Arts & Culture

The Hidden History in Savannah’s Museums

How one writer shaped her new novel with access to Georgia’s ships, silver, and journals

photo: Courtesy of Patti Callahan

Pocket watch discovered in the wreckage of the Steamship Pulaski by the Endurance Exploration Company.

As a novelist, I have long been fascinated with finding the hidden stories instead of retelling the known stories. Hearing an untold story is like having a great secret whispered in your ear.

I’ve learned that sometimes, to find those hidden stories, I need to log off the computer and walk through the doors of history centers and museums. When I first started my research for my new historical fiction novel, Surviving Savannah, which tells the tragic tale of the grand Steamship Pulaski and its sinking off the coast of North Carolina in 1838 with an elite Savannah family on board, I had trouble finding the information I needed. 

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Patti Callahan.

I was seduced by the mythology of Savannah, but I needed the truth as well. Savannah is a powerfully mystical city; its history and legends embed in every grey brick wall, every tourist carriage tour, and every emerald park square. But to discover a fuller truth, I needed to immerse myself in the artifacts, education, and exhibits of some of Savannah’s museums.

My novel is about the Titanic of the South, so I began at the world of sea-goers, adventurers, and pirates—the Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum downtown. This gem of a museum with the largest private garden in the historic district resides in the 1819 William Scarborough House and Gardens. Along with paintings and maritime antiques, I found finely designed models of the Steamship Pulaski, RMS Titanic, and the Anne, which brought the first settlers to Savannah. Stories of the sea fill nine galleries, and entering these halls brings the maritime world to life in a way that even a novel can’t do. “The artifacts chosen for an exhibit should have a purpose and move the story forward,” director Wendy Melton told me, “just like characters in a book.” And they do.

photo: Courtesy of Patti Callahan
A model of the Steamship Pulaski.

Next, I visited the Telfair Museum’s Owens-Thomas House and Slave Quarters. I wanted to unravel the mystery of some silver flatware that had been discovered at the bottom of the sea with the Pulaski wreckage—who were the owners and what were the engraved markings I didn’t understand? I expected a quick visit and an education on 1800s silver, but what we expect and what we get are rarely the same thing. Along with the education of silver markings, I discovered the earliest intact urban slave quarters in the South. Fourteen enslaved men and women had lived on this property in 1840, and the museum had not turned away from that truth. “Sometimes we’ve told the mythology to ourselves,” director Shannon Browning-Mullis says. “Now instead, let’s tell a whole inclusive story that really talks about where we came from.” There are three Telfair museums, all connected to Mary Telfair, who bequeathed her house to the Georgia Historical Society in 1875.

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I still sought papers to read for an honest reckoning of the night the ship sank. For that, I needed to visit the Georgia Historical Society research library, which is open to the public and boasts a fascinating and informative online presence with a newsletter and digital events. If you like quiet reading rooms with gooseneck lamps forming little puddles of light on library tables while you’re surrounded by ancient books, this is your place. When historical novels come alive in a reader’s heart and mind, the author has usually been digging through folders and boxes to find such things as yellow-edged journals in tight script handwriting—the treasure troves of history. Studying at the society is like falling through time. When I read the handwritten and graphic accounting of a woman’s calamitous five days and nights at sea, I shivered at her line, “We slept soundly until awakened by the most appalling sound that is only equaled when the thunderbolt strikes near.” And I knew she would narrate my novel. An educational and research institution, the society’s collections reside in the stately historic 1876 Hodgson Hall—poised grandly on Whitaker Street overlooking Forsyth Park, it keeps watch over Savannah’s lived history. 

If stories make us who we are, and I argue that they do, there is so much more to the magical city of Savannah than just its riverfront beauty; its Southern history resides in the hallways and galleries of its museums

Patti Callahan is the author of Surviving Savannah, an historic novel out today.