James Oglethorpe and the Founding of Georgia

In this episode, we look at the life of James Oglethrope, the founder of the Georgia Colony, and the events that led up to the 1735 trip the Wesleys took to Georgia.

Episode 40

Hello, I'm Wilson Pruitt, and you are listening to the History of Methodism Podcast. Today’s Episode: James Oglethorpe and the Founding of Georgia.

When John and Charles Wesley sailed to Georgia in 1735, they were going to a different sort of colony founded by a different sort of man. Georgia was not created to form a profit but to offer new life to those who were downtrodden in England. The man who created the colony, James Oglethorpe, is considered by some historians as “the founder of modern philanthropy.”1 His own personal history and the history of the colony help us to understand what exactly the Wesleys are sailing into.

James Oglethorpe’s family goes back to the time of Edward the Confessor, before the Norman Invasion, but we should start with James’s grandfather, Sutton Oglethorpe, who was a supporter of King Charles I during the English Civil War. He was fined by parliament 20,000 pounds and lost the family estates.2 Sutton’s son, Theophilus, rose up to power during the Restoration of King Charles II, eventually earning a knighthood. After the invasion of England by William of Orange, Theophilus and his Irish wife, Eleanor Wall, fled to France for a few years with the exiled-court of James II. In 1694, the Oglethorpe’s returned to England and in 1696, James Oglethorpe was born in Surrey. He was named after King James II, whom Theophilus continued to support until 1698 when Sir Theophilus swore an oath of allegiance to King William.3

This led to a parliamentary seat which he passed on to his children, Lewis and Theophilus. An Oglethorpe represented Haslemere for most years between 1698 and 1713 and offered the possibility of governmental power to the young James. Throughout the political movements of the family, Lady Oglethorpe was a true Jacobite supporter of the Stuarts until her death in 1732. Johnathan Swift even remarked that she was “so cunning a devil,” for her politics.4

Lady Oglethorpe guided the education of her son, James. She procured a commission with the Duke of Marlborough in 1709 during the War of Spanish Succession, which we discussed in Episode 22, but he went to Eton (following the family tradition) soon after. In 1714, James entered Corpus Christi College, Oxford, only a few years before John Wesley.

James never stayed at Oxford long. In 1715, his army commission was renewed and he joined the Queen’s Guards before resigning the following year and moving to the continent to study at a military academy in Paris. The following year, James left France to join the staff of Prince Eugene of Savoy in his campaign against the Ottomans. Prince Eugene had been an ally of Marlborough’s in the famous Battle of Blenhem in 1704 and he had continued to win victories throughout the War of Spanish Succession, even after Marlborough had retired back to England.

As a young man, Prince Eugene had fought at the Battle of Vienna where the Ottomans were first driven back from Europe, but in 1716, he feared their growing threat again, so he formed up an army under the Hapsburgs to take on the Ottomans. Prince Eugene marched east, freeing much of what is now Hungary and Romania before beginning a siege on Belgrade. It was around this time that James Oglethorpe joined Prince Eugene. During the Battle of Belgrade in August of 1717, when Prince Eugene’s outnumbered soldiers routed the Ottomans, James mounted the trenches and gained a lot of military acclaim at the young age of 22.

He returned to Paris and some of his families Jacobite machinations, but soon he was back in England to a family estate near Westbrook, where he ran for Parliament in 1722 and won back the family seat of Haslemere that his father and brothers had kept.

His first years in parliament were quiet. Many knew of the family’s Jacobite support and so he spoke only once in 1723 and then not again until he was named to the Parliamentary inquiry into “the State of the Gaols of this Kingdom.” This focused on debtor’s prisons and the unregulated nature of them which gave creditors nearly the power of executioners. Most people in jail at this time were debtors. After the death of a friend in one of these jails, Oglethorpe sought an investigation and was appointed as chairman of the inquiry which began in 1729. This was near the time when William Morgan first convinced the Wesleys to start visiting those in prison at Oxford in the Holy Club.

Oglethorpe’s 96 member committee, which included his future ally, the Earl of Egmont, began their inquiry at Fleet Prison but soon expanded. The interviews that took place with the debtors described conditions of cruelty and barbarity. Oglethorpe presented his report to parliament in almost 70 pages of jarring descriptions. His desire for prison reform passed and Judges and wardens were forbidden from receiving bribes, among other changes.5

In the Act of 1729, which reformed the prisons, nothing stipulated what should happen to convicts after they were released. This led to an increase in unemployment in London. Oglethorpe sought to send a hundred or so to America. Oglethorpe received funds of a support from some unlikely places, including a haberdasher’s bequest of 15,000 pounds, which would be worth 2.6 million pounds today.

But where exactly would the people go? The Yamasee War of 1715-17 revealed the fragility of the Carolina colonies. What is now South Carolina would have been crushed if the Cherokee hadn’t sided with the English against their historic rivals, the Creek. 70% of the inhabitants of what is now South Carolinia were killed and fear of colonial expansion set in.

In 1717, Sir Robert Montgomery received a charter to start a colony between the Savannah and Altahama rivers in order to be a barrier between Spanish Florida and indigenous nations. The colony failed and transitioned back to the crown in 1729. King George then divided Carolina into North and South. In July of that year, Oglethorpe and his partner, the Earl of Egmont, petitioned King George II to receive a charter for the lands southwest of South Carolina. Finally, in June of 1732, the King signed a charter for the colony of Georgia, with twenty associates as Trustees. Most of whom Oglethorpe knew from the prison committee. The king gave reasons for the charter, stated that “many of our poor subjects…would be glad to settle in any of our province in America where by cultivating the lands, at present waste and desolate, [that] they might…gain a comfortable subsistence for themselves and families, but also strengthen our colonies and increase the trade, navigation, and wealth of these our realms.”6

As Philip Stern writes, “Georgia was thus self-consciously a departure from precedent: a trusteeship rather than a joint stock, funded not by adventurers but philanthropists.”

With the charter secure, Oglethorpe and others began to market the colony and fundraise for the mission. They received a grant from the government for 10,000 pounds and further funds from the Bank of England and the East India Company.

As Sylvia Fries points out in her study of Urban Planning in Colonial America,

What the Georgia Trustees envisioned for their colonial enterprise was the restoration of a society of modest farm households, each family working industriously a parcel of land within its honest capacity and adequate to sustain itself. The Trustees themselves were not to profit from their undertaking. Their disinterestedness would be insured by a provision in the Charter of 1732 prohibiting members of the Corporation from receiving any “salary, fee, perquisite, benefit or profit” or grant of land…for the development of the colony.7

The charter stipulated that each person sent to Georgia would receive a 50 acre lot in the country, or a sixty by ninety square foot lot in town plus country land to equal 50 acres. They were required, at the risk of forfeiture, to clear the lands given and build defenses and homes.

In June of 1732, Lady Oglethorpe died, which freed James of his last major tie to England. Now, instead of just supporting the idea of Georgia, James Oglethorpe planned to go there himself.

On November 17, 1732, the frigate, Ann, left Gravesend with 116 person’s, 10 tons of beer, and James Oglethorpe as the accompanying trustee.8

They landed in Charleston on January 13, 1733, and soon went south to the banks of the Savannah to build the town of that name. Oglethorpe laid out the town, created its administration, and worked to build alliances with the indigenous neighbors.

Oglethorpe became a quasi-governor in that he was not officially the governor of the colony, but he acted as such for many. The Board of Trustees had declined to create a governor structure out of an aversion to Crown scrutiny, but the resident Trustee (Oglethorpe, in this case) had many of the same powers. Oglethorpe laid out the city of Savannah in what is now called the Oglethorpe Plan. Within a week of his arrival, Oglethorpe, and the South Carolinian surveyor, William Bull, marked out the Square, the streets, and 40 lots for houses for the town.”9

The city was laid out in a grid format. Many scholars since then have seen a connection between the layout and Oglethorpe’s military past. Machiavelli’s treatise on the Art of War highlights “the importance of uniformity in camp layout and the availability of safe or protected places for rest.”10

The first of the buildings in the plan to be built were blockhouses outfitted for canon, as well as a substantial guardhouse.

The grid system also allowed for the rural-urban connection to be strongly maintained, connecting everyone to the land and honest labor.

As Thomas Wilson writes:

Oglethorpe’s elaborate regional plan for equitable land allocation, efficient land use, and effective defense was, by design, spatially static, very much like the countryside of the English gentry and very much unlike the organic and chaotic development of cities. The plan ensured that each family would have a farm less than four miles from their house.11

A neighbor helped Oglethorpe tremendously in his dealings with the indigenous nations. Mary Musgrove née Coosaponakeesa, half English and half Creek, owned a trading post nearby and she served as an interpreter and negotiator for Oglethorpe in the early days.12

Oglethorpe worked to employ the men who came with him on that first vessel. There still was the challenge of French and Spanish colonial interests. In order to protect the colony, Oglethorpe needed more men than those he had brought on that first voyage.

The Crown’s opposition to continued colonial migration made this challenging. Thus, the Georgia Trustees began to seek continental immigration, especially from Lutherans, a group of which were called Salzburgers. In July of 1733, 42 Jewish colonists arrived in Georgia, the largest group in America. Dr. Samuel Nunes Ribeiro, a Portuaguese Jew, helped immediately to treat a dissentary outbreak in the colony.

A commitment by the Trustees to Religious freedom meant that the church of England was not an established church in Georgia. They helped support the ministry and offered bibles and books but gave no requirements for membership. So Lutherans and, soon, Moravians, were welcome,

The city and colony was also it was also designed to be a path for a model society. The works of James Harrington, who was banned in England at this time, were read and annotated by Oglethorpe, including Harrington’s utopian masterpiece, The Commonwealth of Oceana.

As Thomas Wilson writes:

Harrington’s philosophy was widely read within the country party [of Parliament, of which Oglethorpe was a member]…and its prescription for land ownership appears to have influenced the Oglethorpe Plan. Oglethorpe and his circle of confidants developed an integrated, multilayered plan to ensure perpetuation of equality and opportunity beyond the founding of the colony. The plan expanded upon Harrington by elevating the land-working class to a land-owning class of small farmers.13

Like most historical utopias, not everyone was on board with hard work. Oglethorpe wrote the Trustees in August of 1733 that he found in Charles Town “the people were grown very mutinous and impatient of labour and discipline.”14 The colony of Georgia was difficult to financially maintain. There was a large need for funds and the trustees were not fulfilling their appointment in Oglethorpe’s absence. So, in 1734, he returned to England. The Board of Trustees of the colony enacted three laws because of his influence: the first banned alcohol, the second banned slavery, and the third licensed traders with native tribes. The ban on slavery lasted until 1749 and marked another level of understanding between the Wesley’s and Oglethorpe.

On April 30, 1735, the Board of Trustees received word of an attempted insurrection in the colony where some folks tried to murder the men and carry the women and children to Florida.15 They were arrested and the board decided to form a commission to try them. Among other factors, this led James Oglethorpe in June to decide to return Georgia. Two young men joined him on this trip: John and Charles Wesley. What was their journey like? Who did they meet? How did it shape them? Next time on the history of Methodism.

  1. Doyle, 418. ↩︎
  2. Ettinger, 1. ↩︎
  3. Ettinger, 2. ↩︎
  4. Swift, Works 2:299. ↩︎
  5. Ettinger, 18. ↩︎
  6. Crane, 65. ↩︎
  7. Fries, 144. ↩︎
  8. Ettinger, 42. ↩︎
  9. Fries, 150. ↩︎
  10. Fries, 152. ↩︎
  11. Wilson, Thomas D.. The Oglethorpe Plan: Enlightenment Design in Savannah and Beyond (Kindle Locations 1549-1551). Kindle Edition. ↩︎
  12. Wilson ↩︎
  13. Wilson, Thomas D.. The Oglethorpe Plan: Enlightenment Design in Savannah and Beyond (Kindle Locations 997-998). Kindle Edition. ↩︎
  14. Quoted in Wilson. ↩︎
  15. Egmont, II:172. ↩︎


Thomas D. Wilson, The Oglethorpe Plan: Enlightenment Design in Savannah and Beyond(Charlottesville, VA: UVA Press, 2012).

J.A. Doyle, The English in America. The Colonies Under the house of Hanover(London, 1907).

Amos Ettinger, Oglethorpe: A Brief Biography (Macon, Ga: Mercer, 1984).

Jonathan Swift, The Prose Works of Jonathan Swift, edited by Temple Scott.

Philip Stern, Empire, Inc. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2023).