DARIEN, Ga. — Savannah’s role as “Georgia’s First City” is well documented, but the history of the state’s second city, Darien, is not quite as known.
Darien was founded in January 1736 by Scottish Highlanders led by James Oglethorpe. The city, initially known as New Inverness, was built just two years after nearby Fort King George, formerly the British Empire’s southernmost outpost in America, was abandoned. The same year, the British also started building a fort to the south — Fort Frederica.
Named after a failed Scottish colony in Panama in the late 17th century, Darien, like its predecessor, Fort King George, was founded to protect British interests from the Spanish, the French and the Natives. Oglethorpe constructed Fort Darien, which helped protect the city from 1736 until the war with Spain ended following the Battle of Bloody Marsh on St. Simons Island in 1742.
In 1739, a number of Darien residents signed a petition opposing slavery’s introduction into Georgia. Though their petition may have been initially successful, slavery came to Georgia a decade later.
In the ensuing years, Darien continued to grow and prosper, and by the 19th century, the city was an important port and exporting cotton at a rate behind only Savannah and Charleston, S.C. The port’s importance increased during the American Revolution and in the following years. In addition to cotton, the city became known for its lumber production.
During the Civil War, Darien did not play an important role. However, that didn’t stop federal troops from St. Simon’s Island – the 54th Massachusetts Volunteers under Colonel Robert G. Shaw’s command and the Second South Carolina Volunteers, led by Colonel James Montgomery — from destroying the city on June 11, 1863. The burning, often called “one of the most controversial events” of the war, is re-enacted in the movie Glory.
The tabby ruins of the city’s original cotton exchange warehouses and naval stores — all built between 1815 and 1830 and destroyed in 1863 — remain on the waterfront, as if they are frozen in time. Interestingly, following the Civil War, Col. Shaw’s family helped to rebuild the city. The buildings that once sat on the tabby foundations were not reconstructed.
The timber industry eventually faded as the area’s forests were depleted, but the city turned to shrimping to maintain its livelihood. By the 1960s, the city, along with McIntosh County, boasted the state’s largest shrimping fleet, and each year the city celebrates a “Blessing of the Fleet” every year to honor the industry.
Walking through the quiet city streets and along the picturesque waterfront, the city’s importance in Georgia history might not be so apparent. Whereas Savannah is still a bustling city, Darien is a much quieter hamlet, though its landmarks and influence on the state are no less important.
The best way to experience Darien is to park the car and pick up a walking tour brochure. There are a number of houses, churches, commercial buildings and a monument to the Highlanders on the tour, including the Adam Strain Building. Built circa 1815, the two-story “stuccoed tabby” warehouse is the oldest building in the city. Like the rest of the city, the building was burned in 1863 and refurbished a decade later.