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Bulloch History with Roger Allen: Savannah River becomes first trade route in Ga.
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Roger Allen

Note: The following is part of a series of columns exploring the use of rivers in the early history of Georgia and Bulloch County.

In 1715, the Indian trading post Fort Moore was erected on the Carolina side of the Savannah River. After Augusta was founded 6 miles upriver on the Georgia side in 1735, Robert Lacy built a fort there within a year.

At this time, almost all of Georgia's deerskins were being exported through Charleston. Whereas in 1735 the total was 120,000 pounds of skins, by 1758 it was 355,207 pounds of skins being shipped to Charleston.

The earliest vessels used in Georgia were by Indian traders, and the best known were those being used by Indian trader John Rae. Rae ran a small fleet of "periagua" boats that transported deerskins and furs between Augusta and Savannah on the river.

He, Patrick Brown and Isaac Barksdale, all veteran Indian traders, formed Brown, Rae and Co. Eventually, Lachlan McGillivray and George Galphin stepped in and took over operations.

The "Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia" (1889) described the periagua as "a vessel made by sawing a large canoe in two in the middle, and inserting a plank to widen it ... (or) a large flat-bottomed boat ... decked in at each end ... propelled by oars, or by sails on two masts which could be struck."

Next to be found on the river were the "Petersburg" boats, which navigated the Broad River. Up to 80 feet long and 7 feet wide, these shallow-drafted boats normally had a pilot and six-man crew.

Records show they had a capacity of 18,000 pounds of cargo. This transported a cargo of 60 bales of cotton piled three tiers high, as well as corn, oats and even barrel staves to Augusta.

Pole boats and cotton boxes

"The Report on the Internal Commerce of the United States" (1886) states that "the original transportation ... on the navigable streams, prior to the introduction of steamboats, was by means of pole-boats and cotton-boxes."

"Georgia's Executive Documents" (1887) describes cotton boxes as "22 to 24 feet wide by 60 to 80 feet long (and) made of heavy pine timber with square sides and ends."

The report continues, "They were steered by a long heavy oar or sweep, worked from a platform at each end (by) several able-bodied men ... (and) carried from 400 to 600 bales of cotton each."

What's more, the report reveals that "on reaching their destination they were sold for building materials or fire-wood, and the men generally walked back home."

The same report describes pole boats as "much like the flat-boats...loaded with cotton below and on deck. ... (They were controlled by) long poles pushed by a number of able-bodied men; they carried from 500 to 700 bales of cotton."

Flat boats were largely used by rice plantation owners to carry their rough rice to market. Many of these "flats" were found on the Savannah and Ogeechee Canal and carried up to 3,000 bushels of rice.

The Savannah newspapers had sections that were called Marine Journals. These sections listed 19 pole boats on the Savannah in 1817, 43 in 1818 and nearly 100 by 1820.

Records show the largest of these boats had crews of between 15 and 20 slaves and took five to seven days to go downstream from Augusta to Savannah. Going upstream to Augusta took an average of 14 days to complete, sometimes much longer.

The biggest pole boats, such as the Savannah and the Olive Branch, carried upward of 800 barrels of cotton on each trip. The last two, Cracker Nance and the Traitor, stopped running the river in 1836.

The Georgia Legislature passed an act on Feb. 10, 1787, entitled "An Act Regulating the Trade, Laying Duties on all Goods." The fee? The "sum of three Pence per ton ... on all shipping (on the Savannah)."

Roger Allen is a local lover of history. Allen provides a brief look each week at the area's past. Email Roger at



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