Volumes 29, 30, and 31 of the Colonial Records of Georgia consist of the official Letter Books of “The Trustees for Establishing the Colony of Georgia in America,” more commonly known as just “the Trustees.” These Letter Books deliver exactly what they promise—copies of all the correspondence the Trustees sent to their colonists in Georgia—and serve as companion pieces to other volumes in the series. In volumes 20-26, scholars can read the countless letters those colonists addressed to the Trustees on a wide variety of topics, while here in volumes 29-31, they can observe the Trustees’ responses to those requests. The number of letters going to London far surpassed the ones returning to Georgia, and that overwhelming paperwork contributed to the many reasons the Trustees’ administration of their colony failed. Nevertheless, the Trustees remained dedicated to the success of their venture throughout their tenure, and they did their best to keep up with the flood of documents they received by replying to as many as they could.
Because the Trustees managed Georgia from across the Atlantic Ocean, they obviously needed to send regular correspondence to their colonists to assist them with all aspects of daily operations. Many of the letters contained in these volumes are directed to the officials that the Trustees appointed to specific posts to maintain some semblance of law and order in the colony while they retained general oversight and complete authority for themselves. These letters include instructions about formal procedures (since the colonists had no practical experience in governance), answers to specific questions about both larger utilitarian matters and smaller everyday issues, and requests for additional information on all sorts of political, economic, agricultural, social, and religious topics. Their messages, especially to their appointees, became much more detailed as the colony matured and life became more complicated, which is reflected in the longer length of later letters. This attention to detail shows the Trustees’ dedication to the success of their colony and their subjects but also reveals their outwardly genuine interest in all matters regardless of how insignificant they may seem to historians. Critics may disapprove of the Trustees’ micromanagement, but more impartial scholars will appreciate all of those details because they offer countless opportunities for further research on the Trustees, their priorities, and their perspectives on the Georgia project and the people who took part in it.
The two unsung heroes of these three volumes of the Trustees’ Letter Books are Benjamin Martyn, the secretary for the Trustees, and Harman Verelst, their accountant. Both men were based in London and held their positions during the Trustees’ entire existence, and by doing so, they provided a consistent office through which all correspondence to and from the colony and Parliament traveled. Even though they had separate designations as secretary and treasurer, which imply different responsibilities, both men responded to communications regardless of the subject or author. Verelst, however, usually addressed specific fiscal matters such as payments for goods and services in addition to regular business. Neither replied personally; instead, they composed and transcribed whatever the Trustees had decided in their meetings. Nevertheless, Martyn and Verelst probably chose the language to use and applied the professional tone necessary to obtain the desired results, whether it be obedience from the colonists overseas or support from aristocrats at home. Because Martyn and Verelst handled all the paperwork generated by the Trustees, they possessed extensive knowledge about every aspect of the Georgia enterprise, and they more than likely acted as consultants at times because of their expertise, although no evidence exists to confirm that assertion. It makes sense, however, that in their quest to be effective administrators, the Trustees would ask Martyn and Verelst for information, and perhaps even for advice, because of their familiarity with all aspects of the colony. Recovering Martyn’s and Verelst’s roles in the Georgia project is important and provides worthwhile avenues for future research to which these volumes contribute a significant amount of material, albeit indirectly.
These three volumes also present the Trustees’ perspectives and directions on issues other than colonial oversight. Both the Trustees and their colonists were interested in all facets of the economy, including establishing a basic financial infrastructure and finding a viable crop to grow that would meet the Trustees’ expectations, add new produce to imperial commerce, and provide a stable income for the colonists. The Trustees also expressed concern throughout their tenure about relations with the nearby Indian nations, and they often reminded their colonists of the importance of maintaining peace with their Native neighbors for immediate safety reasons as well as greater diplomatic purposes.
Perhaps the most unexpected and noteworthy aspect of the Trustees’ letters is the consideration they showed for personal issues. Because the Trustees were a distant body of aristocrats far removed from Georgia and its daily trials and tribulations, scholars might assume that these men focused their attention solely on bigger bureaucratic concerns when in fact, many times, they would comment on more private matters. For instance, they would express sympathy when informed about individual deaths in the colony, and they frequently asked after the wellbeing of those who had been ill. These letters reveal a much more intimate side of the Trustees, one that academics often overlook, and they make these aristocrats more accessible, and indeed more human, to readers.
While each volume includes only seven years’ worth of letters (except volume 29), when taken together, all three volumes present a broad overview of the Trustees’ correspondence and their approach to administering the colony from afar. Their subject matter is wide ranging in topic but thorough in coverage, making it an invaluable source for anyone interested in early Georgia.
This first volume of the Trustees’ Letter Books covers the inaugural years of the Georgia project, and the letters contained herein reveal the great attention the Trustees paid to all aspects of their colony as well as their dedication to its success. The volume starts before Georgia had even been founded with several letters to South Carolina governor Robert Johnson at the end of 1732 and the beginning of 1733 informing him of the Trustees’ existence, their intentions to establish a new colony, and their request for his support and help with their endeavor. It ends in the summer of 1738 with a detailed accounting of various financial transactions with certain South Carolina merchants. Taken together, these two selections make for excellent bookends to this volume by showing Georgia’s connections to its colonial neighbor, but they do not even begin to scratch the surface of the myriad topics contained in between.
Because this volume encompasses the first five and a half years of Georgia’s history (there is only one letter from 1732), it contains the greatest variety of subject matter because there was a plethora of different issues that the Trustees needed to address during this time period. They had no practical experience when it came to administering a colony, so they responded to questions and problems as they were made aware of them and of which there were many. Because Savannah was a brand-new outpost that needed absolutely everything and because the people who immigrated there had few, if any, applicable skills to the task ahead of them, they asked the Trustees for advice and assistance and informed them about whatever concerns they had, no matter how trivial they may seem to modern scholars. The letters in this volume represent the Trustees’ responses to those concerns, which included instructions on how to conduct formal civil and legal affairs, directions about choosing crops to be planted, and replies to very specific questions on all sorts of topics, even personal matters. The Trustees wanted their colony and their colonists to succeed, so they worked hard to provide the best possible guidance they could with the limited knowledge they had about the situation in Georgia at that time. They diligently attempted to attend to every issue and sought to address every concern, and by doing so, they provided historians with the documentation necessary to research a vast array of potential topics. This volume in particular showcases the diverse challenges the Trustees faced when it came to founding a new colony because it covers Georgia’s very beginning and follows it through its first years.
Julie Anne Sweet