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.
The documents contained in this volume of the Trustees’ Letter Books cover the time period of August 1738 to March 1745, the middle years of their administration of Georgia. While the Trustees maintained their interest in all matters of the colony, their attention began to focus more on local governance. Specifically, they had come to realize that Thomas Causton, the man whom James Oglethorpe had chosen to manage the community, was not up to the task. Even though Causton provided the Trustees with regular correspondence about the situation there, asked for their advice on all matters, and obeyed their orders (contained in this and the previous volume), he mismanaged daily affairs and mishandled the public stores, which caused the colonists to turn against him. Rather than replace him, the Trustees created a new position of secretary and appointed William Stephens, who arrived in Savannah in November 1737, to the job. Stephens exceeded the Trustees’ expectations by sending lengthy and detailed letters at every opportunity and keeping a daily journal that he also shared with them. This volume reflects the Trustees’ increasing reliance on Stephens not just as a secretary but also as a colonial administrator because of all the directions they sent to him (included in this and the next volume) and all the trust they placed in him to carry them out.
Local governance was only one of several problems the Trustees had to address during this time period, however. Certain colonists disagreed with Trustee policies regarding land distribution, usage, and inheritance as well as the prohibition on African slave labor and with the Trustees’ approach to colonial administration more generally. These individuals became more numerous and organized over time as they failed to make a living and blamed the Trustees for that failure. By late 1738, they had coalesced into a vocal political faction that became known as the Malcontents. While the Trustees initially resisted the demands of this opposition, they eventually came to realize that some accommodation was necessary and could help them retain control over their colony. To those ends, they divided Georgia into two counties, Savannah and Frederica, and created a body known collectively as the President and Assistants in April 1741 to oversee each county. The Trustees appointed a president and four assistants for each county and used them as a conduit through which to issue orders. As expected, William Stephens became the president of Savannah, and Henry Parker, Thomas Jones, John Fallowfield, and Samuel Mercer were selected as assistants. The Trustees were never able to agree on who would serve in Frederica, however. On paper, this institution looked like an improvement because it could theoretically address immediate concerns within the colony, but in reality, it had no actual power because it still had to consult the Trustees for a final ruling on all matters. This volume contains the Trustees’ letters to those individual men and demonstrates the shift from a loose association of various appointed officials to a more unified organization. It also shows just how long that shift took and how unwilling the Trustees were to give up any authority to their colonists. Moreover, it reveals the narrowing of the Trustees’ focus to mostly local governance rather than continuing their attempts to address every issue that came to their attention. As an overseeing body, the Trustees matured, and the letters contained in this volume reflect that.