Oglethorpe and the Georgia Indians: A Change of Heart

by David H. Connolly Jr.

The arrival of the Georgia colonists in 1733 on the south bank of the Savannah River was not in and of itself a significant event in the lives of the southeastern Indians dwelling there. For two centuries before Georgia's founding the Spanish, French and, to a lesser degree, the English explored and settled in the Southeast. The Indians' experience with the Europeans was, overall, devastating to their way of life. Subjected to slavery, unfamiliar disease, fraudulent trade practices and forced assimilation into foreign cultures, the Indians had little reason to welcome the new settlers.

What proved refreshingly different in the case of Georgia was the respect and regard they received from the colony's founder, James Edward Oglethorpe. He, in turn, was to find immeasurable help and friendship in the Yamacraw chief Tomochichi. From the first contact between these two, a friendship and mutual respect occurred which helped pave the way for the success of the new colony.

Beginning with Ponce de Leon's arrival in Florida in 1513, the Europeans explored and exploited the American southeast. Apart from an almost casual curiosity of the Indian culture, the Europeans' main goals were territory and profits. Prior to 1733 a sometimes bloody struggle for control of the southeast existed between the three European powers. The Indians were at times extended superficial courtesies and regard, but only to the extent necessary to obtain their alliance, land or trade.

The Indians were considered merely pawns to be used in the European struggle. But military alliances were not the only benefits of relationships with the Indians. Profit was not far from the minds of the explorers and whether that profit was taken in the form of loot or trade, honesty in dealing with the Indians was not a paramount consideration. Jacques le Moyne de Morgues observed during a French expedition to Florida in 1564 that an Indian chief who provided gifts of gold and silver and other items valuable to the Europeans was given in exchange "some thick, rough cloth, a few axes and saws, and other cheap Parisian goods."(Lorant pg. 52) Though the Indians may have considered these European goods of value, the French apparently did not feel the need to explain discrepancy.

But profit and military gains were not the only goals. For the Spanish, christianizing the Indians was a paramount concern and, like other Europeans, little regard was shown for the Indian culture. In the late 1500s the Spanish established a series of missions along the Georgia and Florida coasts to christianize the Indians and to assimilate them into Spanish culture at the expense of the Indian way of life. For example, the fact that the natives might prefer their own religious practices or government to that of the Spanish fell on deaf ears. If they would not submit of their own accord, the Spanish were prepared to accomplish submission by force of arms if necessary. Panfilo de Narvaez, an early Spanish explorer, declared he would seize the Indians and their property and "destroy and every possible harm shall I work you as refractory subjects." (Smith and Gottlob, pg. 4) There was no room for coexisting cultures.

The French, too, were busy exterminating tribes such as the Natchez and asserting their influence along from the Mississippi and the gulf coast.

The English were little better. The English, too, craved profits and dominance in the Indian trade which was a an important source of both money and influence over the native peoples. By becoming dependant on manufactured goods, the Indians were more tractable and could be forced into alliances and wars by the European powers or face an embargo of trade goods. Consequently, control of the Indian trade was of great importance. But the English did not just trade in deerskins. They conducted raiding parties against the Indians for slaves. However, the English traders from Virginia and particularly from Carolina began to abuse whatever trust existed by defrauding the Indians in their trade dealings. Trade debts mounted which usually could only be discharged by the cession of additional land to the English. The English also used rum as a means of control and creating Indian dependence. It was easy for the Carolina trader to cheat the Indians out of their deerskins after getting them drunk on rum. Apparently the Indians had an insatiable appetite for it. Their chiefs, recognizing it for the evil it was, requested the colonial governments to restrain the traders from providing rum. Rum, however, remained.

Ultimately, the Indians had enough and in 1715 the Creeks, Choctaws, Yamasees and Cherokees revolted against the Carolina traders wreaking havoc and bloodshed throughout the Carolina colony. Eventually, because of the failure to forge a lasting alliance and in face of English arms, the Indians were defeated and fled. The Creeks, for example, left Georgia's Ocmulgee flood plain and went deep into the southeastern interior. Thus, when Oglethorpe arrived, the Indians had little reason to expect fair treatment or to welcome new settlers.

Oglethorpe knew little if anything about Indians or their culture. But they were a consideration in the decision to establish the Georgia colony. South Carolina's memories of the Yamassee War of 1715 were still fresh. Indeed, while many know of Georgia's role as a buffer against the Spanish it was also to be a bulwark against the Indians. The Georgia Charter provided:

And whereas our provinces in North America
have been frequently savaged by Indian
enemies; more especially that of South
Carolina, which in the late war, by
neighboring savages, was laid waste by
fire and sword, and great numbers of the
English inhabitants miserably massacred;
and our loving subjects who now inhabit
there, by reason of the smallness of their
numbers, will, in case of a new war, be
exposed to the like calamities, inasmuch
as their whole southern frontier continueth
unsettled, and lieth open to the said savages.

 

One can therefore imagine what Oglethorpe's perceptions were of the Indians. Given the absence of any first hand contact, and of the additional protective purpose of the new colony, it would not be surprising to expect him to view the indigenous peoples with suspicion if not outright hostility. But whether because of his reformist beliefs or the pragmatic view of the military man, Oglethorpe exhibited to the Indians a sense of fair play and respect. While he did not necessarily hold them up as equals, he did not treat them as unworthy of regard. The Indians' experience with him shows that they believed they would be treated humanely and fairly by him and thus never had reason to oppose him. He was anything but a Carolina trader.

When Oglethorpe first viewed the site for Savannah some apprehension and readiness to do battle would not have been unexpected. It is perhaps, therefore, fortunate that the first Indians he met were led by a man possessed of wisdom and pragmatism: Tomochichi.

Tomochichi was an elderly man by the colonists' arrival. He did not lead a great tribe, but a small group of about fifty or so outcasts from the Creek Confederacy. This group, known as Yamacraws, settled on the banks of the Savannah River just above the site later chosen by Oglethorpe for Savannah. After expulsion from the Creek Confederacy, Tomochichi led them to this spot to live near his ancestors. It happened to be an area that had been largely uninhabited since the 1600s. Tomochichi's small band was not a threat to the English. Given his age and experience with the Carolinians and with English arms, Tomochichi welcomed, at least on the surface, the opportunity to cement relations with the English. Not only was he too weak to resist them but they could perhaps provide protection against his enemies.

It is unknown why Tomochichi did not seek alliances with the Lower Creeks who apparently still held him in some regard despite his exile status. In theory, the Creeks and by extension Tomochichi and the Yamacraws had every right to to force Oglethorpe from the south bank of the river. Supposedly, the English had given at least oral assurances during negotiation of a treaty with the Lower Creeks in 1721 that the English would not settle south and west of the Savannah River. Thus, the new settlement was an apparent violation of the treaty and further evidence of English deceit. Tomochichi, for whatever reason, decided to welcome the newcomers.

Tomochichi essentially submitted himself and his people to English authority from the first meeting with Oglethorpe. He presented Oglethorpe a gift of a buffalo skin painted with various designs symbolic of the desired relationship with Oglethorpe and the English. The skin was symbolic recognition of English power and the Yamacraws' hope for their protection. Oglethorpe reported to the Georgia Trustees Tomochichi's hope "that we would Love and Protect their little Families." (Baine, pg. 243)

Oglethorpe could have abusively exploited Tomochichi and his people. The English, French and Spanish had been doing so to the Indians for generations. Yet he saw in Tomochichi an ally who, in exchange for protection and fair dealing, could prove useful in establishing friendly relations with the more powerful Creeks and other tribes. Oglethorpe had good reason to want amiable relations. Not only did he have to worry about Spanish incursions from Florida, but the French from Mobile and New Orleans posed a threat to unseat the English in Georgia. Additionally, there were other Indians tribes who could raise a considerable number of warriors for battle. It was, therefore, imperative to gain as much Indian support as possible not only to weaken the French and Spanish politically and militarily but to reduce the threat of attack by the Indians themselves. Tomochichi proved invaluable in this regard.

Shortly after arrival, and through the offices of Tomochichi, Oglethorpe was able to conclude a treaty of friendship with the Lower Creeks. Tomochichi helped convince the attending chiefs that Oglethorpe and his settlers were not a threat and could be trusted. During the treaty conference, Tomochichi declared to the gathered chiefs Oglethorpe's "goodness". This was a major accomplishment for Oglethorpe for it helped to secure the new colony from threat of attack by the most powerful of the Indian tribes in the Southeast. The Creeks ceded land to the colony and agreed not to molest English traders. In exchange, Oglethorpe promised to punish the traders who defrauded the Indians or destroyed their property.

Oglethorpe further promised to establish a schedule of rates and prices for trade goods. In light of the bitter and hostile relationships between the Creeks and the English prior to 1733, it is evident that without Tomochichi's help such a treaty would not have been concluded. The significance of this treaty cannot be under estimated for in it Oglethorpe not only removed the most serious Indian threat to South Carolina, he lured away to the English camp a friend of the French and Spanish.

For his part, Oglethorpe demonstrated that faith in him was not misplaced. One of the first laws enacted by Oglethorpe governed the Indian trade with harsh penalties for any trader cheating the Indians. Oglethorpe became well aware early on of the economic and political importance of the Indian trade. Not only would it provide a source of funds, but if honestly prosecuted would keep the Indians in the English fold. He recognized that if the Indian trade was ill-managed or abused as it had been in the past by the Carolina traders, ill-will if not war would quickly arise.

It might be argued that Oglethorpe's actions were prompted purely by political necessity. Clearly, he was concerned over protecting the infant colony, establishing trade and thwarting the Spanish and French. But his writings reflect a genuine respect and admiration for the Indian and his culture. In stark contrast to overt belligerence of Panfilo de Narvaez, Oglethorpe felt a kinship with them. Once a group of Chickasaws related to Oglethorpe the belief that he had an Indian mother. In reply, Oglethorpe declared that he was an Indian in his heart. To the cynical, this statement might be considered pandering or an empty gesture calculated to curry favor. But while Oglethorpe was an astute diplomat, his writings reflect a profound regard for the Indians. In writing to the Trustees on the potential for Christian conversion of the Indians, he described them as being very a very moral people and that the only two great obstacles to being truly Christian was the practice of revenge killing and drunkenness the latter having been learned from the white man. Oglethorpe found the Indians to be quite eloquent speakers and found many of their speeches to rank with those highly regarded of Roman and Greek writings. Far from being the savages noted in the colony's charter, Oglethorpe found the Indians to be generous, good-natured, humane to strangers and patient. They were ascribed with a natural genius and eloquence in the conduct of their conferences. Thus, though Oglethorpe conduct was guided in part by practical considerations of security and trade, his genuine admiration for the Indians played an important role as well. Certainly, his actions were viewed by the Indians as sincere and he developed a favorable reputation amongst the tribes for honesty.

His respect for the Indians carried over into his dealing with Tomochichi. As their friendship grew, Oglethorpe consulted with him on matters affecting Indian relations. Part of this probably stemmed from Oglethorpe's efforts to groom Tomochichi for a leadership role with the Indians. Good relations with the Indians would also help sway important parliamentary support in England. In 1734, Oglethorpe took Tomochichi and other family members to England where they were presented to King George I and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

But certainly, theirs was a genuine friendship. Tomochichi was leader of a very weak group. From his many meetings with various Indians after the initial meeting with the Creeks in 1733, it does not seem likely that Oglethorpe could not have developed a strong relationship with a more powerful Indian leader and pushed Tomochichi aside. But he did not. Even if their friendship was purely symbiotic, Tomochichi obviously provided Oglethorpe with valuable counsel or there would have been no reason to consult with him. Certainly Oglethorpe would not have put on a show unless it served some purpose. Yet perhaps the most demonstrative example of their friendship emerged at Tomochichi's death in 1739. Oglethorpe accorded Tomochichi full honors and had him buried in an imposing grave in Savannah. No apparent political purpose was served by this gesture. It could only have been the expression of true friendship, honor and respect.

James Oglethorpe returned to England in 1743 never to see Georgia again. For ten years, relations with the Indians prospered from mutual respect and consideration. Oglethorpe's reputation for fair treatment of the Indians was well deserved. While this accolade is mollified by recognition that the English were in essence invading Indian territory with little in the way of mutual benefit, Oglethorpe did represent a significant departure from the typical European. For two centuries, the southeastern Indians were egregiously exploited, enslaved, robbed, and killed by European explorers and settlers who exhibited little to no regard for their complex culture. Few ever acted in the Indians' best interests but instead used them in an increasingly heated struggle between the French, Spanish and English for supremacy in America. Whether it was cultural assassination in the guise of Christianization as seen during the Spanish Mission period in Florida and Georgia, to enslavement by the English, the southeastern Indians had every reason to despise and distrust the European. Oglethorpe was perhaps the only European in a position of power who truly attempted to see that an indigenous people were accorded honest treatment and respect. Though this respect may have been prompted by paternal or political motivations, Oglethorpe's conduct towards the Indians strongly evinces a respect for these people. In short, a grain of truth can be found in Oglethorpe declaration that he was in his heart an Indian.

 

David H. Connolly, Jr.
Topics in Georgia History
Professor Michael Price


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