The Founding of Georgia

Learning Objectives

  • Examine the foundation of the colony of Georgia

The Founding of Georgia

Georgia was the last of the original thirteen colonies to be established. As British settlement spread to the south and west, it came into increasing contact with the Spanish in Florida and the French in the Mississippi River valley. From an imperial viewpoint, Georgia functioned as buffer zone between British settlements and their imperial rivals; the new colony was to be a garrison province that would defend the British, especially from Spanish Florida.

Having witnessed the terrible conditions of debtors’ prison, as well as the results of releasing penniless debtors onto the streets of London, James Oglethorpe, a member of Parliament and advocate of social reform, petitioned King George II for a charter to start a new colony. George II, understanding the strategic advantage of a British colony standing as a buffer between South Carolina and Spanish Florida, granted the charter to Oglethorpe and twenty like-minded proprietors in 1732. Oglethorpe led the settlement of the colony, which was called Georgia in honor of the king. In 1733, he and 113 immigrants arrived on the ship Anne. Over the next decade, Parliament funded the migration of twenty-five hundred settlers, making Georgia the only government-funded colonial project.

Oglethorpe’s vision for Georgia followed the ideals of the Age of Reason, seeing it as a place for England’s “worthy poor” to start anew. To encourage industry, he gave each male immigrant fifty acres of land, tools, and a year’s worth of supplies. In Savannah, the Oglethorpe Plan provided for a utopia: “an agrarian model of sustenance while sustaining egalitarian values holding all men as equal.”

Georgia as a Buffer

In the years before the founding of the Georgia colony, both the English and the Spanish sought to control the border area at the limits of Carolina and Florida through trade and alliances with Indians, as well as through warfare. Throughout the southeast, a large and lucrative Indian slave trade developed alongside European, and especially British, colonization. The growing need for labor in the Americas, especially in the Caribbean sugar islands, meant that there was a new market for people taken as captives in intertribal warfare and raids. The British used this Indian slave trade to establish greater power and presence in the southern colonies and in the borderlands between British and Spanish settlements as they negotiated and formed alliances with many groups selling captives into slavery through ports such as Charles Town.

Map of the Southeast showing Native tribal areas. In and around Georgia there are the Muskogee, Cusabo, Yamasee, Hitchiti, Timucua, Apalachee, Cherokee, and Catawba.

Figure 1. Modern-day Georgia and Florida were already home to well-established Indigenous populations.

To the south, the Spanish laid claim to the area through a different means of interacting with Native peoples, by establishing a chain of religious mission villages among the Guale, Timucua, and Apalachee Indians. The two most important centers of the mission system were located in St. Augustine in the east and Tallahassee, Florida in the west, but mission outposts pushed north as far as the present cities of Valdosta and Folkston, as well as St. Catherine’s Island on the coast of what would become Georgia. These missions not only served to Christianize and acculturate southeastern Indians, but also as a source of labor and food and a buffer between British Charles Town and Spanish St. Augustine.

Eventually, hostilities broke out as the colonial areas of control grew, and the two European powers came into contact. Throughout the 1680s, Indian slave catchers, many allied with the British, raided the missions of Guale. In 1686, these raids forced the Spanish to withdraw south of the St. Mary’s River into modern-day Florida. The outbreak of Queen Anne’s War (also known as the War of Spanish Succession) further weakened Spain’s hold.

Map of Florida and Georgia showing the location of major Spanish missions, including Guale on the coast of Georgia and St. Augustine further down the coast in modern-day north Florida.

Figure 2. This map shows the location of Spanish missions in Florida and Georgia territory in the 17th century and the maximum extent of Spanish Florida during the primary Franciscan mission period between 1587 and 1706. Here you can see the Guale, Mocama, and St. Augustine missions along the eastern coast.

From 1700-1703, Carolina governor James Moore and a force made up of colonists and Indian allies conducted a series of raids on the missions, devastating the Guale and Mocama provinces and razing St. Augustine, laying siege but ultimately failing to take the fortress of Castillo San Marcos. In 1704, Moore again raided the missions of Spanish Florida, this time attacking the Apalachee province to the west, killing and enslaving much of the population in the “Apalachee massacre.” Ultimately, the destruction of the Apalachee missions (and the labor and food derived from it) was the biggest blow to St. Augustine and Spanish Florida, considerably weakening their Indian alliance system and the Spanish hold on the southeast. Conversely, the success of the raids reaffirmed many of the British alliances with tribes such as the Creek and Cherokee, strengthening British power and presence in the southeast and paving the way for the founding of the Georgia colony.

Image of a stone fort building, and a map of Georgia showing the location of Fort Frederica on the coast.

Figure 3. Fort Frederica, located on the southeastern shore of Georgia.

Over the next decade, Oglethorpe and the Georgia colonists worked to ensure that Georgia could defend itself against the encroachment of the Spanish, realizing Georgia’s role as a military buffer zone. They began construction of a chain of forts on Georgia’s coast. The most important of these fortified outposts was by far Fort Frederica, located on St. Simon’s Island. Built in 1736, the fort housed several hundred regular British troops, sent by the Crown on the advice of Oglethorpe, and a growing settlement of colonists. The forts and the garrison soon after saw action when the War of Jenkins’ Ear (part of the larger conflicts of King George’s War or the War of Austrian Succession) broke out in 1739. Oglethorpe and a force of about 1,500 sailed for St. Augustine, laying siege to the city in conjunction with a blockade by the Royal Navy. The expedition was initially successful, capturing several Spanish outposts, including the settlement of Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mosé (renamed Fort Mose by Oglethorpe), populated by runaway slaves from the British colonies. These men and women were granted freedom by the Spanish in an attempt to undermine the plantation economy of the British colonies. Oglethorpe’s force was eventually expelled from Georgia because of the failure of the blockade to prevent the resupplying of St. Augustine and the defeat of Oglethorpe’s forces at Fort Mose, known as “Bloody Moosa.” Black militiamen from the settlement of Mosé were among the Spanish forces that expelled the Georgians from Florida. Border warfare between Georgia and Florida continued through 1743, with an invasion of Georgia and another of St. Augustine, to little overall effect and the imperial outpost colonies resumed their stalemate for the duration of the war.

Governing Georgia

Statue of James Oglethorpe.

Figure 4. Statue of James Oglethorpe at the Augusta Common, an open space he personally designed when co-founding the city in 1735

From 1732-1752, Georgia was governed by a Board of Trustees based in London. Unlike the other British colonies, there was no governor in the colony, nor was there a governing legislative body. The Trustees in London were barred from holding office or owning land in Georgia. In many ways, the Trustees conducted a social experiment in the new colony through its population and through the Georgia charter. Although few colonists were the debtors envisioned by Oglethorpe, many were indeed among the “deserving poor.” However, rather than finding relief from debt in the colony, most colonists found themselves further indebted for their passage to the colony. In most cases, the colonists were indebted to the Georgia Trust itself, Adults typically served terms of five years of indentured servitude to the Trust, but children were often bonded for much longer terms; some were bound to service for terms of seventeen or even twenty-one years.

Some of the indebted servants fled the colony to escape their debts. This was especially true in the north, where perhaps as much as three-fourths of the indentured servants had fled. The social provisions of the Georgia Charter also ensured religious liberty for “all” (while specifically excluding Catholics); the population reflected this as religious refugees from Switzerland, Scotland, and Germany arrived in the colony. When a group of Jews arrived in Georgia in 1733, Oglethorpe allowed them to stay in the colony in spite of the Trustees’ objections, making Savannah home to one of the oldest Jewish congregations in the modern-day United States.

During 1732-1752, the Trustees also banned hard alcohol in the colony and tried to prevent the Carolina colony from shipping rum through Georgia, bringing the colonies into conflict. Despite the Trustees’ opposition, many of the Georgia colonists participated in the Indian trade, including the rum trade. The town of Augusta was established as an Indian trading town, and quickly grew to become one of the largest Indian trading centers in the south.

Finally, the trustees also banned slavery in the colony during this period. Numerous reasons have been cited for this decision. Oglethorpe’s vision of smallholding farmers would be undermined by slave labor. To the south, Spanish Florida tried to undermine the British settlements by granting freedom to any runaway slave who made it to Florida and embraced Catholicism. Moreover, a large enslaved population would undermine Georgia’s value as a military buffer with the Spanish, as enslaved people could not serve in the militia. Bringing slavery to Georgia, the Trustees reasoned, would undermine the colony in a variety of ways. Nothing indicates, however, that the Trustees banned slavery because of any abolitionist sentiments.

Life in Georgia

Georgia’s colonial experience was very different from the other North American British colonies. Founded fifty years after Pennsylvania (the twelfth colony) and almost seventy-five years after Carolina, it had by far the shortest colonial experience. Perhaps in part for the same reason, Georgia also had the smallest population and the least economic development of the thirteen colonies. Immigrants came to the colony from all over Europe. Many came as religious refugees under the Georgia Charter.

A significant example of this was a group that came to be known as the Salzburgers. The Salzburgers were a group of about 300 German-speaking Lutherans who had been expelled from the principality of Salzburg in modern Austria. The Salzburgers proved to be an important group in Georgia’s colonial period. First, unlike many individual immigrants to Georgia, the Salzburgers were not in debt for their passage to the colony; their passage had been sponsored by the Augsburgbased organization the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. Their settlement New Ebenezer proved to be one of the most successful in the colony, with the first gristmills in the colony, and some of the earliest sawmills. Moreover, despite the Trustees’ visions of Georgia as a producer of luxury goods such as silk, the Salzburgers were one of the only Georgians able to make an effort to raise silkworms and produce silk. The Trustees had mandated that colonists plant one hundred mulberry trees for every ten acres of land granted to a colonist; however, few of the debt-ridden Georgia colonists could afford to do so. The Salzburgers were a significant exception.

The Trustees’ early ideas for Georgia to be a producer of luxury goods quickly came to an end. Food was scarce in the colony in the early period, and for many, it was hard enough to produce food, let alone plant mulberry trees for silkworms. Moreover, the coastal soil proved unsuitable for wine production. Instead, colonists turned to cattle, timber, and Indian trade as sources of income and subsistence. Colonists grazed cattle on their own land grants as well as inland on ungranted land to supplement the food they grew. Salted beef soon became a dietary staple in the colony. Colonists also turned to timber for firewood as well as manufactured wood products such as pitch, tar, shingles, and planks to supplement their income. Most colonists could not afford the equipment to produce manufactured products for sale, and so produced only firewood. However, timber quickly became one of the main industries in Georgia and presently remains so. Despite its proprietors’ early vision of a colony guided by Enlightenment ideals and free of slavery, this eventually changed, and by the 1750s, Georgia was producing quantities of rice grown and harvested by enslaved people.

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