James Oglethorpe

James Oglethorpe

(1696-1785)

The founder of the colony of Georgia, James Oglethorpe was born in London and graduated from Oxford in 1714. He joined the Austrian army as a foreign soldier, serving with distinction in the Austrian war against the Ottoman Turks.

On his return to England, Oglethorpe was elected to the House of Commons. When a friend of his died in debtor’s prison, Oglethorpe became aware of the harshness that existed in British prisons. After Oglethorpe made a special report to Parliament in 1729, he was appointed chairman of a committee to investigate prison conditions.

Oglethorpe came to the decision that sending prisoners to work in the colonies was better than letting them rot in jail. In 1732, he and 19 others received a charter from King George II to start a colony between the Altamaha and Savannah rivers, just to the south of the colony of South Carolina.

The objective of the settlement was to provide a place for debtors, as well as for hard-working poor people who would produce silk and wine for England; in addition, the new colony would stand as a buffer between South Carolina and Spanish Florida.

Oglethorpe arrived in America in 1733 and soon established the town of Savannah. He remained there as governor of the colony for ten years. He had great success in his dealings with the local Native Americans. However, Oglethorpe was well aware that the real threat to the colony’s security was the potential danger from Spanish Florida, a danger that loomed larger when Britain and Spain went to war in 1739.

Oglethorpe went south and twice laid siege to the Spanish fort at St. Augustine; however, twice he was repelled by the strength of the Spanish defenses. Oglethorpe’s greatest success came in 1742, when he routed a major Spanish invading force at the battle of St. Simon’s Island. From then on, there was little threat of invasion from the Spanish.

Oglethorpe went to Britain in 1743, and then married an heiress named Elizabeth Wright. Oglethorpe and his fellow trustees of the colony eventually yielded their interest in the settlement to King George II, who made Georgia a royal colony in 1752. Oglethorpe never returned to America.

Oglethorpe was defeated in the elections for Parliament in 1754. He had served for 22 years, holding his seat even for the 10 years that he was in Georgia. He went on to attain notable success in British society, and lived long enough to meet John Adams, who came to England in 1785 as the first ambassador from the new nation of the United States.