The headwaters of the Savannah River originate in the mountains near the border where the states of South Carolina, Georgia, and North Carolina meet. The 314-mile-long river is formed by the confluence of the Tugaloo and Seneca Rivers, and along with the lower section of the Tugaloo, the Savannah forms the western boundary between South Carolina and Georgia. The Savannah drains a basin of 10,577 square miles, with 4,581 being in South Carolina.
The Savannah River Valley was home to large numbers of indigenous peoples, who were no doubt attracted to the area by fertile soil, abundant game, and the easy transportation afforded by the river. By the time the English had established their colony in 1670, the Westo Indian nation was an important presence in the river valley. The Cherokees also had established villages along the northern section of the river and its tributaries. A brisk trade developed between the English colonists and the Indians. The Savannah River was an important trade route, with thousand of deerskins and other goods being floated down the river annually in canoes.
In the early 1680s the Westos were driven out of the area by the Savannahs, a branch of the Shawnee nation. By the end of the Yamassee War (1715–1718), the English colonists built both Fort Moore and Fort Prince George along the river, extending their influence and establishing important trading centers. The town of Purrysburg was established by Swiss immigrants along the lower Savannah River in 1732, and after the port town of Savannah, Georgia, was settled the next year, Purrysburg became an important link on the trade route between that city and Charleston.
By the late eighteenth century the majority of the Indian population of the Savannah River Valley had moved to the west, opening the region to white settlers. Tidal rice cultivation came to dominate the lower Savannah, and planters brought thousands of slaves to the area to grow the staple crop. After cotton cultivation spread, the Savannah served as an important transportation link between the interior and the coast. Large flat-bottom boats carried cotton from the Piedmont of South Carolina and Georgia to the port at Savannah, Georgia. By the early decades of the nineteenth century, steamboats were in use on the river ferrying people and cargo to the coast.
The town of Hamburg, established across the river from Augusta, Georgia, was an important center for trade during the antebellum era. The South Carolina Railroad, completed in 1833, enabled traders to tap into the upcountry market by floating cargo to Hamburg on the river and then sending it by rail to Charleston. By the turn of the twentieth century modern technology, such as the railroad and the automobile, diminished the need to use the river for transportation, but the people of the region continued to find uses for the river. Hydroelectric dams were built to harness the power of the river, resulting in significant geographic changes including the creation of three lakes.
The Savannah River Site (SRS), a nuclear weapons facility, began operation on a 310-square-mile tract of land along the river in Aiken, Barnwell, and Allendale Counties in 1952. As population and industrial development increased in the Savannah River Valley, pollution became a problem for the river, with the high level of mercury posing the most danger. The Savannah National Wildlife Refuge along the lower Savannah and much of the SRS land are environmentally protected and are home to endangered animals including alligators, manatees, short-nosed sturgeon, bald eagles, and red-cockaded woodpeckers. In South Carolina the Savannah River serves as the water source for Hilton Head, Beaufort, and smaller communities.
Anderson, David G. The Savannah River Chiefdoms: Political Change in the Late Prehistoric Southeast. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1994.
Kovacik, Charles F., and John J. Winberry. South Carolina: The Making of a Landscape. 1987. Reprint, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1989.
Stokes, Thomas L. The Savannah. 1951. Reprint, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1982.