the spring of 1736.

Upon his second arrival with the third transport of exiles, Von Reck convinced Oglethorpe to permit the upriver settlers to move their town from its initial and unsuitable location on Ebenezer Creek to the place where that creek joins the Savannah River. It's inspiring and indicative of the quality of his character that at such a young age he felt obliged to do everything in his power - to risk life and limb and fortune - for others.

He almost died for his endeavors. If he were alive today, I would be tempted to call him the Badass Baron from Bavaria.

That new town up the river was named "New Ebenezer" and it is part and parcel of Georgia history, even impacting the prohibition on strong spirits in effect during the colony's early years. You can read about the rum-for-timber scheme in the "Rum Runners" post on this blog.

Along with Michael Neal, owner of Bull River Cruises and pictured here, I do tours up the Savannah River to Ebenezer Creek and the site of New Ebeneezer. The river we traverse today is little changed from its appearance when Von Reck was here. If you are interested in riding through history and seeing these sights - and today's modern Port of Savannah - contact me at:
or call 912 657-5222
The Savannah River. It is unspoiled, largely undeveloped, and exceedingly beautiful. Georgia lays to the left and South Carolina to the right. In Von Reck's time, "Indian trade" boats - long narrow-hulled dugouts - plied the river regularly. Paddling or poling upriver was a slog. The return was an easy drift with the current. Larger cargo vessels - flats - were built upriver, floated down to Savannah, and sold off for the lumber.
 Ebenezer Creek, a blackwater stream, was a source of cypress tree trunks; excellent for making dugout canoes and periaguas. The creek was the path for much Salzburger timber to be floated to the Savannah River and thence down to Savannah. Remains of piers and old pilings exist today. This ride is a trip back through time.
Ebenezer Creek is also the location of a civil-war tragedy in which hundreds of newly-freed slaves drowned while attempting to follow a column of Union soldiers as Confederate troops closed in on them. This event led to General Sherman's Special Field Order Number 15 which ceded the barrier islands and lands adjacent to the St. Johns River in Florida to Freedmen. You may remember references to "Forty acres and a mule." This order was rescinded after President Lincoln was assassinated.

Now, back to our story...

There was a flurry of simultaneous activity taking place in Georgia as New Ebenezer was coming to life. Oglethorpe directed the construction of a new church and pier at Savannah. He also sought to establish and strengthen outposts south of Savannah to serve as a defense against the Spaniards at St. Augustine. The Spanish were incensed at the British incursion into - what they viewed as - their lands.  Both Darien, settled by Scottish Highlanders, and Fort Frederica, a military garrison supported by immigrant-settlers, were created for this purpose. 

Learn more about Fort Frederica here.

Fort Frederica when fully developed. Image courtesy National Park Service

Wanting to further coordinate and secure Oglethorpe's support for the Salzburgers, and also perhaps to learn and see more of Georgia, Von Reck became part of a party making a journey by boat from Savannah southward  - in effect he was chasing Oglethorpe who had headed south himself with a contingent of people and supplies, prior to Von Reck's departure on the 19th of May. Von Reck is remarkable not only for his copious note-taking about the things he was seeing but also for his detailed sketches. In an age before cameras, Philipp did us the tremendous favor of creating images with pencil and paper. These images were almost lost to history.

“In 1976 a Danish scholar, searching through heaps of manuscripts in the Royal Library at Copenhagen, found an old sketchbook, lost and forgotten for two hundred years, with some fifty beautiful drawings of colonial Georgia. The drawings belonged to and were presumably made by a twenty-five-year-old German colonist, Philip Georg Friedrich von Reck, who came with the Salzburgers to Georgia in 1736. When he died in the 1790’s the drawings were given to the King of Denmark, in whose library they remained unknown for two centuries…Von Reck kept a vivid diary and made detailed pictures of what he saw in Georgia ..." Kristian Hvidt in "Von Reck's Voyage to Georgia in 1736")

After leaving the Savannah River on their journey to Frederica, Von Reck passed through what was then known as St. Augustine Creek (perhaps because it was the beginning of the inland passage to St. Augustine - today's Wilmington River) and passed by what would later become Causton's Bluff.

Von Reck's sketch of 1. An Indian trade boat working up the Savannah River and
2. Mr. Causton's design for a cargo vessel (top and bottom view). Von Reck
derided Causton's design as being unsuitable for the river, but Causton's Bluff
is on a tidal river. Twice each day that river goes each way.

His party rowed, sailed, or drifted past Thunderbolt and "Skidoway," and in the evening passed through "Skidoway Marsh."  He might have been describing today's Romerly Marsh, lying between Skidaway and Wassaw Islands. or they might have taken the Skidaway River past the future Isle of Hope and Wormsloe Plantation of Noble Jones. (Jones was an all-purpose can-do kind of man. He surveyed New Ebenezer and much or all of Savannah and Augusta.)

Skidaway Narrows was not the route used by commercial traffic until the Army Corps of Engineers dug and dredged a waterway there in 1905.  Prior to the dredging, the Narrows were described in a Corps report as being so narrow that a rowboat would have its oars in the marsh on each side. But passage through the narrows must have been possible or else Wormsloe wouldn't have been built where it is,  to warn of Spanish attack ( I have been told that Wormsloe, on the Skidaway River south of town, is situated such that a rider on a galloping horse could warn Savannah of an attacking force coming up the inland passage. Any further south and the horse would collapse...)

Von Reck wrote that after passing through Skidaway Marsh "our boat had gone on a sandbank, so we had to jump into the water and push it until we found deep water." It might please Philipp to know that Savannah boaters still find themselves on sandbanks and have to jump in and push for deeper water. After all, there are two kinds of boaters here; those who have run aground and those who will. Our nutrient and sediment-rich waters obscure the view to a few feet in the winter and inches in the summer.  The swift tidal currents created by 6 to 9-foot tides scour deep holes and create massive bars, and these two features are often located within a few yards of each other.

When Von Reck ran aground  he was probably in some part of Ossabaw Sound, maybe in the area that we now call "Hell Gate." (Or Hell's Gate)  As the inland passage to Fort Frederica (and on to Florida) proceeds southwest from that point, it makes sense that they would have passed through there. In his account of the journey, Philipp next mentions that they came upon a "petiager" - perhaps returning to Savannah from Darien or Frederica - and he drew a picture of it. The name, in all its forms and spellings, is derived from the Carib-language word for a dugout canoe hewn from one or two solid tree trunks. The periagua was the pickup truck of the river and it was as important to the history of "here" as anything ever was.

His sketch of the Sloop-rigged Periagua that Von Reck saw near Ossabaw Island while traveling to Frederica
 on St. Simon's. The establishment of Oglethorpe's southern defenses required a multitude of small-craft capable of navigating the inland passage. Accessed at Google Images "Von Reck's sketch of a petiager."

Passing south inside of Ossabaw they observed the fires of native-American hunting parties, but the "ebb" of the tide prevented a visit. This raises a point worth noting. I think travelers on the inland passage would have made as much of a favorable tidal flow as they could - as I do when I ride the circle-loop around Wilmington, Whitemarsh, and Oatland Islands. While strong-backed men or a favorable wind in the sails could pull against a tide, it makes sense that they would time departures and select routes to coincide with a favorable flow.

They landed at St. Catherine's for freshwater, They passed Sapelo Island and Sound, Doughboy Island and Sound, and shot birds and gathered eggs on Egg Island. They sailed throughout the night and reached Fort Frederica on the 22nd. A "Captain Delegal" was serving on St. Simons, so that explains "Delegal" Creek and Marina on the south end of Skidaway Island.

When Von Reck got to Frederica, preparations were underway for a foray into Florida and action against the Spaniards at St. Augustine. Von Reck decided to join that trip as well. He writes, "I decided to make the trip south together with my brother and the people we had brought along in order to find a convenient occasion to speak with Mr. (General) Oglethorpe."

This young man was determined and fearless!

The return from Florida to Georgia went as so, "On the 17th of June we departed Fort St. George and reached Frederica on the 18th and Savannah on the 24th and Ebenezer on the 26th ..." All in all a remarkable journey across the very waters we traverse today. Imagine for an instant coming around a bend in the river and encountering these people in their periaguas.

Von Reck remained in Georgia until he and his brother both became ill with dysentery and fevers. Georgia was a hard place to live for the first Europeans that settled here and most of them died.  On the 18th of September 1736, Philipp Von Reck and his brother were taken to Savannah and cared for by the Reverend John Wesley and Charles Delamotte. This evacuation and care probably saved their lives. They left Savannah for Charleston on the 12th of October. Von Reck returned to Germany, studied law, married Elizabeth Sophie, and became a privy counselor and magistrate. He died on March 13th, 1798, aged 87 years, 6 months, 3 days.

What an amazing man and how I would have loved to have met him!

(information for this post obtained from JStor (https://www.jstor.org/stable/1920702?seq=2#metadata_info_tab_contents), Google, and of course the fantastic "Tidecraft" by Rusty Fleetwood. Yes, it's that good.)

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