James Edward Oglethorpe
Born:December 22, 1696, Godalming, County Surray, England
Died:June 30, 1785, Cranham Hall, County Essex, England
When he was a boy, James Edward Oglethorpe’s oldest brother and father went off to fight in Queen Anne’s War (War of Spanish Succession, 1702-1714), never to return. James, seventh of nine children in a large, wealthy family, began to prepare for a military career at an early age. This was a turbulent time in the history of England and, in fact, the entire continent of Europe. The lessons learned by young Oglethorpe and the people he met would play an active roll in shaping the man and the colony of Georgia.
Enrolled at Oxford, he received a commission as ensign at the age of 16. After serving a short time as aid-de-camp for the English ambassador to Sicily and other Italian States, he returned to England in 1716 and was appointed Lt. Captain of the Queen’s Guard on the recommendation of Lords Argyle and Marlborough. These two men also brought him to the attention of Prince Eugene of Savoy.
It was Oglethorpe’s employment under Prince Eugene, where he advanced from an obscure secretary to an aid-de-camp, that brought him into the public spotlight. In contact with the prince almost daily and participating in almost all battles on the Hungarian frontier (where Eugene defeated an Ottoman army that was twice the size of his), Oglethorpe rose to prominence among his peers. His return to England was not glamorous. He ended up killing a man in a brawl and served five months in prison.
Upon leaving the prison he became a member Parliament from Haslemere (1722), where his father and two brothers had served. He would be re-elected to successive terms for 32 years. During his service in this august body, Oglethorpe was a staunch defender of the rights of colonists and strongly against any kind of slavery. Although copies of his speeches given in Parliament are still available, they are not verbatim. Reporters (at the time, people who would record speeches) were not allowed on the floor.
Oglethorpe was noted as a philanthropist and for his benevolence, including helping children and defending seamen against impressment (being forced into service against one’s will). It was his work on the Prison Discipline Committee that brought him in contact with the idea of creating a colony of debtors in the New World. Proposed by a number of writers and in at least one book, the concept gained some acceptance before Oglethorpe became a driving force in the group in 1728. A friend of Oglethorpe’s died in Fleet Debtor’s Prison after contracting smallpox. This event would change Oglethorpe’s life.
Oglethorpe, along with other famous military men on the Prison Discipline Committee, like Admiral Edward Vernon and Field Marshal George Wade, had witnessed first-hand the atrocities of both the Fleet and Marshalsea Debtors Prisons.
A group of 21 men, including Oglethorpe and Lord Percival, created a charter for the new colony named Georgia (in honor of King George II). The grant included all land between the Altamaha and Savannah Rivers and from the headwaters of these rivers to the “south seas.” The charter specifically prohibited any trustee from making money on the venture. Oglethorpe used his connections to move the Charter for the colony of Georgia quickly to the king, who signed it on June 9, 1732. When time came to choose the men and women who would establish the new colony none were from debtors prison because enough non-debtor colonists were found.
Funds to pay for the trip across the Atlantic Ocean were raised, some even from the Parliament. Oglethorpe paid his own way. Today he referred to as “resident trustee” by the state of Georgia although he held no position either elected or appointed.
After putting ashore in South Carolina in January, 1733, James Oglethorpe, William Bull (an engineer from Charles Town), Peter Gordon and a group of the militia left the colonists and headed south and turned into the mouth of the Savannah River, sailing 18 miles upstream. They landed at the site of present-day Savannah. Oglethorpe was impressed with the area because Yamacraw Bluff afforded protection against an assault from the river. Around the perimeter swampy areas added to the defensive nature of the position.
Near the site selected for the settlers John and Mary Musgrove, the son of a former governor of South Carolina and his full-blooded Creek wife, made a living trading goods with local Creek Indians. Musgrove aided Oglethorpe in securing this land from Tomochichi, leader of the nearby Creek village, prior to the arrival of the settlers.
Oglethorpe then returned to South Carolina to get the colonists. On February 1, 1733 (old style calendar) the settlers arrived in their new home. After setting up tents they immediately began work on a “palisade,” a wall to surround the compound where the forty families would live. Work in the new colony was done “in common”; the group would work together to complete a task, then begin the next task. Over a period of time a string of forts would expand the defensive ring around Savannah. First, on the Ogeechee River, was Fort Argyle, named for his friend and benefactor Lord Argyle. Although Fort Argyle is gone, many other forts built by Oglethorpe still stand.
Colonial Georgia was formed into the vision of its leader. He would act as doctor and judge to the families that joined him on the venture, and many texts refer to him as a “strict disciplinarian.” As more settlers arrived, Oglethorpe returned to England to secure additional funds and have the trustees formally ban rum and slavery. Tomochichi made the journey to England with the General, an honorary title for Oglethorpe now being used by the colonists. Coming back to Georgia on the return trip were John Wesley (founder of the United Methodist Church) and his brother Charles. On a later trip he returned with George Whitefield (pastor, founded the orphans school known as Bethesda). During a trip to the Creek capital of Coweta to negotiate a treaty Oglethorpe went through the Ocmulgee Old Fields. A member of Oglethorpe’s Georgia Guard wrote a passage in his personal diary about these impressive prehistoric mounds.
As Georgia grew its resident trustee devoted himself to improving the colony’s defenses, traveling between the individual settlements with a eye on the Spanish, south of the fledgling colony. In 1736 Oglethorpe traveled south from St. Simon to explore the coast between the mouths of the St. Mary and St. John’s River. During this expedition he gave English names to islands, bays and other geographic entities.
Eventually, James Oglethorpe began a long and healthy retirement befriending Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, and others who were supporters to varying degrees of American freedom. Before his death the General enthusiastically greeted John Adams, ambassador to England from the newly formed United States. He had lived to see his infant colony become a free and independent state. At the age of 88 the General died suddenly at Cranham Hall on June 30, 1785.