Builders of Our Country: Book I  by Gertrude van Duyn Southworth

General James Oglethorpe

IT is a sad experience to get a necessity and then find it utterly impossible to raise the money to pay for it. This means debt, and debt often means suffering to honest men.

And if debt means suffering here in America to-day, picture what it must have meant in England in the eighteenth century, when to owe money was held a serious crime. The English laws were very strict. Let a man owe even a very small amount, and absolute ruin stared him in the face. No matter if his poverty came from sickness or misfortune. No matter if he had a large family to care for. If he could not pay his bills, an officer appeared and dragged him off to prison. There he could not earn a cent to pay his debt, and yet there he must stay. If his friends brought him food and comforts, all well and good; otherwise he might starve. His great hope of freedom was that his creditor would withdraw his claim, and this was often a very slight hope.

Now, the debtors' prisons were often visited by an English general, James Oglethorpe. He was of a kind and sympathetic nature, and it seemed to him a dreadful thing—this imprisonment for debt. Was there no way to help these poor people in their misery?

While he was pondering as to what he could do, an opportunity came. The English colony of South Carolina in America lay exposed to attacks from the Spaniards in Florida. The South Carolina settlers needed protection on the south. Here was Oglethorpe's chance. Why could not the most deserving of the poor imprisoned debtors be taken to America? And why could they not be settled in a colony which would serve as a military outpost against the Spaniards?

General Oglethorpe laid his scheme before the English King and the English Government. Both heartily approved. The land lying between the Savannah and the Altamaha rivers was granted to the new colony. The colony was named Georgia in honor of King George III, and General Oglethorpe was appointed governor.

In January, 1733, General Oglethorpe, his released debtors and their families, entered the Savannah River. Upon the arrival of the settlers, an Indian chief came forward and welcomed them. "Here is a present for you," said he to Oglethorpe. It was a buffalo hide, painted on the inside with the head and feathers of an eagle. "The feathers are soft and signify love, the buffalo skin is the emblem of protection; therefore love and protect us and our families," said the chief. From this time the Indians were kindly treated by Oglethorpe; and, as usual, they rewarded friendship with friendship.

The settlers bought from the Indians the land along the southern bank of the Savannah River, laid out a town, and named it Savannah.

Later other emigrants came and made other settlements in Georgia. These were persecuted Protestants from Germany and Austria, Scotch peasants from the Highlands, and even a small party of settlers from New England.

True to his promise to make his colony a military outpost against the Spaniards, Governor Oglethorpe built forts and insisted on military drills.

There were other things he insisted upon. No liquor could be imported into the colony, and no colonist could have slaves. Having no slaves, the settlers themselves were forced to work. The raising of rice and indigo were the chief occupations.

Before many years General Oglethorpe had a chance to prove that his colony made a valuable protection for South Carolina. In 1739 war broke out between Spain and England. The next spring Oglethorpe gathered an army of colonists and friendly Indians and marched into Florida. For five weeks the English besieged St. Augustine. Then they had to retreat.

The Spaniards now determined to invade Georgia. Great preparations were made. Finally thirty-six vessels with a large army sailed northward and landed on St. Simon's Island. Although Oglethorpe's force was nowhere near so great as the Spanish, he defeated them through strategy. The Spaniards fled to their vessels and never disturbed the English in Georgia again.

For ten years Governor Oglethorpe devoted himself to his colony. In 1743 he bade adieu to his sorrowing friends, both the settlers and the Indians, and left for his English home. Here he lived to a good old age, honored and loved by his countrymen as much as by the unfortunate debtors whom he had treated so kindly.