The Trustees’ Garden

This Hidden History was created by SCAD student Danielle Chan as part of her SCAD art history department coursework with guidance from art history professor Holly Goldstein, Ph.D., 2017.

The Trustees’ Garden historical marker was dedicated in 1952. View The Trustees’ Garden historical marker listing.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

1. “Trustee Garden,” New Georgia Encyclopedia. Retrieved May 29, 2017: http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org.

2. Trustees’ Garden Historical Marker, Trustees’ Garden, Savannah. Courtesy of Danielle Chan.

3. Trustee Georgia, 1731-1752. Courtesy of the Georgia Historical Society.

4.  [Map of part of the coast of Georgia with the Savannah River, including the Islands of Skiddaway, Ossabaw and the northern part of St. Catherines], circa 1780, Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Courtesy of University of Georgia Libraries.

5. An indigo plant (Indigofera suffruticosa) grows wild on Ossabaw Island. Courtesy of James Bitler.

6. Indigofera suffruticosa Mill., 10 May 2013. Courtesy of Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

7. Indigofera suffruticosa seeds, Ossabaw Island. Courtesy of Danielle Chan.

8. Indigofera suffruticosa bloom, Ossabaw Island. Courtesy of Margaret Eels.

The following essay is by SCAD student Danielle Chan, 2017.

The Beginning of Trustees’ Garden

Georgia was conceived as a new colony for new beginnings that would lead to countless achievements and the expansion of the British Empire. A key part to this hope for new production was the creation of the Trustees’ Garden that was drawn and planned out before the colonists arrived (Fig. 1). The garden was established in 1733, a month after Oglethorpe and his fellow English settlers landed in Georgia. The public garden consisted of ten acres east of the Savannah settlement; the land plot was thought to be a magical garden that would produce commodities ranging from vegetables and fruit for the settlers, as well as silk, wine, flax, hemp, olives, cochineal, and one of the era’s most popular dyes, indigo (Fig. 2).[i] The Trustees strongly believed that Georgia would be known for its silk industry (Fig. 3) and silk was supposed to “form the foundation of Georgia’s economy…”[ii] However, over time the garden started to decline due to inattentive botanists, the Trustees choosing agriculture that did not grow well in Savannah, and the start of the plantation era.[iii] The one commodity that did survive past the Trustees’ era to become a staple of plantation gardening and Georgia’s economy was indigo.

Indigo during the Plantation Era

As early as the 1650s, Dutch settlers in the northern colonies tried to produce indigo crops from wild indigo, and soon after that, the concept of growing and producing indigo trickled down to the South. It was not until the 1730s that the indigo industry started to expand due to the introduction of cultivated indigo from the West Indies and the beginning of the southern plantation era, signaling enslaved labor. At the time, rice planting was also a large industry that worked cooperatively with indigo because of the growing seasons.[iv] Out of all the colonies, the most notable indigo producer and exporter was South Carolina. This was all thanks to a woman named Eliza Lucas who perfected growing and processing indigo for dyeing after 1742. By 1744, she shared her formula with other Carolinian planters, leading to South Carolina exporting 5,000 pounds of indigo dye from 1745-1746.[v]

Meanwhile in Georgia, the cultivation of indigo was not as productive as in South Carolina. Compared to South Carolina, indigo dye from Georgia sold for 75 percent less. Those who were trying to cultivate and sell indigo in Georgia included John Morel, Edward Telfair, Basil Cowper, James Graham, Samuel Douglass, and John Lucena. All of their crops mainly came from the sea islands of Georgia. Even as indigo was the fifth most exported crop of the South, there was a grand difference between the two states, South Carolina and Georgia, still in 1772.[vi] Dr. Paul M. Pressly found that “in 1772, South Carolina exported 746,000 pounds of blue dye and earned £193,000 sterling. That same year, Georgia shipped a meager 10,600 pounds and earned £2,700, or one shilling less per pound than its neighbor, a surprisingly weak showing.”[vii]

The indigo crops from South Carolina and Georgia were less favorable compared to indigo from India due to the difference of the types of indigo. Indigo still created income for the two colonies, however, because British planters did not care about the strength of the indigo, and only were concerned with whether or not it sold. Even though indigo was not the main crop for Georgia compared to cotton and rice, indigo kept the economy afloat during the American Revolution because the bricks of indigo could be smuggled out of the area. However, after the Revolution, the British ceased investing in indigo from South Carolina and Georgia and moved to sourcing from India. This effectively put an end to the growing and processing of commercial indigo in the South.[viii]

Indigo on Ossabaw Island

Ossabaw Island, south of Savannah (Fig. 4), is the island where John Morel cultivated and processed indigo. The island today has one original indigo bush (Fig. 5) and newer bushes exist there as well. The island does not sustain an indigo practice throughout the year, however the Ossabaw Island Foundation works with educator Donna Hardy from Sea Island Indigo to create indigo workshops.

As mentioned above, the indigo crops in South Carolina and Georgia are different from the type that grows and is used in India. The type of indigo that can be found on Ossabaw is indigofera suffruticosa (Fig. 6). This type of indigo comes originally from Guatemala and has curved seed pods of a reddish color with black seeds when the bush is healthy, green when it is not (Fig. 7). When in bloom, the bush will have salmon colored buds with tiny seeds (Fig. 8).[ix] The process of making indigo dye and dyeing is not as laborious during the workshops, compared to when it was an island. In his book On the Rim of the Caribbean, Dr. Paul Pressly explains the process:

Although an intense process, the actual manufacture of the dye could be done within days, not over weeks or months… The plant needed little care and could be cut after eight to ten weeks of growth and, on occasion, grown a second time in one season. The main investment was a series of three vats connected together, made from wood or metal depending on one’s budget. First was the large “steeper” vat, where bondsmen threw plants into a container of water for a twenty-four-hour period. The liquid was drained into a “beater” vat, where workers stirred or beat the water to oxygenate the fluid and cause the sludge to settle to the bottom. In the third vat, the excess liquid was drained. Workers placed the dark sludge in linen bags to drain and, once that occurred, put the contents on tables to dry. However, to produce dye of the quality demanded by the British market was another matter. The work was arduous; the judgments, difficult; the odor of the fermenting plants, noxious; and the thousands of flies that mercilessly swarmed around the vats and drying tables, maddening. Too much or too little beating could be disastrous. And the use of oyster shells for lime to oxygenate the water may have adversely affected the results.[x]

Trustees’ Garden Today

While indigo cannot be seen growing at the garden today, the Trustees’ Garden has recently gone through a makeover on its original site, and a second miniature version has also been created southwest of the city. In June 2014, the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens (CGBG) finalized their plan to create a one acre interpretation of the original Trustees’ Garden. With funding from The Trustees Garden Club, CGBG completed the replica in spring 2015. The replica includes “historically accurate plantings of mulberries, sour oranges, grapes, figs, pomegranates and many more crops and plants first trialed and used by the first colonists to settle in colonial Georgia.”[xi] At the original downtown location of the Trustees’ Garden, the Canyon Ranch Institute’s CRI Healthy Garden now stands, a collaboration between the Morris Family and Morris Multimedia, Inc.; this is a volunteer garden that gives people of the community a chance to learn through gardening workshop sessions.[xii] The volunteer group gathers together the first and third Saturdays of every month to not only learn, but also to bring a community together and invite life and experimentation back to the location of the Trustees’ Garden.[xiii]

[i] James W. Holland, “The Beginning of Public Agricultural Experimentation in America: The Trustees’ Garden in Georgia,” Agricultural History 12, no. 3 (1938): 271-74.

[ii] Julie Anne Sweet, “A Misguided Mistake: The Trustees’ Public Garden in Savannah, Georgia,” The Georgia Historical Quarterly 93, no. 1 (2009): 2.

[iii] Ibid., 27.

[iv] Jenny Balfour-Paul, Indigo, London: British Museum Press,: 68.

[v] Jean M. West, “The Devil’s Blue Dye: Indigo and Slavery,” http://www.slaveryinamerica.org/history/hs_es_indigo.htm.

[vi] Paul M. Pressly, On the Rim of the Caribbean, Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, (2013): 146-147.

[vii] Ibid., 145.

[viii] Paul M. Pressly, “Indigo on Ossabaw Island” (lecture, SCAD Fibers Indigo Workshop, Ossabaw Island, Savannah, May 19, 2017).

[ix] Donna Hardy, “Indigo on Ossabaw Island” (lecture, SCAD Fibers Indigo Workshop, Ossabaw Island, Savannah, May 19, 2017).

[x] Pressly, “On the Rim of the Caribbean,” 146.

[xi] “Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens,” Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens Home, accessed May 29, 2017, http://www.coastalgeorgiabg.org/.

[xii] “Morris Multimedia Inc., Canyon Ranch Institute,” Canyon Ranch Institute, August 09, 2016, , accessed May 29, 2017, http://canyonranchinstitute.org/partnership/morris-multimedia-inc/.

[xiii] Eva Fedderly, “Saturday gardening sessions give empowerment, solace – and spring produce,” Connect Savannah, May 28, 2017, , accessed May 29, 2017, https://www.connectsavannah.com/savannah/saturday-gardening-sessions-give-empowerment-solace-and-spring-produce/Content?oid=2616107.

Balfour-Paul, Jenny. Indigo: from Egyptian Mummies to Blue Jeans. London: British Museum Press, 2011.

“Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens.” Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens Home. Accessed May 29, 2017. http://www.coastalgeorgiabg.org/.

Fedderly, Eva. “Saturday gardening sessions give empowerment, solace – and spring produce.” Connect Savannah. May 28, 2017. Accessed May 29, 2017. https://www.connectsavannah.com/savannah/saturday-gardening-sessions-give-empowerment-solace-and-spring-produce/Content?oid=2616107.

Feeser, Andrea. 2013. Red, White, and Black Make Blue. Athens: University of Georgia Press. Accessed May 28, 2017. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Hardy, Donna. “Indigo on Ossabaw Island.” Lecture, SCAD Fibers Indigo Workshop, Ossabaw Island, Savannah, May 19, 2017.

Holland, James W. “The Beginning of Public Agricultural Experimentation in America: The Trustees’ Garden in Georgia.” Agricultural History 12, no. 3 (1938): 271-74.

“Morris Multimedia Inc., Canyon Ranch Institute.” Canyon Ranch Institute. August 09, 2016. Accessed May 29, 2017. http://canyonranchinstitute.org/partnership/morris-multimedia-inc/.

Pressly, Paul M. “On the Rim of the Caribbean.” Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2013. Accessed May 29, 2017. ProQuest Ebook Central.

West, Jean M. “The Devil’s Blue Dye: Indigo and Slavery,” http://www.slaveryinamerica.org/history/hs_es_indigo.htm.

Sweet, Julie Anne. “A Misguided Mistake: The Trustees’ Public Garden in Savannah, Georgia.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly 93, no. 1 (2009): 2, 27.