When is Georgia’s Birthday?
By: Ed Jackson
Today, Feb. 12 is widely celebrated as “Georgia Day.” However, there are a number of other dates associated with the creation of Georgia that can make an equal claim to being the birthday of Georgia. Compounding the problem is that there are two calendar systems for assigning dates prior to 1752. At the time of Georgia’s creation and settlement, England and the American colonies followed the Julian Calendar. Three decades after Georgia’s creation—England adopted the Gregorian Calendar, which eliminated 11 days. Thus, to account for dates of events that took place under the Julian Calendar (known as “Old Style,” or “O.S.”), 11 days must be added to assign a date according to the Gregorian Calendar (known as “New Style,” or “N.S.”). The result is a plethora of potential dates that can be used as Georgia’s birthday.
King George II signed Georgia’s charter on April 21, 1732 (O.S.), which means that date or May 2 (N.S.) have strong validity as Georgia’s birthday. However, royal charters and actions had to conform to a host of bureaucratic approvals in the British government. As a result, the king’s signature was a necessary—but incomplete—requirement for the effectiveness of a royal charter. Consequently, once the king signed Georgia’s charter, it had to be witnessed at Westminster “by Writ of Privy Seal”—which took place June 9, 1732 (O.S.) or June 20 (N.S.) The official promulgation process, however, required other signatures and was not fully completed until June 20 (O.S.) or July 1 (N.S.) Further compounding the dilemma, the Trustees of Georgia were not officially organized until July 20, 1732 (O.S.) or July 31 (N.S.). The first Georgia colonists landed at Yamacraw Bluff on Feb. 1, 1733 (O.S.) or Feb. 12 (N.S.)—which is the basis for the current celebration of Feb. 12 as Georgia Day. Generally overlooked, however, is the fact that James Oglethorpe left the first Georgia colonists behind on Port Royal Island in South Carolina and led a party of South Carolina Rangers on an advance expedition up the Savannah River to find a site for locating the first Georgia settlement. Oglethorpe actually first set foot on Georgia soil on Jan. 22 (O.S.) or Feb. 2 (N.S.), at which time he received preliminary permission from Tomochichi to allow the colonists to settle at Yamacraw Bluff.
If, based on what we know today, designating a specific day as Georgia’s birthday is problematical, is there any guidance in terms of what day the colonists observed. There is no evidence that the colonists celebrated any specific day as the birthday of Georgia. Rather, they observed two special days—the birthdays of King George II and James Oglethorpe. However, in the case of Oglethorpe, they mistakingly celebrated Dec. 21 (O.S.) or Jan. 1 (N.S.)—though Dec. 22, 1696 (O.S.) or Jan 2 (N.S.) was his true date of birth.
What about the Trustees? The Earl of Egmont’s diary provides a firsthand look at the origin of the Georgia movement and of Trustee proceedings from 1732 to the 1740s. There is no record of any day being celebrated as Georgia’s “birthday.” However, the diary reveals that the Trustees annually celebrated the third Thursday of March as the anniversary of the Georgia Trustees. Why, the third Thursday of March? The Charter of Georgia specifically named certain people to serve as a Board of Trustees, and 15 of these Trustees to also serve as members of an executive board known as the Common Council. However, the charter directed these Board and Council members to meet the third Tuesday of each March to elect additional members to both bodies so that there would be a full Board and Common Council to transact business. Because the charter had been signed by King George in April 1732, the first opportunity to elect a full compliment of Trustees pursuant to the charter’s directive came in March 1733. Ironically, the Trustees apparently misread the language of Georgia’s charter, for instead of meeting on the third Tuesday, they met on the third Thursday—Thus, the first time that the Trustees met to officially observe the “anniversary” of Georgia was March 15, 1733 (O.S.) or March 26 (N.S.) However, the Trustees attached no special significance to March 15, and the anniversary subsequently fell on a number of different days in March. Still, the mistake of observing the third Thursday (instead of Tuesday) as the anniversary of Georgia continued.
So, when is Georgia’s birthday? Some historians believe that rather than recalculating dates to match the modern-day calendar, simply identify dates according to the date recognized by the people who were living at the time. In this spirit, for many years one noted history professor at the University of Georgia held his own Georgia Day party each Feb. 1. The majority of history books and articles, however, recognize Feb. 12—if for no other reason that date is so widely observed across the state.
Interestingly, despite a number of pages in the Official Code of Georgia Annotated devoted to Georgia’s official symbols (such as the state seal, flag, tree, flower, bird, song, vegetable, fruit, seashell, reptile, etc.), no reference is found in the code to Georgia Day. However, in 1909, Georgia’s General Assembly enacted a law [see text] providing that Feb. 12—which the law identified as “the anniversary of the landing of the first colonists in Georgia under Oglethorpe”—be observed in the public schools as Georgia Day. [Though never repealed, this law was not included when the code was compiled in 1981, and its legal status is unclear.] Later, when Georgia celebrated its bicentennial in 1933, state and city officials used Feb. 12 as Georgia’s birthday—and indeed the U.S. Post Office issued a stamp to commemorate Georgia’s bicentennial, with first day of issue ceremonies held on Feb. 12 in Savannah. Again in 1983, to mark Georgia’s 250 birthday, Savannah, Georgia, and U.S. Postal Service officials selected Feb. 12 to mark the occasion [see U.S. postal card]. Other examples of Feb. 12 observances are so numerous that it is unimaginable that any other date would supersede it as Georgia Day.
Unlike the birth of a person, the “founding” of Georgia involved a series of events and personalities transpiring over three years in both England and Georgia. As briefly outlined above, which event was the most important is an interesting topic of debate. But even if agreement could be reached, there is still the quandary of which calendar should be used to date the event. Over the past two decades, most Georgians have become adjusted—if not reluctantly—to federal and state holidays being shifted around or combined so that birthdays and other anniversaries often are not celebrated on the actual day that a birth or event took place. So, the dilemma of whether Feb. 1 or Feb. 12 (or some other date) marks Georgia’s true birthday is a vexing problem primarily for a few historians and purists.
In 2033 Georgia will celebrate its tercentenary—the technical name for 300th anniversary. There will be parades, birthday cakes, commemorative activities around the state, and the obligatory commemorative stamp that the U.S. Postal Service issues on major anniversaries of colonies and states. The issue of Georgia’s true birthday may well come up as the tercentenary approaches. But if tradition is any factor, the largest parade, the most birthday cakes, and the release of the commemorative stamp will come in Savannah on Feb. 12, 2033.