Peter Gordon’s journal is significant to Georgia history not only because of its mere existence as one of the few eyewitness accounts of the colony’s creation but also because of the many topics it addresses both directly and indirectly. Gordon (1699–1740) was one of the 114 passengers aboard the Anne that brought the first colonists to Georgia in February 1733 and therefore helped establish the new outpost.1 Despite Georgia’s relatively late founding in comparison with other mainland British colonies, it still faced similar challenging obstacles when it came to its construction. Gordon’s commentary about those early days makes his journal an invaluable source for Georgia history.
His brief introduction to the larger narrative is often overlooked but should be viewed by scholars as a short yet important piece of promotional literature, which he fully intended his work to be upon publication. His overview of the Trustees’ intentions and plans for their colony initially follows this same flattering portrayal of the prospects that existed in Georgia, but he quickly counters with criticisms of the Trustees’ land policies regarding inheritance. This grievance about property distribution would become an important pillar in the campaign against the Trustees led by an opposition party that eventually became known as the Malcontents, but its appearance here in Gordon’s work shows just how early that problem surfaced. It also reveals his political leanings, which emerge at various times throughout his narrative. His chronicle of the voyage to Georgia replicates the experiences of other immigrants and contributes to recent studies that look closely at the logistics of sea travel at this time.2
Most of Gordon’s journal provides important details about exactly how those first colonists went about constructing the new outpost and conducting their daily lives. Studying social history has become standard operating procedure in academia; Gordon’s work offers his own perspective on everyday life and allows scholars to compare and contrast his experiences with those of other colonial ventures in North America and around the world. It also offers many small accounts of individual experiences that may seem trivial to modern readers but that were obviously noteworthy enough at the time to deserve inclusion in his narrative. His remarks open up the opportunity for countless microhistories into the people who founded Georgia as well as give examples of the triumphs and tragedies that they faced during those early days.
Perhaps one of the most valuable aspects of Gordon’s journal is his commentary about the Native peoples he encountered. It provides intriguing details about the first meetings between James Oglethorpe, the unofficial leader of the colony and the only Trustee ever to visit Georgia, and Tomochichi, the Yamacraw Creek headman whose people occupied the land Oglethorpe wanted to settle, and what occurred there. Gordon also witnessed several of the formal negotiations between these two men and gave detailed accounts of these early moments of British-Creek diplomacy. The significant role the Native peoples played in colonial and Georgia history remains an important and thriving avenue of research that has yet to be exhausted, and Gordon’s account offers many lanes for future exploration.
Gordon did more than share his observations about the new world around him, however. He also stepped back to assess the situation in Savannah more broadly in terms of its progress as a town and as a community. He presented an overview of how the people transformed the landscape and created a viable city with basic amenities such as housing, roads, and public buildings. Perhaps more important, he examined the political situation in Savannah during those inaugural months and recognized that fissures were already starting to develop between the Trustees’ dream of a well-regulated population that closely adhered to their vision for the colony and the residents’ reality of a tropical environment inhabited by self-interested individuals who had their own agendas to fulfill. This disconnect between the overseas administrators and their colonial subjects would increase in the years to come, but Gordon’s journal reveals that those problems began at the colony’s inception.
Gordon was uniquely situated to comment on the political conditions in the colony because of his positions as a tythingman and as the first bailiff. Even though Gordon was classified as a “charity colonist” because the Trustees had paid for his passage to Georgia, they must have judged him to be trustworthy because they appointed him to these important offices. The tythingman oversaw the well-being of ten families during the passage to and on their arrival and settlement in the colony, and Oglethorpe chose four men to take on this task, including Gordon. The bailiff served as a justice of the colony, meaning that he acted as one of three judges that directed court sessions. In addition, the bailiffs nominally functioned as the leading officials of the colony because they held the highest appointed positions. Although they had no real power because the Trustees wanted to retain as much authority over their subjects as possible, the bailiffs still embodied the role of a colonial administrator unofficially.3 Gordon’s designation as first bailiff gave him no special standing or extra influence; it was simply the title that the Trustees used when they selected him for the post.4 Besides the obvious yet unintended status that accompanied these positions, they also associated Gordon with the Trustees since they expected him to uphold and enforce their regulations.
Yet because Gordon disobeyed their commands—directly and indirectly—his writings are characterized by a certain anti-Trustee slant, which calls into question his dependability as an employee and as a historical source. Gordon eventually left the colony and returned to England without the Trustees’ permission, which violated his terms of office, and he sympathized with the disgruntled residents who chafed under the Trustees’ regulations by listening to and compiling their grievances to submit to the Trustees. Gordon explained some of those grievances toward the end of his journal, thus marking the start of many years of difficulties between the Trustees and their wayward colonists. Gordon’s misbehavior on and off the job caused the Trustees to view him as insubordinate and therefore to dismiss any claims he brought to them in person regardless of their practicality.
Contributing to historians’ suspicions about Gordon’s integrity is his claim to the authorship of the famous engraving “A View of Savanah as it stood the 29th of March 1734.” As George F. Jones has convincingly argued, Gordon did not pen this illustration, but he did take credit for it by signing, “Obliged and most Obedient Servant, Peter Gordon.”5 Why Gordon falsely asserted production of this document remains unknown, but this misrepresentation certainly taints his reputation among scholars.
Despite his questionable actions and intentions while in the colony, his opinions and observations remain invaluable to the study of early Georgia. Although dubbed a “journal” by E. Merton Coulter, who originally edited Gordon’s manuscript, it reads more like a series of remarks and reflections about the world around him. Coulter concluded that Gordon must have assembled the final product upon his return to England but that he likely had kept some sort of records of his time in Georgia because of the detail he included. His writing style, however, lacks the specificity of precise and accurate dates as well as a more thorough accounting of all activities in the colony at that time.6 Furthermore, it becomes more narrative and reflective over the course of the volume. This shift is especially apparent at the end when he presents an organized summary of the opposition’s grievances.
Because of his appointed position as first bailiff, Gordon was especially attuned to the political situation in the new colony. Soon after mentioning the official establishment of the local government and court system, he shifted from a mere chronicler to an interested commentator about the situation around him. He opined about the proper role that the government should have in colonial oversight and criticized the arrangement that the Trustees had imposed on them as unwieldy and unworkable under the particular circumstances in the colony. He decried the Trustees’ land and labor policies at length, and he condemned the partisanship and favoritism exhibited by certain local officials, such as Thomas Causton, a fellow bailiff. While Gordon’s remarks mirror those arguments made by the Malcontents in later years, they represent the first time that these issues appeared and mark the beginning of the split into pro-Trustee and anti-Trustee factions. And although political history fell out of fashion in academia during the end of the twentieth century, it is witnessing a resurgence on all levels—local, state, and national. Revisiting the debates between the Trustees and the Malcontents in all their many iterations—especially these earliest ones—will contribute to the resurgence of this important field of study.
Thus, Gordon’s journal continues to offer important insights into many aspects of early Georgia and to act as a valuable source of study for historians despite its obvious biases and unusual organization. Scholars, of course, know to examine all records with a degree of skepticism, and their approach to Gordon’s narrative should be no different. Nevertheless, his commentary on the political, diplomatic, and social conditions during those early days provides important material from which historians can draw their own conclusions.
JULIE ANNE SWEET
1. This volume, 1; E. Merton Coulter and Albert B. Saye, eds., A List of the Early Settlers of Georgia (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1949), 19.
2. Stephen R. Berry, A Path in the Mighty Waters: Shipboard Life and Atlantic Crossings to the New World (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2015).
3. This volume, 1, 3–4; Kenneth Coleman, Colonial Georgia (New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1976), 91, 94–95.
4. CRG, 32: 12–13.
5. George F. Jones, “Peter Gordon’s (?) Plan of Savannah,” Georgia Historical Quarterly 70 (Spring 1986): 97–101. See also this volume, 6–8.
6. This volume, 18, 20.