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Glynn County: History and Lore: Ed Green Book:
St. Simons History
III. THE ENGLISH PERIOD
In 1732 King George II of England signed a charter authorizing the establishing of a colony in America between South Carolina and the Spanish territory of Florida "for the settling of the poor persons of London". Although this altruistic motive was real, and helped in raising funds for the venture, there was also adequate military reason for the new settlement. Spanish ships were harassing trade with the colonies. The firm entrenchment of the Spanish in Florida, with hostile Indians under their control, was evidence that the Spanish would push on north as rapidly as possible, thereby threatening English colonies one by one. Ignoring an old treaty giving them colonization rights only as far south as Charleston, they emphasized that just because the Spanish had a few missions along the Georgia coast a century before was no firm claim on this land now.
So a colony was authorized in 1732, and just the right man volunteered to lead the party which would pioneer the settling of Georgia-James Edward Oglethorpe.
The young Oglethorpe, now only age 35, had already distinguished himself, first as a soldier and then as a member of Parliament. He was known for his honesty, truthfulness, and as a moderate and wise legislator. This fine reputation had been enhanced by his service on a committee to investigate England's debtors' prisons. He had found that most of the prisoners were not criminals. A great depression, following years of war and government waste, had caused many to overextend their credit. Thus, many otherwise respected citizens were confined in prison for debt. They were confined there for an indefinite period of time, unless somehow they could bribe their way to freedom. Wardens often arranged good meals and clean quarters for a price, but if a debtor could not pay, he might receive very inhuman treatment. Most debtors were in filth, in damp cells, and often starving and ill. There were stories of prisoners being tortured to death so the warden could confiscate their personal belongings. Oglethorpe's distress at conditions became more personal when he found a friend of his living in such conditions. This young architect, now completely out of money to buy favors, suffered under fear of being sent to a prison building into an epidemic of smallpox. Oglethorpe could hardly believe such a thing could happen, but alas, even his pleas to the warden were without avail.
These investigations by Oglethorpe and his committee brought out even worse horrors, which were made in a detailed report to Parliament. This resulted in a reform of prison conditions and management, and led to the enactment of the Debtors Act, where for the first time in English history the rights of a debtor were protected. This law was a great achievement, and helped establish the reputation of James Oglethorpe all over England.
Thus, when a leader was needed for a new colony across the Atlantic, James Oglethorpe was just the person. Here was the opportunity for a new experiment. Could the issues for which he had fought in Parliament be proven practical and worthy in a new setting, in a new society unspoiled by inherited prejudice and debasing competition?
The Trustees of the colony saw this as an opportunity to give people-poor and unemployed because there was no work-a fresh start. Once they became established and self-aufficient, their industry and success would bring much needed trade and wealth to the Crown.
So with the reputation of Oglethorpe and the altruistic purposes of the project, the colony of Georgia became a household word. Financial backers were easily secured. The trustees carefully selected the first settlers to go. Only the most responsible and ambitious of the applicants were given preference. All of them had permission of their creditors to go; none were deserting wives and families. Even on the day of sailing, each family was called before the trustees, asked if they were satisfied with the arrangements, and given a chance to back out and remain in London.
It was November, 1732. On the 200 ton frigate Anne there were 114 emigrants, along with General Oglethorpe, a doctor, an engineer, and a druggist. The Volant was loaded with freight and also carried an additional four immigrants.
Although lashed by the Atlantic winter gales, the ships made anchor in Charles Town harbor safely. Two infants had died during the voyage, but the rest of the immigrants revived quickly once on Carolina soil. They were welcomed warmly by the Charleston governor and people, who gave them ample provisions, and would provide boats and guides for the rest of the journey. Oglethorpe lost no time in inspecting the lands to the south, and selected a bluff on the Savannah river for his new colony. Wisely, he made contact with the Indians and worked out permission with them for a settlement here. It was his good fortune to find a half-Indian woman who had gone to school in the Carolinas and spoke English. This Mary Musgrove was the daughter-in-law of Colonel John Musgrove, who had been sent into this area several years before to negotiate trade with the natives. Mrs. Musgrove's large influence with the Indians made her service invaluable. She and her husband were immediately hired as interpreters and gobetweens with her tribe.
Boats were rented in Charleston, and the settlers moved to the new site of the colony, arriving at Savannah on February 12, 1733. Working with great energy, they cleared the land and built the town, and such good progress had been made by early 1734 that Oglethorpe felt free to explore the rest of the territory to the south, which he also claimed for the English crown.
He spotted a point of high land along the western shore of St. Simons Island, about halfway up the island where the river curved somewhat concealing it. Just the place for a fort! A fort was needed for defense against the Spanish who still thought this territory was theirs. Of course, Oglethorpe had to go back to England to convince the Trustees of the need to build a fort, since he had quite arbitrarily extended the Georgia boundary southward.
Arriving back in England, he was welcomed home with great enthusiasm. The Red Men he took with him, in native costumes, with strange sounding names, caused a sensation. Poems were written in their honor, a medal was struck to commemorate the visit and celebrations were held by nobility and common folk alike.
Oglethorpe did have several fences to mend. There had been criticism of his prohibition of rum, brandy, and other distilled spirits; and to his objection to the introduction of negro slavery into the colony. After all, these were of much profit to business and to the Crown! Yet, with eloquent presentation to Parliament of the problems brought by drink and slavery, and with the further consideration that in a military outpost everyone should bear arms (prohibited to slaves), an agreement was rat)fied to continue these prohibitions. Some dissatisfaction of the Trustees with the accounting of their funds was allayed when they found that Oglethorpe had expended his own fortune for the colony, proof enough of his honesty. They did deem it wise to send along a secretary to keep better records and to provide them with more complete information than they had been receiving.
King George shared Oglethorpe's vision of Georgia's potential. The Trustees renewed their support now that they had heard first hand of the success of the colony. So now James Oglethorpe could again leave for America. This time the task ahead was a military one if he was to challenge the Spanish. Settlers for this new, exposed, frontier location need be trustworthy and industrious. They need have a variety of useful crafts and talents such as carpenter, blacksmith, farmer, doctor, shoemaker. The trustees seemed to prefer Salzburgers (persecuted Protestants from Germany) and Scottish Highlanders. So it was, that a carefully selected group of forty families-about 230 persons, only a few more than one-third of them men-arrived off Peeper Island (later known as Cockspur Island) in the mouth of the Savannah river in February, 1736.
A problem arose when some of the Salzburgers displayed a reluctance to move on to the new settlement, pleading that warfare was against their religion and fighting in a military settlement might be unavoidable. They really preferred to join the community of their own people at Ebenezer. Other settlers were reluctant to continue when they discovered the remainder of the voyage must be in very small boats.
Believing it unwise to take anyone to his new military outpost who did not want to go, Oglethorpe again recruited from among them, holding out no false promises, for the hardships would be greater and the location more dangerous.
Finding the affairs in Savannah going well, Oglethorpe lost little time in getting down to St. Simons Island, his site for a new town and fort.
So it was, under great moss-draped live oaks, overlooking the river and acre after acre of marshes, Oglethorpe named the town Frederica in honor of the Prince of Wales, Frederick Louis. With plans for a typically English village and fort, he immediately began construction of the fort. Twenty men were assigned to construction, ten to digging the ditch that must surround the fort. The dirt was to be thrown up as a rampart, and being sandy, must be tufted to prevent erosion. Each person had a job to do and a deadline for its completion.
By March, 1736, forty-four men and seventy-two women and children had begun life in the new town. Each freeholder had a lot for house and garden along the main street. There was also a large public garden inland from the town, a meadow for cattle, and two wells. Since the Trustees had chosen the colonists for their skill, Frederica was to be a self-sustaining community. There was a doctor, a constable, a carpenter, a baker, a shoemaker, a boatman, a bricklayer, a locksmith. Before long the fort was completed; as soon as possible the thatched houses were replaced by brick and wood homes. Within a very short time Frederica was an industrious, mostly selfcontained society.
To give further military strength, an outpost, Fort St. Simons, was built on the south end of the island, and for communications was connected to Frederica by a military road. By this road following the east shore of the island, it was concealed from the Frederica river on the west.
Among the immigrants which Mr. Oglethorpe brought from England were two young ministers who afterwards became very famous. John Wesley, fresh from Oxford University, came as a missionary to the Indians and a pastor to the colonists. His brother, Charles Wesley, was to serve as a private secretary to Oglethorpe. John took up his work in Savannah, making only an occasional trip to Frederica, while Charles came immediately with Oglethorpe to Frederica. His assigned task was to keep records and make reports to the Trustees, a previous failing of Mr. Oglethorpe. He soon discovered that pastoral responsibilities were his as well, so he conducted religious services and organized the settlers into a congregation which still today exists as the continuing congregation of Christ Church.
The Wesley brothers remained only a few months in the colony, however, as they really were not suited for the task. The Indians were no more interested in converting to the Church of England as Christians than they had been interested in accepting Spanish Catholic Christianity a century before. The colonists did not care for the "high church" ritual of their services, and especially did not like arbitrary and unbending moral authority. So, being discouraged by lack of success and disheartened by conflict with too many of the colonists, they were glad to return to the more familiar and settled life in England.
There were two things though which made the Georgia experience of the Wesleys of great significance: 1) On shipboard and in the colony they had been greatly impressed by the Moravian immigrants. Their trusting faith and deep piety made a deep impression on them, and the future "warm hearted" religious experience and the Methodist movement were greatly influenced by this Moravian contact. 2) The first Sunday School in the world was established in Savannah by John Wesley. He brought children together on Sunday for religious instruction. This is not to take away from Robert Raikes, who is given credit for the beginning of the Sunday School movement many years later. Robert Raikes developed an important system of teaching poor children on Sunday. These children had been working in the factories or mines for long hours six days a week, so on Sunday he got them together to teach them reading, writing, and arithmetic, for this was their only opportunity to learn. But the first known instance of getting children together on Sunday for religious instruction was by John Wesley in Savannah, Georgia.
So, although the Wesley brothers were in the colony for only a few months, it was a learning, growing, maturing experience which became part of the foundation upon which the Methodist movement was to be built.
With the colony firmly established and prospering, General Oglethorpe could then turn to asserting the English claim to the territory. England's claim rested upon the discoveries of Sebastian Cabot, who had sailed along this coast long before Spain claimed it as a part of Florida and colonized it with missions over a century before. However, England and Spain were quarreling not only over territory, but over trade, free shipping, and many other grievances. Oglethorpe, seeing war as inevitable, recruited six hundred fifty soldiers in England, carefully selecting them from respectable classes and permitting wives to come along in order to induce them to become permanent settlers. He also made special effort to make friends with the Indians in order to have them as allies.
England did declare war on Spain in 1739, and the next year Oglethorpe was ordered to secure the help of South Carolina and make an invasion of Florida. So he made an expedition against St. Augustine. However, he found it more heavily fort)fied than he had expected as he laid sedge to it. After several weeks without success, some Spanish galleys succeeded in running the gauntlet and carrying fresh supplies to the fort. This, together with his troops being enfeebled by sickness, made him decide it wise to raise the sedge and retire.
For the next two years the Spanish acted only on the defensive; however, Oglethorpe knew they were really gathering forces to retaliate. When the Spanish came to attack, they did have a formidable force of fifty-two vessels and about three thousand men, under the command of Dan Manuel de Montiano, Governor of St. Augustine.
This was a time of great peril for Georgia as this great fleet appeared off St. Simons bar with the intention of taking Frederica. The governor of South Carolina would render no assistance, so General Oglethorpe was put upon his own resources. He had only one small ship, two guard schooners, and some small trading vessels, plus two land batteries at Fort St. Simons on the south end of the island. He had about 650 men.
Seeing it hopeless to hold Fort St. Simons, he withdrew before an attack in order to concentrate all his forces at Frederica. Thus, the Spanish immediately occupied Fort St. Simons. It didn't then take them long to find the military road which led up the island to Frederica, and a detachment made it to within a few miles of the town before the alarm was given. Quickly moving into action, a few rangers and Highlander troops attacked the Spanish with such force that they were temporarily routed. While General Oglethorpe returned to Frederica for additional aid, the Spanish reinforcements poured in and the English company was driven back. The Highlanders, bringing up the rear of the retreat, wheeled aside and concealed themselves in a grove of palmettoes, where they laid an ambush for the pursuing Spaniards.
Reaching this bend in the road and observing the footprints in the sand showing the English in rapid retreat, they concluded that the fighting was over for the day. They stacked their guns, made cooking fires, and prepared to eat. At this opportune time, the English attacked and a large number of Spanish soldiers were killed, wounded, or captured. This became known as the Battle of Bloody Marsh because it was said the marsh was red with the blood of the dead and wounded. In vain the Spanish officers tried to rally their men, but the troops were in such panic and disorder that the commands went unheeded. So, the Spaniards retreated to their camp near Fort St. Simons, and General Oglethorpe collected his forces at Frederica.
Learning of dissension among the Spanish commanders, General Oglethorpe decided to make a night attack upon their main body, hoping that by surprise and their divided opinions, he might drive them from the island. In this, however, he was disappointed. When they were within sight of the enemy camp, one of his soldiers, a Frenchman, deserted to the enemy. Knowing that the deserter would reveal the weakness of his army, he by quick wit found an escape from the threatened danger. Perhaps the ability to devise such quick and clever strategy is the thing which set General James Oglethorpe apart from the ordinary soldier.
He decided to pretend that the deserter was not a deserter at all, but a spy. In order to deceive the Spanish commander, he liberated a prisoner and gave him a sum of money to carry a letter and give it privately to the French deserter. It was written in the French language as if from a friend of his, telling him to make it appear to the Spaniards that Frederica was in a defenseless state. It
told him to urge them to attack at once, but if he could not persuade them to attack, he was then to try to persuade them to remain three days longer where they were. By that time British ships of war with two thousand troops would have arrived from South Carolina.
Of course as Oglethorpe hoped, this letter fell into the hands of General Montiano. The Spanish were perplexed over its contents, and the Frenchman put in irons as a double spy. Fortunately, while the council of war was deliberating what course to pursue, three ships did actually come into sight off the bar. The Governor of South Carolina had sent them to survey the situation on the Georgia coast, but were not supposed to land or to fight. Yet the Spanish immediately assumed them to be the ships mentioned in the letter, and in a moment of consternation decided to burn Fort St. Simons, hastily embark, and flee.
The Spanish had no way of knowing that Governor Bull of South Carolina had only sent the ships to see if the Spanish were in control of St. Simons harbor or not, and that they had been ordered to return immediately without engaging in battle. The Spanish commander, not being willing to risk his whole army and fleet at what he thought was an impending battle, put out to sea in retreat.
The success of General Oglethorpe in this campaign was truly wonderful. With a handful of men he had defeated and baffled a well-equipped army and saved Georgia from a formidable invasion. Since the avowed object of the Spanish was to exterminate the English colonies in America, if they had succeeded against Frederica, all the other colonies would have been in danger. For a long time General Oglethorpe expected the return of the enemy, and he strengthened the defenses for this, but the enemy never returned. It was five years later that peace was restored between the contending nations, and the threat was fully eliminated.
So this relatively minor skirmish at Bloody Marsh was a decisive battle for the world as it meant that forever the territory of Georgia and northward would be English; the language, the customs, the traditions English, not Spanish.
In 1743, having completed his task, General Oglethorpe returned to England. After a few years it became obvious that the troops were no longer needed, so they were withdrawn. With the troops gone the town gradually declined until finally it was totally abandoned. Some of the tabby from the walls was hauled away for other construction including the foundation blocks for the lighthouse completed by James Gould in 1811.
The period between the Battle of Bloody Marsh and the great plantation days was a rather uneventful time. Many of the soldiers who had wives and families were given tracts of land; town residents gradually moved to more prosperous places. It was a time of small farms and developing prosperous towns. Only Frederica and Sunbury in Liberty County declined, while other communities prospered. When the Revolutionary War came, many in Georgia saw less reason to break with the home country than those who lived in other places. In fact, many of the more prosperous farmers and merchants remained loyal to the King and moved to the West Indies or Florida or other places to wait out the conflict.
During the Revolutionary War the colony of Georgia suffered very greatly under the Tories and the British. The colony was in a very vulnerable position with little resources. Invasion, occupation, destruction, and disruption of farming brought desperate circumstances and general despair, broken only by the good news of victories of General Nathaniel Greene as he invaded from the north.
Fortunately, things had gone better in the north and after the surrender of Lord Cornwallis, the British Parliament began to listen to the voice of reason, and steps were taken for the establishment of peace. In July 1782 the British army left Savannah, and in the final peace treaty, Georgia was mentioned by name and recognized as a free and independent state.
One other event need be mentioned as of great importance to coastal Georgia. General Nathaniel Greene had been rewarded with a grant of land and a beautiful plantation fourteen miles above Savannah, named Mulberry Grove. Here, after the turmoil of war, he retired with his family to enjoy the delights of a home which he preferred to the one he owned in his native Rhode Island. He died here in 1786, from sunstroke, and was buried on the estate. His widow continued to reside here, and she hired Eli Whitney as a tutor to her children. He often heard Mrs. Greene complain of the tedious process of picking by hand the seed from cotton. Sometimes she would playfully entreat him, as he possessed some mechanical talent, to devise a quicker way to accomplish this disagreeable task. Thus, stimulated, he invented the cotton gin, a machine which immensely increased the cotton industry of the world.
Particularly it made possible the Plantation Period of St. Simons Island and vicinity.