Was ‘Jingle Bells’ actually written in Savannah? Local historian discusses popular holiday song’s origins

WSAV NOW

SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) — If you take a stroll through Troup Square this holiday season, something other than the decorative red ribbons will likely catch your eye.

You’ll find it just across the road from the Unitarian Universalist Church of Savannah, where there’s a plaque honoring “Jingle Bells” composer James Lord Pierpont.

That’s because it’s commonly believed that Savannah is where Pierpont wrote the classic holiday song.

“He traveled down [to Savannah] in 1857 and became the musician for the congregation at Unitarian Universalist Church,” Georgia Southern University history professor Christopher Hendricks told WSAV NOW

“He had been writing music, lots of ballads and polkas for years, but his most famous song is ‘One Horse Open Sleigh,’ which is the actual title of it,” he said.

However, Hendricks says some people dispute the claim that the song originated in the Coastal Empire.

It’s also thought that Pierpont may have written the song we now know as “Jingle Bells” over 1,000 miles up north in Medford, Massachusetts.

“We have our plaque here in Savannah in Troup Square, but there are also, I think, two historical markers in Medford,” Hendricks explained.

One Medford Historical Society marker reads, “On this site stood the Simpson Tavern, where in 1850, James Pierpont wrote the song ‘Jingle Bells’ in the presence of Mrs. Otis Waterman, who later verified that the song was written here.”

The plaque does give some credit to Georgia, stating that the composer had the song copyrighted in 1857 while living in the Peach State.

“The only problem is that in 1850, Pierpont was in California, he wasn’t in Medford,” Hendricks said. 

The historian notes that Pierpont headed to California during the Gold Rush to strike it rich through working in photography, so he left his family behind and moved out west to make daguerreotypes.

“That didn’t work out very well; he lost all of his equipment in a fire, so he returned to Massachusetts,” Hendricks said.

“There are also stories that he actually sang [‘Jingle Bells’] in the Unitarian Church in Medford at Thanksgiving, so there are two origin stories there,” he said.

Hendricks says that the claim from Medford that Pierpont wrote “Jingle Bells” there in 1850 yet waited seven years to copyright it may have been unusual, given the composer’s supposed financial problems.

“The speculation is that he was short on funds, and just kind of dashed it off in order to make some money, and he would have wanted to copyright it soon after he wrote it to make sure that that happened,” Hendricks said, adding, “What we know for sure is that he was living in Savannah when he copyrighted the song.”

Hendricks says no one truly knows where the holiday classic was written.

“It’s fun to see the rivalry, the dueling historic markers,” he smiled. 

Hendricks says Pierpont died in Florida in 1893, but his body was returned to Savannah. The composer is buried at Laurel Grove Cemetery North.

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