Righting The Wrong In Wright Square
One of Savannah’s dirty little secrets is blithely passed by each day by thousands of its visitors and citizens; but there it sits, in the middle of Wright Square. It came about so many generations ago that only Savannah’s ghosts know of it, and the shame it holds for the city.
Meet Savannah’s First Host
In the winter of 1733, James Oglethorpe and a small party scouted for a location upon which to settle the immigrants he’d left back in Charleston, where they had all just arrived after a two month voyage aboard the Anne. He and his party found a village of native Americans living upon a high bluff that overlooked the River Savannah.
Accompanying Oglethorpe was Mary Griffin Musgrove who was half Creek and was able to act as an interpreter. The village was of the Yamacraws, a small off shoot of the Creek and Yamasee nations, and their founder and leader was Chief Tomochichi.
Oglethorpe requested of Tomochichi permission to begin his new settlement on that high bluff. Chief Tomochichi welcomed the Englishmen and even moved his village to the far north end of Yamacraw Bluff. Tomochichi was, indeed, the Hostess City’s First Host.
Not only did the chieftain make room for the English settlers, he subsequently provided invaluable aide to the colony in securing amicable relations for the newcomers with the several native groups in and surrounding the lands of what became Georgia.
Had hostilities ensued, the fragile settlement dealing with a new agricultural landscape and malarial ills, as well as Spanish threats from the south, could easily have been done in.
He conducted his diplomacy on both sides of the Atlantic, on one occasion traveling to London with Oglethorpe to meet the Trustees of the Georgia Colony and its namesake, King George II.
Death and Remembrance
At the time of Savannah’s and Georgia’s founding, the Yamacraw leader was already advanced in years. Laying ill, he had to forego a trip with Oglethorpe into the interior, and passed away soon after on October 5, 1739.
At Oglethorpe’s command, he was given an English military funeral with burial at the center of Wright Square, over which was placed a pyramid of stones, it being a traditional Creek memorial.
Fast forward to 1882, when a ‘hostile’ takeover attempt of the, Savannah headquartered, Central of Georgia Railway (by the Knoxville based, East Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia Rail Road) had company officials fretting over their own job security and personal earnings potential.
The merger attempt, of course, depended on getting enough shareholders to sell their CoG shares to the ETV&G or trade it for stock in the new company. Most such buys usually offer a premium price and/or favorable stock trade ratio as incentive to close the deal.
Who would gain or keep control largely wrested upon decisions of stockholders living in Savannah, where the CoG was founded some 50 years before. That predicament posed an opportunity to the company’s management. By leveraging hometown and state pride many local stockholders could be swayed into forgoing the premiums being offered for their CoG stock.
Thus, it was decided to buy the most beautiful and impressive monument the city had ever seen with the supposition of memorializing the founder of the company, William W. Gordon. The ‘gift’ and fanfare would surely be favorable to their own personal interests.
It’s unlikely that any of these executives had ever known William Gordon, as he’d died 40 years earlier. And, while Mr. Gordon had held a few public offices, his legacy had never sparked a swell of emotion sufficient to instigate such a remarkable public tribute; even from his peers. The intent here was to ingratiate the city to the company, not the man.
The Wright Spot
The plan’s success also depended on location; the monument must be placed in the most prominent spot possible. A park square along Bull Street, the city’s premiere thoroughfare, and close to the commercial heart of the city would be necessary.
Johnson Square, that lay between Bay and Broughton Streets, hotbeds of business and retail activity, already contained both the grave site of and a monument to the Revolutionary War hero, General Nathaniel Greene.
Next down Bull Street was Wright Square. That this square held the grave site of Chief Tomochichi at its center, topped with a traditional stone pyramid memorial, was immaterial to a company management team who had twice (since the founder’s death) desecrated native American burial sites while laying new track.
Nor did the CoG executives think the people of Savannah would object to their usurping the memorial and grave site of an ‘Indian’; even if ordained by General Oglethorpe himself.
Unfortunately, Savannah public officials (who had to approve of such placement) were of no consequence in the matter, as like today they behave as mere extensions of the city’s special financial interests.
Gordon v. Central of Georgia
Not all of Savannah was agreeable to the removal of Tomochichi’s memorial at the center of Wright Square. In fact, it was William Gordon’s daughter-in-law who was among the loudest of the dissenters. Though she and others could not halt the moneyed interests of the city from having their way, Nellie Kinzie Gordon, the mother of Juliette Gordon Low (future Girl Scouts of America founder), could insure that Chief Tomochichi’s memory was not going to disappear silently into the Savannah night.
At that time Mrs. Gordon and other ladies in Savannah were in the midst of forming the Georgia branch of the Colonial Dames, and their first mission was to keep Tomochichi’s memory alive in Wright Square. Mrs. Gordon arranged for the Colonial Dames to purchase and have installed in the square a large granite boulder (shipped from Stone Mountain, GA) on which was placed a plaque commemorating the Chief’s very important role in the founding of Savannah and the Georgia colony.
It was also in keeping with the wishes of General James Edward Oglethorpe, that his friend, who’d paved the way for the peaceful settling of the new colony, would be forever remembered and acknowledged in a prominent spot in the city he founded.
Righting the Wrong
What’s past is prologue in Savannah, for today we can see similar actions taking place that mirror those of 1883. Here is a chance for the city to right a century old wrong.
Mrs. Gordon and the Colonial Dames recognized that those who braved the hardships in settling Savannah had intended to honor the Chieftain with a permanent memorial at the center of Wright Square; a fact made quite clear with them having interred his remains there.
We should finish the work that Nellie and others could only begin, by resurrecting a memorial to Tomochichi over his burial site.
To more permanently establish the memorial, a life-like statue of Tomochichi with his nephew at his side (as in the historic drawing) should be commissioned, and placed on top of a pyramid shaped pedestal in the likeness of stacked stones to commemorate the original memorial and grave site marker.
The statue and new pedestal should bear the same quality and proportions of Oglethorpe’s statue in nearby Chippewa Square. And while the General’s statue faces south, to symbolize the wary eye he kept on the threat of a Spanish attack from that direction, Chief Tomochichi’s should face north towards the river, to symbolize the gracious welcome he offered the new colonists and to all who now visit Savannah.
The large granite boulder should remain in the square, as a testament to Nellie Kinzie Gordon and the other members of the Colonial Dames, Georgia Chapter, noting their outspokenness and determination in the face of trying circumstances.
The Central of Georgia Monument
The ploy worked. Local stockholders were moved to hold on to their CoG stock, enough that it staved off the takeover by ETV&G. The ‘victory’ was short lived however, as the company succumbed to a more voracious takeover attempt a few years later by another railroad company.
Care would be taken in removing the current Wright Square monument. It is an elegant piece of art, and has graced Savannah’s public space for well over a century. However, its existence in Wright Square has always rendered it as a monument to greed and manipulation.
The CoG monument could now be repurposed as a memorial for the Gordon family, to include William Gordon’s daughter-in-law, Nellie Kinzie Gordon, and grand-daughter Juliette Gordon Low. Once removed off of its Wright Square base, the monument’s height, taller than that of the Oglethorpe monument in Chippewa Square, will be less of an issue.
It could grace the grounds of Laurel Grove Cemetery, in which the Gordon family plot is located. Or, it could be removed to another square, such as Calhoun, which lies just east of the Bull Street squares, and is bordered by Gordon Street to the south.
As solely a remembrance of William Gordon, it could be placed at King and Liberty, opposite the front entrance of the old Central of Georgia Railway passenger station (today’s visitor center and history museum).
The lower base of the monument would be retained in Wright Square as the foundation of the new Chief Tomochichi monument.