Chatham County is a quintessentially southern region on Georgia’s Atlantic coast. Located in the southeastern portion of the state, it’s the most populous county in Georgia outside the bustling Atlanta metropolitan area. Including the Metro Atlanta counties, it ranks as the sixth most populous county in state.
Savannah, Georgia’s fifth most populous city, is the county seat. As the oldest city in the state, Savannah is an important cultural and economic hub for the area.
A historic site
General James Oglethorpe was the first European to lead an expedition into Georgia and begin settling the area. He established the colony of Georgia along with the city of Savannah on February 12, 1733.
Before European settlers arrived, Creek and Yamasee Native American tribes resided throughout Georgia. A smaller tribe called the Yamacraw formed in the Savannah area. It was a mix of Lower Creeks and Yamasees that only existed for a short period of time between the 1720s and the 1740s. The tribe, led by Tomochichi, maintained a diplomatic relationship with the European settlers for a time. Oglethorpe and Tomochichi became allies and sustained communication between the area’s different factions. Eventually, the Yamacraw disbanded, spurred by the arrival of more British settlers and the deaths of their leaders, Tomochichi and later his son, Toonahowi.
Chatham County was founded on February 5, 1777. Named after William Pitt the Elder, Earl of Chatham, it’s the fifth oldest county in Georgia. During the American Revolution, the county was occupied by the British and was the site of the Siege of Savannah, during which the British held control of the area. After the Revolutionary War, Savannah became the first state capital of Georgia. It would only hold that title until 1786, when Augusta was named the new capital.
Due to its strategic location along the uneven coastline, Savannah quickly became an important port for the area, particularly during the American Revolution and Civil War. The city also holds historical importance from its role in the Civil War. Union General Sherman aimed his sights at Savannah with his “March to the Sea” from Atlanta to Savannah toward the end of the war. On his arrival at the coastal city, he issued the historic—though short-lived—Special Field Order No. 15 on January 16, 1865. The order proclaimed that newly freed Black citizens would be given forty acres of land and a mule to start their new lives.
On the coast
Chatham County sits on Georgia’s Atlantic coastline. It’s located in the southeastern portion of the state and is the northernmost of Georgia’s six coastal counties.
The county has a total area of 629 square miles. Land area accounts for 433 square miles, and water area comprises 196 square miles.
The Savannah River forms the border with South Carolina on the northeastern edge of the county. The Ogeechee River provides the county’s southwestern border. The Savannah and Ogeechee river basins are important environmental resources for the area, providing wildlife habitats, drinking water, recreation, and irrigation.
The region lies just above sea level and is prone to flooding, with many rivers and canals cutting into the coastline. The county includes several islands which are cut out from this irregular coastline, including Tybee Island, Skidaway Island, Talahi Island, Whitemarsh Island, Wilmington Island, Dutch Island, and Isle of Hope.
Chatham County has a growing population of 289,430. Between the 2010 and 2020 census counts, the population grew by about 9%. The area is not very densely populated, though, with only 621 people per square mile.
The county is ranked among the top 100 most diverse counties in America. Of the residents, 53.0% are White, 41.2% are African American, 0.4% are American Indian, 2.9% are Asian, 0.1% are Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, and 6.7% are Hispanic or Latino. The county also has a decently sized immigrant population, with 6.3% of residents born in a different country.
Georgia's shipping hub
Chatham County is an important economic center for the area. The Port of Savannah is a crucial part of the region’s economy and has consistently been one of the busiest ports in the United States since its founding. It ranks as the fifth largest container port in the United States. Other major contributors to the economy are manufacturing, tourism, and the military.
Chatham County has a healthy labor force with 64.3% of the working age population employed. That’s better than the overall state average of 62.6%. The median household income for the county is $56,842.
The largest industries are healthcare/social assistance, accommodation/food service, and retail. The most common jobs are sales, office/administrative support, and management.
Hospitals and healthcare providers are among the largest employers for the region, including St. Joseph’s Candler, Memorial University Medical Center, East Georgia Regional Medical Center, and Optim Health System.
Manufacturing employs a large swath of the population as well. Gulfstream Aerospace, a private jet manufacturer, is the biggest employer in the region. Paper product manufacturers are also a major employer, including Georgia-Pacific Savannah River Mill and International Paper.
Ranked as the fourth best U.S city by Travel and Leisure magazine in 2020, Savannah’s tourism industry is booming. Along with the city’s romantic southern charm, it boasts fine restaurants and upscale accommodations to draw in visitors. Plentiful shopping, fantastic art and music scenes, and unique historic sites keep tourists coming back for more.
Two major military facilities also contribute to the area’s economy. These include the U.S. Army’s Third Infantry Division at Fort Stewart and Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah.
Artsy, historic, and scenic
As the cultural hub of Chatham County, there’s tons to see and do in Savannah. The Historic Landmark District in downtown Savannah is a necessary stop on any trip to the city. It’s home to scenic parks, art and history museums, historic monuments and architecture, fabulous restaurants, and unique shopping.
The City Market is a central attraction within the historic district. Since it was built in 1755, it’s been a favorite shopping area for locals and tourists alike. Today, it also hosts restaurants, art galleries, live music, and more.
Forsyth Park is another favorite spot in the historic district. It covers 30 acres with walking paths, gardens, play areas for children, and a large central fountain that’s iconic to Savannah.
There are plenty more areas in Chatham County to enjoy the outdoors. Skidaway Island State Park is a wonderfully scenic area of maritime forest and salt marsh that’s great for hiking, camping, biking, and bird watching. The Savannah Wildlife Refuge is another scenic spot for hiking, biking, boating, and bird watching. It contains an amazing 31,551 acres of marshes, rivers, and creeks that sprawl across Georgia and South Carolina.
If you’re looking for some relaxing beach time, Tybee Island is your spot. This beautiful beach community contains plenty of sandy coastline where you can swim, kayak, and spot bottlenose dolphins. While you’re there, visit Tybee Island Light Station—Georgia’s oldest and tallest lighthouse.
You’ll find lots of historic sites in this southern county. Wormsloe Historic Site, located on the Isle of Hope, is where Georgia’s oldest plantation once resided. The 822-acre site contains ruins of the old house, a museum, and a scenic 1.5-mile oak-lined avenue. Fort Pulaski National Monument is another must-see historic site. Located on Cockspur Island, this striking site was an important fort during the Civil War where Union soldiers captured the massive structure using newly designed rifled cannons.