American Indian people lived and farmed in what would become Georgia for thousands of years, but this was irrelevant to the European powers who felt that their religion had given them dominion over non-Christians. In 1732 the British, following the Doctrine of Discovery which decreed that Christian nations had a right to govern all non-Christian nations, awarded colonization rights to James Edward Oglethorpe.
Oglethorpe (shown above), a British social reformer, had an idealistic notion of resettling Britain’s poor, particularly those in debtors’ prisons, in the Americas. He hoped to establish a colony which would provide a refuge for poor people as well as for oppressed Protestants on the mainland. For this purpose he proposed establishing a colony south of British South Carolina and north of Catholic Spanish Florida. In 1730, Oglethorpe and a group of associates petitioned the Crown to form the Trustees for the Establishment of the Colony of Georgia in America.
The plan for the settlement of Georgia was based on a system of agrarian equality. The idea was to have an economy based on family farming. This social and economic system, the Trustees felt, would prevent the social disintegration associated with unregulated urbanization which they had seen in England. For the new colonists, land ownership was to be initially limited to 50 acres which would include a town lot, a garden plot near town, and a 45-acre farm. Once the colonists were self-supporting, they would be able to obtain additional 50-acre land grants which would be determined by the number of indentured servants. These indentured servants, once they had completed their term of service, would also receive their own land grants. The colonists would not be allowed to obtain additional land through purchase or inheritance.
Oglethorpe and the first colonists arrived in South Carolina in 1732 and established their colony near the present site of Savannah, Georgia on February 12, 1733. While the British Crown had given Oglethorpe rights to the area, in reality the land belonged to the Yamacraw who were a part of the larger Creek Confederacy. Oglethorpe negotiated with Chief Tomochichi for the right to settle on the land.
Less than three years prior to the arrival of the English colonists, Chief Tomochichi (shown above) had had some political differences with the other Creek leaders. As a result, he had moved his village to Yamacraw Bluff. After the arrival of the English, he often served as an intermediary between the English and the Creek. Oglethorpe and Tomochichi became friends. In 1834 Tomochichi and his wife Senauki accompanied Oglethorpe to England where they met with King George II.
The new colony of Georgia lay in the frontier area between the British-ruled Carolinas to the north and the Spanish-ruled Florida to the south. The new colony was to serve as a buffer between these two groups. As a part of the larger British Empire, Georgia was to be a wall which would defend the British colonies in the Americas against the Spanish.
As a part of the defense against the Spanish, Oglethorpe established Fort Fredericka on St. Simons Island. Eventually, some 630 British troops would be stationed at this fort and a town of 500 colonials would grow up around it. The fort was named for Frederick, Prince of Wales and the name was feminized to distinguish it from Fort Frederick in South Carolina.
Oglethorpe’s vision for Georgia did not include slaves. He felt that runaway slaves would weaken the colony and provide support to the neighboring Spanish Florida. Within a year of the founding of the Colony, Oglethorpe persuaded the Crown to prohibit slavery in Georgia. Two problems related to slavery quickly emerged. First, the lack of slaves reduced the workforce and many felt that it inhibited the economic development of Georgia. Second, many runaway slaves from the neighboring Carolinas were soon seeking refuge in Georgia, often among Indian tribes such as those of the Creek Confederacy. The ban on slavery was lifted in 1750 at which time many slaves were imported from Africa.
The original idea was that British debtors would be released from prison and sent to Georgia. This would theoretically rid England of “undesirable” elements. On the other hand, Oglethorpe wanted only the “worthy poor” for his new colony. In reality, relatively few people came to Georgia from an English debtor’s prison. Those who came included many Scots who had needed skills to make the colony work and many poor English tradesmen and artisans. There were also a number of religious refugees from Switzerland and Germany. The royal charter which created the colony provided for acceptance of all religions except Roman Catholicism (American Indian religions were not considered religions by the Europeans). There were also a few Jews who came to settle the new colony.
The new colony also became the home to the first Masonic Lodge in the Americas. Today Solomon’s Lodge is known as the “Oldest Continuously Operating English Constituted Lodge of Freemasons in the Western Hemisphere.”
While Oglethorpe’s idealism and vision helped create the British colony of Georgia, it wasn’t long before many of the colonists began to view him as a misguided and perpetual dictator, particularly with regard to his policies on slavery.
Oglethorpe returned to England in 1743 after serving as governor of Georgia for nine years. He died in 1785 at the age of 88.