Volume 27 and volume 28, parts 1 and 2, of the Colonial Records of the State of Georgia consist of original papers of the colony’s royal governors John Reynolds, Henry Ellis, and James Wright (and several others). These papers are primarily reports written to the Board of Trade in London between 1754 and 1782—though only a few are from the tumultuous years between 1776 and 1782. They provide us with an exceptional view into the life of the frontier colony and the personalities of these men.
The governorship of Georgia was considered a dubious honor by London officials because the colony was renowned as a poor, hot, and unsophisticated place that required too great an effort to live in and oversee. Yet John Reynolds served between 1754 and 1757, Henry Ellis between 1757 and 1760, and James Wright between 1760 and 1782, with his service interrupted by the first years of the Revolutionary War. Once one begins reading their correspondence, it becomes readily apparent that they were all highly literate, possessed trained minds, and were keenly observant and adventuresome. Their letters conveyed many complex details to the Board, and these details help us gain a sense of their world, often one of urgency and tension.
They administered and were held accountable for the large subsidies provided by Parliament, and while these subsidies kept the colony afloat, there was never enough money to meet the many challenges they faced. They all regularly requested additional funds, primarily to establish stronger defense and to repair crumbling infrastructure. Written by hand, their correspondence was placed in boxes for transport by ship, and this slow and precarious exchange might take as long as six or seven months each way, if it arrived at all. The governors’ letters reveal how they met the many challenges they faced while governing the colony, the most important of which was to keep peace with the neighboring Creek Indians.
Much is written by the three governors about the colony’s ever-changing relationship with the Creeks, who were both their greatest military threat and greatest ally. During John Reynolds’s and Henry Ellis’s governorships (1754–60), the colony’s relationship with the Creeks was complex because these Indigenous neighbors were trading partners and military allies not only with the British but also with the Spanish and French. After the end of the French and Indian War in 1763 and during the remaining years of James Wright’s governorship (1760–82), the world of the Creeks and their neighbors to the east, the Cherokees, began to change dramatically. Often the governors expressed frustration about Indian problems in their letters, which at times convey a sense of their desperate need to find a way to defend the colony, to avert an Indian war, and to work with neighboring royal governors to create an enforceable Indian policy.
Much has been written about the Creek and Cherokee Indians during the colonial period, with the focus primarily on formal relations brought about by treaties and negotiations and the breaking of them, the benefits of these formal agreements to the colonists, and the resultant profound losses experienced by the Indians. While these are significant topics, it is important to recognize the emotional content in the governors’ letters when they wrote about anything to do with Indians—Creeks in particular. Their words can convey a strong sense of fear for the colonists’ and the colony’s survival as well as their personal attitudes toward the Indians. These high emotions convey to us the shifting, dangerous, and traumatizing conditions the inhabitants of royal Georgia endured and help us to consider the long-term effects these conditions had on the population.
Each governor was concerned with maintaining and improving the infrastructure of the colony’s few towns and ports, in part for defense and also for promoting colonization and everyday life. The governors focused their attention chiefly on the capital and principal port, Savannah. Johann Christoph Bornemann described it in the mid-1750s as a midsize European village with all the houses looking no better than market booths. Two decades later, Ebenezer Hazard described Savannah as a small town situated on the top of a sand hill. Reynolds, Ellis, and Wright knew it well as they resided and governed there, and each suggested to the Board that the capital be moved to a healthier and more secure location down the coast. One wonders why all three governors wanted to leave Savannah.
Their letters, and the legislation included in them, detail what needed to be repaired, demolished, constructed, or cleared in the town and environs and the governors’ efforts to arrange the work and the financing. These details give us information about the town’s generally dilapidated condition over time and the need to improve it. A look back at the Trustee period might offer additional clues to the town’s condition when the colony first became royal.1 Although the colony slowly grew in prosperity, its capital never matched the orderly vision of its famous town plan and was heavily damaged in 1779 during the Revolutionary War. The governors’ tireless efforts to improve the infrastructure of Savannah, hampered as it was by insufficient funds, can provide us with a broader understanding of the town itself, as well as the infrastructure conditions of the rest of the colony.
All three governors suffered from a profound lack of operating funds, which they never hesitated to mention to the Board and never overcame. The colony was not self-supporting and relied on the annual parliamentary appropriations in pounds sterling, which paid the salaries of Georgia’s government officials but was insufficient to ever meet the colony’s many infrastructure and defense needs. Due to the overwhelming poverty of the population—which dated back to the Trustee period—the governors could not raise any significant amount of local revenue through the collection of duties or taxes. Nor could they establish a quitrent tax law, which meant that no one had to pay tax on land. Most Georgians used their land and crops to barter and obtain credit, and Georgia’s private debt structure rested on land. Each governor, along with asking for additional funds, had a scheme or two of their own to get the colony out of debt and raise money, and these are described in detail and offer insights into the colony’s economic challenges in these volumes. This lack of money had a lasting effect not only on the colony’s growth and the poverty-stricken colonists’ ambiguous political stance but also on the future state of Georgia.
These three volumes, spanning nearly three decades, contain many new opportunities for research on topics both large and small. The many problems, places, and people that come alive through the original papers of the governors and others offer us the opportunity to better understand the colonists’ world.
The documents contained in volume 28, part 1, are chiefly the papers of Henry Ellis, Georgia’s second royal governor, and his successor, James Wright, along with some papers of Georgia’s first royal governor, John Reynolds, and cover the time period from 1757 to 1763. Ellis arrived in Georgia prior to Reynolds’s departure, and Wright arrived prior to Ellis’s departure. It is thought provoking to imagine their possible conversations with each other. Savannah was a small town, and they would certainly have had much business to discuss and perhaps would have enjoyed becoming acquainted.
Henry Ellis (1721–1806) was truly a man of the Enlightenment, for he was an explorer, an author, and a member of the Royal Academy, as well as a slave trader—all prior to becoming Georgia’s second governor. He appears to have been a natural leader and quickly gained the support of the council members and colonists. He also had a flair for finance while governor, and after his return to England, he helped develop a plan for taxing the colonies. Ellis’s descriptive letters provide us with a sense of his lively mind and detail his concerns as governor as well as the many incidents of life he observed while in the colony.
Governor Ellis utilized his many talents for the betterment of Georgia, and nowhere more lastingly than in his efforts to achieve and sustain Creek Indian neutrality. Soon after becoming governor, he and the council formulated a cohesive Indian policy that led to a treaty with the Creeks that renewed their neutrality. This neutrality held throughout the French and Indian War (1754–63), keeping Georgia at peace. According to scholar Edward H. Cashin, a document attributed to Ellis advised the British ministry of the serious effect French propaganda had on Indian neutrality and suggested calling nearby tribes to Augusta to reassure them. The minister for the colonies, Lord Egremont, took this suggestion seriously, and the result was the 1763 Treaty of Augusta. Henry Ellis’s contribution to Indian diplomacy warrants further research.
James Wright (1716–85) succeeded Henry Ellis as royal governor, and this volume contains his letters from 1760 to 1763.2 Born in London and raised in South Carolina, he studied law at the Inns of Court and was a member of the Charlestown planter elite. Prior to becoming governor of Georgia, he served South Carolina as attorney general and then as its colonial agent in London. An extraordinarily able administrator, Wright’s detailed letters describe his deep concerns for defense, infrastructure, and settlement. His strong response to South Carolina’s land grab in 1763 is an incident worth noting. Governor Wright was a man familiar with the ways of both the southern frontier and the British ruling class, and this perspective was perhaps his greatest asset as governor of Georgia. he successfully ushered the colony through tumultuous years.
This volume also contains the final papers concerning the Bosomworth claims and John Reynolds’s answers to the charges brought against him by Georgians.3
1. Volumes 20–26 and 29–31 in the series contain letters from the early colonists to the Trustees and the Trustees’ responses to these letters, respectively.
2. Volume 28, part 2, in this series contains further letters from Governor Wright.
3. Volumes 26 and 27 in this series contain details on the Bosomworth claims, and volume 27 in this series contains the charges against John Reynolds.