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 last volume of the Trustees’ Letter Books brings the administration of Georgia by the Trustees to a close. It covers August 1745 through April 1752, when they informed the governing body of the President and Assistants that they had surrendered their authority over the colony to the Crown. Even though this volume represents the end of the Trustees, scholars should remain open minded while reading these letters and appreciate the material contained in them in the moment in which they were written and not in the shadow of the ultimate conclusion. As an institution, the Trustees were waning in influence over the colonists and were losing support among their aristocratic colleagues in London, but they still took note of what was happening in Georgia and sent directions overseas that they expected to be obeyed. They continued to discuss the same issues as in previous years, and they hoped that at least some of their goals might yet be achieved. Some scholars may speculate that the Trustees were in denial of the inevitable because of their persistent belief in their cause, but others may appreciate their consistency and perseverance right up to the end of their tenure. Future research about the Trustees must take these final years into account without letting the final demise of the Trustees overshadow their activities during this era and must link these later years to the early ones in order to present a more complete portrait of the Trustees’ operations and objectives.
Almost all of the letters contained herein are written to the President and Assistants as a collective organization rather than as individuals as was the case in the previous volume. That administrative body had become a recognized institution by colonists as their local government, and the Trustees eventually accepted it as such, although they never did give up their full control over their subjects. Because the Trustees never appointed anyone to fill these positions in the county of Frederica, the President and Assistants of Savannah oversaw the entire colony. All colonists came to look to this institution for the handling of everyday affairs, and it expanded its influence accordingly but unofficially. The letters from the Trustees to this supervising body became lengthier because they wrote them more infrequently and therefore had more topics to cover. However, they maintained similar characteristics to earlier missives in that they contain very precise directions about specific issues. To the very end, the Trustees sought to exercise their authority over the colonists in all matters even as their hold over them weakened.
The Trustees never admitted defeat or failure, even though they modified their restrictive land policies and relented on certain regulations, such as the prohibition of strong liquor and African slavery. Nevertheless, the Trustees remained dedicated to overseeing their colony and its many needs until their last days in charge. That dedication deserves recognition, and while they did not obtain their exact objectives, they did establish a colony that eventually became the state of Georgia.
Julie Anne Sweet