The significance of the multivolume Colonial Records of the State of Georgia cannot be emphasized enough, but volume 20 occupies a special place among all others. Until the early 1980s, it only existed in disorganized pieces in different archives and in various states of decay and was therefore inaccessible, and even incomprehensible in places, to most historians of colonial Georgia.1 Once it was made available, however, it became one of the most important sources for scholars in search of information about those inaugural years.
Within this volume are the few letters that James Oglethorpe wrote to his fellow Trustees back in London about their new colony. Oglethorpe had been a key player from the very beginning of the Georgia enterprise. He contributed to the idea of creating a place where “worthy poor” Englishmen—hardworking men who found themselves in financial straits through no fault of their own—could start anew. He also helped to obtain the necessary support among other aristocrats and within the British government and to secure approval from the Privy Council and King George II. He surprised his colleagues by volunteering to join the first group of immigrants to the new colony, and he unofficially served as their leader when he was there. Oglethorpe was notorious for his lack of correspondence—much to the frustration of the other Trustees, his biographers, and colonial historians in general—so the inclusion of his few letters in this volume is noteworthy.
While Oglethorpe inevitably takes top billing, the other material contained herein is even more fascinating because it offers an inside and in-depth look into nearly all aspects of Georgia’s first three years. The people who composed the documents in this volume vary widely in terms of their political, social, economic, and cultural positions, and most if not all were ordinary individuals who aspired to start a new life in a new place and thought little about the historical footprint they were leaving when they wrote these letters.
Inevitably, when creating a new community of any size, an effective political infrastructure represents an essential ingredient for success. Even though the Trustees administered the colony, they knew that some residential oversight would be necessary. To fulfill this demand, they appointed various persons whom they judged to be trustworthy and reliable to take on different tasks. They created formal posts such as bailiff, recorder, storekeeper, gardener, and surveyor (just to name a few), and they expected these men to uphold the Trustees’ regulations as well as write to them regularly about the situation in Georgia. Men like Thomas Causton, Thomas Christie, Noble Jones, Peter Gordon, and others fulfilled this obligation admirably and created a plethora of detailed material for future historians to plumb for information about those inaugural years. In addition to official issues such as creating a local government and justice system and establishing relations with neighboring Indians, these correspondents also described unofficial matters including interpersonal relationships. Scholars can also begin to discern the fractures that started to form between pro-Trustee and anti-Trustee factions about topics such as land distribution and usage, labor practices, and perceived abuse of authority that would prevent the colonists from working together for their own common good and that would help undermine the Trustees’ overall objectives for their colony.
The new colony of Georgia also obviously opened up a wide variety of economic opportunities, and colonists sent an assortment of business proposals to the Trustees in an effort to make a personal profit as well as to help Georgia develop financial stability. No one was quicker to get on board than Samuel Eveleigh, a Charlestown merchant and entrepreneur, who wrote lengthy missives during that first year about not only his own commercial prospects but also the general situation in the colony at the time. He offered his honest opinion, and as an outside observer with substantial marketing experience and success, he earned the Trustees’ attention and confidence. Other South Carolinians like Hugh and Jonathan Bryan, William Bull, Isaac Chardon, and Robert Johnson also provided material assistance to the new outpost in addition to looking for new business ventures.
These men were not the only financiers who sought to take advantage of the economic opportunities that were appearing in Georgia, though. As a brand-new colony, Georgia needed everything, so various men stepped up to fill those needs as shipping coordinators, shopkeepers, and tavern owners, among other skilled trades. Most engaged in farming since that was what the Trustees expected of their subjects, and many attempted to grow the exotic crops such as olives and grapes that everyone thought would thrive there but that only led to frustration and failure. Others like Patrick Mackay expanded their commercial interests beyond the community and into the backcountry to establish relations and trade with the neighboring Indians. All of these men sought the Trustees’ support for their endeavors, however, which meant letters to and from London to work out the details. Those who failed in their attempts to turn a profit and cultivate a stable living asked the Trustees for relief and assistance while they figured out how to recover their losses. Indeed, this volume offers a treasure trove of material for projects begging to be written. Much of the evidence required to write a detailed economic history of early Georgia, for example, can be found in these pages. As readers will find, King Cotton—which had yet to make an appearance in Georgia—was not an option for farmers who therefore had to find other produce to grow but with only varied success.
Scholars often forget that these colonists were real people with real lives and real problems, and the letters contained in this volume remind them of that reality. Many common men, and even a few women, wrote letters to the Trustees about their situation, and the stories that they told reveal the diversity of the people who came to Georgia and the complex lives that they led in the colony. They truly faced what was to them a new world, one that simultaneously offered opportunities for them to start anew and a myriad of challenges that hindered their path to success. This volume illuminates the everyday troubles that colonists had with other people such as family members, servants, neighbors, and local officials and reveals the complicated society that was developing in this new community. These letters allow us to watch as sickness claimed the lives of many or caused setbacks on the road to success. Readers see how religion offered comfort in time of need but also served as a source of contention when different viewpoints collided on specific religious practices or broad theological doctrine or when a minister intentionally or inadvertently caused offense. At times, no minister resided in the colony at all, leaving its residents without an official place to seek spiritual refuge. Ordinary colonists shared all of these concerns with the Trustees, and this volume contains many of those letters and shows the desperation that these early immigrants sometimes felt.
Not everything went wrong in colonial Georgia, however. Historians are quick to condemn the Trustees for their lofty expectations and their micromanagerial approach to administration. They also criticize them for not adjusting their vision in light of the real circumstances that existed in coastal Georgia and for not listening to the logical suggestions of their subjects for reform. But some colonists did succeed, and they were grateful for the opportunity that the Trustees had given them. There are several instances throughout this volume where individuals present a positive portrayal of the current state of affairs that runs counter to the prevailing historical narrative. Others simply share their observations about their situation without judgment. This sort of material provides historians with the opportunity to glimpse what daily life looked like during those inaugural years.
Georgia also became a place of refuge for persons from outside of the British Empire, making it an international safe haven for certain religious sects. Not only did the Trustees want to offer opportunities to the “worthy poor” of England, but they also sought to create a place where persecuted Protestants from mainland Europe could find sanctuary and practice their faith free from discrimination. Most notably, Lutherans from the Catholic Archbishopric of Salzburg (in twenty-first-century Austria) established Ebenezer, which became a thriving township and one of the true success stories of early Georgia, but other groups like Moravians from present-day Germany came to build a new community based on their particular faith as well. In addition, the Trustees sought outside expertise in silk manufacturing and exotic agricultural products such as citrus fruits and brought experts from Italy and France to get those trades started. Taken together, all of these foreign voices give Georgia a whole other dimension that few have studied thoroughly (the Salzburgers being the notable exception).2 More important, no one has taken a global approach to Georgia and integrated it into the grand narrative of world history. Scholars living in the early twenty-first century need to recognize how Georgia contributes to that broader story and bring it into the fold. This volume will help them add these voices to the others that make up the global experience.
The possibilities for research that lie within this volume are so vast that it is impossible to catalog them all in this brief foreword. I personally have used and continue to use this volume for all of my research on early Georgia, and I am always fascinated that there are new stories to tell and new perspectives to take. Making this volume in particular available to more scholars and interested general readers will not only enrich Georgia history but also larger histories. The correspondence contained herein tells the human story and teaches us all lessons that are applicable to any era.
Julie Anne Sweet
1. This volume, xiii-xiv.
2. George Fenwick Jones has written several books on the Salzburgers, including The Salzburger Saga: Religious Exiles and Other Germans along the Savannah (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1984) and The Georgia Dutch: From the Rhine and Danube to the Savannah, 1733–1783 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1992), as well as edited the fifteen volumes of “detailed reports” that the administrators of that community kept during its inaugural decades.