Rural Southerners in 1938 . . . Bowman, Georgia

by Richard L. Thornton, Architect & City Planner

Yesterday, one of our cousins sent my sister the URL to a fascinating film posted on Youtube. A University of Georgia professor spent a day in 1938, filming the folks in Bowman, GA, which is near the Upper Savannah River. There is no sound track, but in a very charming way presents a way of life that is gone with the wind. You will notice that the town of about 850 residents was packed full of thriving stores, even though the times were on the tale end of the Great Depression. Now, most communities this size in the Southeast and Southwest are almost ghost towns . . . at least around their collapsing commercial buildings. Astonishingly, Bowman’s population is about the same today, despite the lack of local employment opportunities.

The “Old Families” of the Upper Savannah River Basin tended to be multi-ethnic. The original settlers were mixed Gaelic-English-Sephardic Jewish, African and Native American. There was a Mestizo Native American community in Ruckers Bottom and near the Nancy Hart Cabin. In the 1790s, large numbers of Virginia Revolutionary War veterans moved to the region to accept veteran’s land grants.

Some of the Uchee-Creek families still live east of Bowman, but there was a general out-migration of young people throughout the latter half of the 20th century, in search of economic opportunities. The man doing the jig appears to be African-American, but if you look closely, he is a Mustee – mixed Uchee and African. There are still thousands of Mustees along the Savannah River. Most have far more Native American heritage than the typical Cherokee in Oklahoma.

Notice how slim and healthy looking everyone is, regardless of their age. Most of their nutrition came from local gardens and farms back then. My mother’s family periodically took their corn and wheat to a grist mill to be ground into whole wheat flour and corn meal. All meat and eggs consumed came from locally raised livestock. Her family lived in a log house on a subsistence farm with numerous barns and outbuildings. They had very little cash, but thought themselves to be well off because they owned a large farm and had plenty of food year-round. Growing cotton produced the cash to buy manufactured items or such luxuries as sugar, tea, coffee and rice.

In 1938, my mother saw the most money ever in young life. The federal government sent each member of her family a reparations payment from the Creek Docket court settlement, which symbolically compensated them for the thousands of acres taken from her family in the 1800’s because they were Creek Indian. These were Veterans Reserves, given to them for service in the American Revolution and during the War of 1812. They were NOT Indian reservations. The Eastern Creeks refused to get involved in the Creek Redstick War, but instead formed a US Army “special forces” unit, called the Creek Regiment, which fought British Rangers on the South Atlantic Coast.

Yes, it was a different world . . . and you will notice that it was by and large, a happy world.

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