by Shannon Browning-Mullis, Curator of History and Decorative Arts
It’s all about who you know. It’s true today, and it was true in 1817 when William Jay arrived in Savannah. At a time when the total population of the city was around 7,000, money and power were concentrated in the hands of a few well-connected men. Not surprisingly, many of them became Jay’s patrons in residential and commercial endeavors.
I was interested in just how interconnected these men were, which led me to a quick search of historic Savannah newspapers. Mining just this one source, which is far from comprehensive, I found multiple connections, relationships, and exchanges. The connections listed here only account for the participation of the specific men who commissioned the Jay houses. They do not include the constant dealings with their various brothers, uncles, and cousins, which litter the archives. This work also does not account for business that is obvious but not advertised. For example, as Richard Richardson and William Scarbrough were shipping merchants, Alexander Telfair owned cotton producing plantations and wharves on the river, and Archibald Bulloch was the collector for the port of Savannah, they certainly interacted in the business world on a regular basis. Some of their more particular connections follow.
Alexander Telfair, Archibald Bulloch, and Robert Habersham were all active in politics, with Bulloch and Habersham serving as aldermen, while Telfair ran for state legislature. Robert Habersham and Alexander Telfair also exercised their civic duty together when they served on the grand jury in 1824. An ever-larger group, including Telfair, Richardson, Scarbrough, and Habersham served on the city’s board of health and almost all of them served in one of various militia companies. They also served in more frivolous civic roles. Robert Habersham and Alexander Telfair were both on the committee to prepare for the visit of General Lafayette, while Scarbrough planned for the visit of President Monroe and a celebration of Washington’s birthday. Telfair and Habersham both participated in the planning of Independence Day events, with Telfair offering an oration in 1814. Several of Jay’s patrons also held official employment with the government. Archibald Bulloch was the collector for the port of Savannah and Habersham served as both the acting supervisor for collectors of the direct tax and commissioner of loans for the state of Georgia.
But what about charity? All wealthy, civic minded people do charity work, right? Probably not, but these guys did. Richard Richardson, William Scarbrough, and Robert Habersham all served as commissioners for the Savannah Poor-house and Hospital. Scarbrough also helped organize the Savannah Free School, the first public school in the city for white students from economically disadvantaged families. Richardson and Scarbrough also served as members of the Georgia Agricultural Society.
In the world of finance, Telfair and Richardson both served as directors of the Bank of the United States. Bulloch and Habersham were both directors for the Bank of the State of Georgia. Richardson, Scarbrough, and Habersham all served as directors for the Planter’s bank, while Scarbrough also was a director for the Darien Bank. Bulloch, Richardson, and Scarbrough sat on the board of the Marine and Fire Insurance Company of Savannah together as well.
So, how did all these activities benefit Jay? Well, many of Jay’s public buildings were the result of commissions by his residential customers. Alexander Telfair and Richard Richardson were both founders of the Savannah Theater. As mentioned, William Scarbrough sat on the board of the Free School. Richardson was the president of the Bank of the U.S. and Bulloch was the collector of the port who commissioned the Custom House. And the city hotel? It was commissioned by Eleazer Early, Richard Richardson’s colleague at the Bank of the U.S.
Clearly, Jay benefited from his relationships with these men, which begs the question of how he received their patronage to begin with. Well, as might be guessed in a city like Savannah, it’s a complicated story that involves a large, unwieldy family tree. In short, William Jay’s sister, Anne, married Savannah merchant Robert Bolton while he was living and working in England. Bolton’s sister, Frances, married his business partner, Richard Richardson. So, it all begins with Richard, who is William Jay’s brother-in-law’s brother-in-law. To further complicate matters, the Habershams were distantly related to the Telfairs. I guess it’s all in the family.
Anyway . . . until next time.