Addendum to "10 Careless Lies...."

There are a couple of points I need to review (because I have no problem correcting myself or clarifying a muddy issue).

The city of Savannah's name

Further discussion on Facebook with my fellow tour guides reveals the origins of the name "Savannah" to be very murky indeed. The word savanna is one the Spanish may have picked up from the Taíno Indians in the Caribbean, then fed back to other Indians on the North American mainland. That is, perhaps, how it was acquired by the migrating Shawnee who drove out the Westo tribe and made their home along the Savannah River. They might have referred to themselves or the landscape as "Savannah" or it may be the South Carolinians just couldn't pronounce their tribe name correctly and it came out sounding like "Savannah" whenever English people said it. There is another possibility: that savannah was an Algonquian word already in use among area tribes and completely unrelated to savanna, but they just happened to sound the same. Basically, although we know where our current usage of the word savanna came from, it's up for debate where the name of the Savannah River originated.

I still feel better attributing the name of the city to the river than to any characteristics of the surrounding landscape. No matter how you tell it, it was still a group of Indians who applied the name to the river and it just seems most reasonable that's what made James Oglethorpe pick it for the city. The river was already well-known, as evidenced by its specific designation as our northern boundary in the text of Georgia's original charter, which you can read here. Beware, old-timey folk had not yet been introduced to the virtue of paragraph breaks, periods, or our modern spelling conventions. It's sort of a word quagmire, is what I'm saying.

My colleague James Caskey, owner of Cobblestone Tours, did hand me a laugh when he reminded me of another silly myth about the origin of Savannah's name:

"During the boat's journey up the river, someone bumped the captain's daughter, Anna, right over the side. As she flailed around in the water, her father desperately shouted, 'Somebody save Anna!' So, that became the first city's name."

I hadn't heard that one in a long time and had completely forgotten about it! Surely no one has ever related this tall tale without a wink and a nod? I mean, it's cute as a joke, but not even the dumbest tour guide could mistake it for fact... right?

Sherman in Savannah and Juliette Gordon Low's family

I got a little blowback on this in the comments on my last post. In fact, I originally wrote an entire paragraph about the supposed connection between William Sherman and the Gordon family because I heard someone say once that Nellie Kinzie Gordon (Juliette Gordon Low's mother) was Sherman's rumored mistress. I cut that part because my last entry was already sprawling over 5,000 words and I felt it didn't count as a common myth since I only ever heard it one time. Guess I should have followed my instinct.

Anyhow, Nellie Kinzie Gordon was not Sherman's mistress. It is true her house was one of the first he visited after he marched into Savannah. What for? Well, Sherman dropped in on all the local bigwigs; doesn't mean he was sleeping with them. He had to touch base with the folk who were going to be putting the city back in order after he left. Nellie probably seemed like a good ice breaker. She had married one of the most prominent men in Georgia (who was at that moment serving in the Confederate army and whom she adored), but was herself a Yankee. I've never read anything to indicate she and Sherman knew each other personally before the war, but I'm sure he knew of her family. They were both Midwesterners- she from Chicago, he from Ohio. Her family were among the pioneers who founded Chicago, so I think it's fair to say they were prominent people. Nellie had very elite connections all through the Federal government and several relatives serving in the Union army, so she and Sherman undoubtedly had some acquaintances in common. She was the most likely person to help him start a dialogue with a freshly defeated, resentful Southern aristocracy.

And what was Nellie going to do? Slam her door on the red-headed juggernaut who had just "made Georgia howl" from here to Atlanta? Nope. She smiled politely and invited him inside to play with her little daughters, Eleanor, Juliette, and Alice, while she began wheeling the deals that would keep her family in one piece and ensure her husband still had a career when he came home. Nellie was so much more interesting than a mere mistress. To imply sex was all she had to work with is worse than sleazy, it's boring. Y'all know women, even 19th century women, are capable of actual negotiations, don't you? I recommend this book for a thorough and entertaining overview of the Gordon family. I know Juliette is on the cover, but half the book goes to Nellie!

So, I hope that clears up those two points. Keep reading and don't forget to call me up for a tour if you're ever visiting Savannah!


Thanks to Tim at Dash Tours for providing more details on Nellie's connection to Sherman.

"Sherman was a friend of Eleanor's father and had known her during her childhood. He was dropping off letters from Eleanor's brother, who was in the Union Army. Sherman had lost his infant son while marching through Georgia and didn't find out until he reached Savannah. He and General Howard visited the Gordons often during their stay, mostly to play with the children."

I knew Sherman and Howard enjoyed playing with the children and that Sherman had just lost his son. I probably read about him meeting little Nellie and carrying letters from her brother and then forgot all about it. Basically, Nellie and Sherman ran in the same circles and elite people occupy very small exclusive circles. That's why they all know each other. The important thing is, Sherman kinda having a previous acquaintance with Nellie Kinzie Gordon ≠ Nellie being his mistress.