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founder of Georgia
James Edward Oglethorpe was born in London, England, on December 22, 1696, the tenth and last child of Theophilus and Eleanor Oglethorpe, and grew up on the family estate in Godalming, Surrey. His father owned several properties in Godalming, as well as Haslemere, the rent from which provided a very comfortable lifestyle for the large family. He was admitted to Corpus Christi College, Oxford University, in 1714, but dropped out that same year to become an an aide to Prince Eugène of Savoy, who was then engaged against the Turks in Austria and Hungary. After serving with distinction in several battles, Oglethorpe returned to London, and was elected to the House of Commons by Haslemere in 1722.
In 1728, a friend of Oglethorpe's was sent to London's Fleet Prison because of debts. The custom at this time was for prisoners to pay for their room and board, but since Oglethorpe's friend could not pay he was thrown into a cell with a prisoner who had smallpox; Oglethorpe's friend subsequently died of the disease. The plight of his friend moved Oglethorpe to action, and in 1729 he launched a national campaign to reform England's prisons. Named chairman of a special parliamentary committee on prison reform, he then took his fellow committee members on a tour in which they saw firsthand the deplorable conditions in which prisoners were forced to live. His campaign ultimately led to many major reforms, but failed to end the practice of sending debtors to prison.
Having succeeded at reforming English prisons, Oglethorpe and several of his colleagues began exploring the idea of creating a colony in America where the "worthy poor" could become productive members of society. The colony would discourage the formation of economic classes by making all settlers tenants of their own land, restricting how much land any one person could own, and prohibiting slavery. On June 9, 1732, King George II granted a charter creating Georgia, with Oglethorpe as one of 21 Trustees. The charter gave the Trustees control over all lands between between the Altamaha and Savannah Rivers, and from the headwaters of those rivers to the "south seas." It also specifically prohibited any trustee from making money from the colony, and from holding any formal government office in the colony.
In November of 1732, 114 men, women and children gathered at Gravesend to embark for Georgia. Despite the original ideals of the colony's trustees, not one of these colonists came from the ranks of debtors facing imprisonment, as the trustees were able to fill the ship with craftsmen and their families. After a series of delays, the colonists finally set sail aboard the Anne, and arrived at Port Royal, South Carolina, two months later. While the colonists rested at Port Royal, Oglethorpe and several other men went ahead to find a suitable settlement site. Upon reaching the site of present-day Savannah, Oglethorpe acquired the land from the Yamacraw Indians. The colonists were brought to the site on February 12, 1733, and immediately began building the town according to plans drawn up by Oglethorpe. Oglethorpe laid out the town with a distinctive pattern of streets and public squares in which every lot was identical in size and every house was built to the same specifications. It was built as a communal effort, with every able-bodied man working together to complete a specific project and then moving on as a group to start the next. As per the trustee's grand plan, restrictions were placed on the amount of land any one person could own, and slavery was expressly prohibited.
Although Oglethorpe was prevented from holding any official office, he was seen as the colony's leader. Much to the chagrin of some Georgians, he allowed members of persecuted religious minorities to settle in Georgia, and refused to compromise on his position against slavery. He was, however, greatly respected for keeping relations with Native Americans peaceful by always seeing to it that land cessions were done according to proper Indian custom and by protecting Indians from unscrupulous white traders. As a result of these policies, Georgia was one of the very few colonies to enjoy peaceful relations with Indians throughout its colonial history.
Although he was only one of 21 trustees, most of the colony's finances were supplied out of Oglethorpe's pockets. A true believer in the experiment being carried out in Georgia, Oglethorpe was more than willing to mortgage whatever he had to keep the colony going. That did not keep him, however, from making frequent trips to London in order to lobby for funds from other trustees and Parliament. In 1737, facing a very real threat from the Spanish in Florida, Oglethorpe was able to convince King George II to make him a Colonel and give him a regiment to take back to Georgia. He subsequently led the regiment in several minor skirmishes against the Spanish, including a failed attempt to capture St. Augustine in 1740. In 1742, however, his regiment successfully repulsed a Spanish invasion at the Battle of Bloody Marsh, and the Spanish never again attempted an action against a British colony on the Atlantic coast.
In 1743, Oglethorpe was recalled to London to face charges of misconduct during his campaigns against the Spanish. A special board of inquiry cleared him of all charges the following year, and Parliament subsequently voted to reimburse him for all expenses incurred on behalf of Georgia. He married Elizabeth Wright that same year, and the couple settled at her inherited estate in Cranham, Essex. Although he never returned to Georgia, Oglethorpe remained active on the Board of Trustees until 1750. He became less and less active, however, as the Board gradually relaxed restrictions on land ownership, inheritance, and slavery. The Board gave up its charter in 1750, and Georgia became a royal charter in 1752. After 32 years of continuous service in the House of Commons, Oglethorpe was defeated for re-election in 1754. He spent the rest of his life as a member of British society, and died at his Cranham estate on June 30, 1785.
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This page was last updated on June 19, 2017.