The Serendipitous Life of a Research Idea: Tomochichi in Savannah
My research into the history of commemoration of Native American Indian chief Tomochichi, who assisted Oglethorpe’s foundation of Georgia in 1733, reflects the role serendipity can play in helping the development of an idea and its subsequent dissemination. In 2010 I pulled together a selection of “fun facts” about Savannah that I had been accumulating over several years that related to the city’s place within the larger history of the United States. The result was a public lecture entitled “A History of Savannah at the Cutting Edge,” sponsored by my department and the Historic Savannah Foundation and given in May 2010. Among the many Savannah firsts was my belief that the city hosted the first public monument erected in America — a so-called “pyramid of stone” built by Oglethorpe over the tomb of Tomochichi in the centre of Percival (now Wright) Square in downtown Savannah in 1739, roughly twenty years before more conventional figural style monuments to William Pitt, James Wolfe and King George III appeared in New York and Charleston, SC.
This particular first intrigued me enough to propose a conference paper that more thoroughly situated the 1739 Tomochichi monument within the larger tradition of commemorating the chief in Savannah and how his reputation reflected evolving perceptions of Native Americans. At the time I proposed the topic in May 2011, I still believed, as many still do in Savannah, that the Tomochichi tomb monument survived until 1883 in the form of a mound that appeared in 1870s stereographic photographs. In the course of researching the conference paper, a chance discovery of a small notice of 1871 in the digests of Savannah newspapers compiled and published by the Works Progress Administration promptly changed my thinking and laid the groundwork for challenging the long-held local belief that the Gordon Monument that occupies the site today “desecrated and destroyed” (to use the verbiage on the Tomochichi page in Wikipedia) Tomochichi’s tomb monument. Indeed, so virulent has been the revisionist sentiments towards Tomochichi in the 1990s and early 2000s that some people called for the removal of the Gordon Monument and the reconstruction of the mound.
The small newspaper notice of 1871 was called “The Mound Builders” and reported that five mounds were proposed to be erected in five Savannah squares, including Wright Square. Why the city would embark on such landscaping embellishments remains an intriguing mystery. However, corroborating photographic evidence of at least three different mounds, in Wright, Oglethorpe and Madison Squares, and the absence of any public consternation at the destruction of the Wright Square mound in 1883, all pointed to the unlikelihood that the “desecrated” mound had anything to do with Tomochichi. The chief’s original monument apparently disappeared as early as the 1760s and certainly by the early 1800s, when detailed maps and views of Savannah fail to document its presence.
When I delivered my conference paper, “A Monument for a Chief: The Origins of Public Commemoration in America and the Evolving Perception of Native Americans,” at the annual meeting of the Southeast Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians (SESAH), held that year in Charleston, SC, I had the good fortune of participating in a well-attended session (chaired by eminent architectural historian Richard Guy Wilson from UVA). Among those in attendance was the SESAH president Anat Geva, who also happened to be editor of a relatively new academic journal — Preservation, Education and Research (PER) — to which she later invited me to submit my paper for consideration for publication. The experience underscored the importance of presenting at conferences: you never know what might come from the experience, what networking might happen, what feedback you might receive.
The article received very positive feedback from the pair of anonymous peer reviewers, who offered excellent advice on expanding the relationship of Tomochichi’s commemoration to the treatment (enmity, neglect, curiosity, stereotyping, and ultimate revisionist celebration) of Native Americans. More research… and happily some new Savannah discoveries. For over a year I had been fixating on outdoor commemorations of Tomochichi in Savannah, utterly overlooking two indoor commemorations that exist inside SCAD buildings of all places. In fact, it was during a college-wide faculty meeting in Arnold Hall (a former middle school) that I noticed the 10-foot-tall image of Tomochichi as part of the monumental mural painted in 1934 over the auditorium’s proscenium arch. I had seen this mural dozens of times, but never connected the dots — never saw that painted image of Tomochichi as analogous to the enormous boulder erected in Wright Square in 1899 as a second Tomochichi monument. Good thing I attend faculty meetings! An older commemoration of Tomochichi in the form of a plaster relief over-mantle panel from 1892 survives in SCAD’s Poetter Hall, originally the home of the Savannah Volunteer Guards Armory. The completed article, “The Challenge of Preserving Public Memory: Commemorating Tomochichi in Savannah,” appeared in volume 5 of Preservation, Education and Research, published in December 2012.
As satisfying as it was to see the article published in an academic journal, I yearned for a way to reach a broader Savannah audience. I was eager to dispel the perpetual local myth that the Gordon Monument destroyed Tomochichi’s tomb monument, as well as broaden awareness of the other Tomochichi commemorations surviving in Savannah that testify to a long tradition of celebrating him with greater respect than virtually any other Native American in the country. In late January 2013 I contacted a local monthly magazine to gauge their interest in an article about Tomochichi, but the material was deemed too academic. It was worth a try… at least I could reach a local audience by doing a public talk or two.
An invitation received in fall 2012 to deliver a public talk in February at the The Learning Center of Senior Citizens in Savannah led to a planned talk on “The History of Commemoration of Tomochichi in Savannah,” which I gave on February 20, 2013. The timing turned out to be another serendipitous moment in my ongoing relationship with the old chief. As my host, Roger Smith, introduced me, he inquired if I had seen that day’s newspaper and the letters to the editor calling for the big bridge over the Savannah River just west of downtown Savannah to be renamed in honour of Tomochichi or Oglethorpe (or both). The bridge, like its predecessor, currently honours former Georgia governor Eugene Talmadge, an unabashed segregationist and unapologetic racist. “I had not,” I replied, but made a bee-line for a copy of the newspaper as soon as I finished my lunchtime lecture. Sure enough, the issue had been stirring public comment for some days, enough to initiate some action at the Georgia State Legislature.
On a whim, the next day I sent a copy of my Tomochichi journal article from PER to Tom Barton, the editorial page editor at the Savannah Morning News, offering it up as a resource for an article he or one of the newspaper’s staff may wish to write (or that I could write) about Tomochichi in the context of the growing bridge-renaming debate. Later that day I received his reply requesting an article of 600-700 words, roughly a tenth of my journal article. So I would get my chance after all to share my knowledge and enthusiasm for this remarkable Native American and the equally remarkable history of commemorating him in Savannah — and to dispel the Gordon Monument “desecration” myth! Mr. Barton published my article, “Georgia’s ‘Co-Founder’ Tomochichi: Rising from obscurity,” on March 3, generously devoting to it about three-quarters of the Viewpoints page, the same page that hosted an article three weeks earlier by Stan Deaton, a local historian, who evidently started the bridge renaming debate by advocating it be renamed in honour of Oglethorpe.
Due to some technicality, the Georgia State Legislature cannot accept a bill for the renaming of the Talmadge Bridge until January 2014. In the meantime, I can only hope that the local tour operators read the newspaper.