Heroes of Progress in America - Charles Morris

James Oglethorpe
and the Debtors' Refuge

In the days of our forefathers, two or three hundred years ago, England was not a pleasant place to live in. And not only England, but all Europe. It is hard for us to appreciate in these days of merciful laws and kindly customs how cruelly people were treated only that short time ago. In former stories we have told of the severe way they were dealt with if they did not worship God in the manner the government told them to do. And men then were punished very severely for the smallest offences. Great numbers were hung for crimes that would be thought of little importance in our days.

As for the prisons, they were terrible places. The prisons of to-day are palaces compared with them. Close, dark, foul smelling, full of the germs of disease, and crowded with poor wretches of all kinds and classes, they were the most horrible places one could think of. And into these dreadful homes of filth and pestilence were thrust not only the law-breakers and the religious dissenters, but also the debtors—poor men who owed money they could not pay.

There were hundreds of miserable debtors in the prisons, kept where they could not earn the money to pay their debts. Many of them took sick and died, and some were starved to death by cruel jailers, who would not give them food if they had no money to pay for it. The law said that creditors should find food for those they put in jail for debt, but this was often not done, and the poor debtors suffered dreadfully.

In the days when George II. was King of England some of these debtors found a friend. He was a brave English soldier named James Oglethorpe, a general in the British army. He asked about a friend of his who had been put in prison for debt, and was told that he had died there. When he heard this he went to the debtors' prison to see how they were treated, and what he saw there made him sick at heart. Here were numbers of honest men, willing to work if they could, many of them kept in misery and want because their creditors were angry and revengeful.

When General Oglethorpe saw this he determined to do what he could for these poor fellows. If they were set at liberty many of them would find no work to do, but a home might be made for them in America, where they would have the chance to make a fresh start in life.

So the good general went to King George and asked him for a grant of land in America to which he could take some of the most deserving of these debtors, with their families. This was in 1732. Most of the land in the British part of America had already been settled. There only remained the region between South Carolina and Florida, which was still left to the Indians. The British and the Spanish both claimed it, but neither had occupied it, and Oglethorpe proposed to make his colony a military one, that would keep the Spaniards and the Indians in order and protect the English settlements.

George II. willingly granted him the land, and the new province was called Georgia, after his name. Oglethorpe paid the debts of some of the most worthy of the debtors, and in 1733 took out a ship-load of settlers to America. They were not all debtors, for he opened his place of refuge to all the poor and unfortunate and to those who were ill-treated on account of their religion.

In good time the vessel reached the coast of America and sailed into the waters of a fine river to which Oglethorpe gave the name of Savannah. He also gave this name to a town which he laid out on its banks. Thus it was that the colony of Georgia was begun with some of the poorest and most unfortunate people in England, brought there by one of the most noble-hearted of its men.

The debtors soon showed that all they wanted was a chance to work and earn their living. They had been given new life by being taken from prison, and were like new men. They set to at once to cut down trees, build houses, and plant fields, and in a little time the settlement began to look prosperous and flourishing.

For a whole year General Oglethorpe lived in a tent, set up under four pine trees. He was an upright man, and, like William Penn, he knew that it was not the king, but the natives, who owned the land, and that he had no right to it unless he paid them for it.

So, like William Penn, he called the Indian chiefs together and talked with them and made a treaty, agreeing to buy from them at their own price the land he wanted. As the Indians had much more land than they needed, they were quite willing to sell. They seem to have grown to love Oglethorpe as the Indians of Pennsylvania loved William Penn. Some of them gave him a buffalo skin on the inside of which was a painting of the head and feathers of an eagle. They said to him, "The feathers of the eagle are soft, which signifies love; the skin is warm, and is the emblem of protection; therefore love and protect our little families." After that the people of Georgia lived in harmony with the Indians of the colony. All the trouble they had was with the Florida Indians, whom the Spaniards stirred up to molest them.

It was not long before new settlers carne to the debtors' colony. Some of these were German Moravians and Lutherans, who had been persecuted at home. Others were Highlanders from Scotland, who had also been ill-treated. Oglethorpe welcomed them all and gave them lands where they could form new settlements. He was proud of his colony of Highlanders, and whenever he visited them he wore the Highland dress, which pleased them highly aid won him a warm Scotch welcome.

Georgia soon began to thrive. The climate was warm, so there was no suffering from bitter winter weather, as in the north. Some of them planted corn, others began to raise rice and indigo. Mulberry trees grew wild in the forest, and silkworms were brought from England to feed on their leaves. People also came out who understood silk making. The silk culture was kept up till the Revolution, but not much money was made by it. A silk dress was made for the Queen of England out of the first silk produced. In the end cotton took the place of silk and proved far more profitable.

Among the people who came to the new colony were John and Charles Wesley, who had founded the new sect of the Methodists in England. Their purpose was to try and make Christians of the Indians. Afterwards there came to Georgia another noted Methodist, named George Whitefield, a preacher of wonderful eloquence, who made his way through the colonies, preaching to great multitudes of people. With the money they gave him he supported an orphan asylum which he had established near Savannah.

There were some very curious and very unusual things in the government of the Georgia colony. Slaves were then in common use in all the colonies, but Oglethorpe would not let any be brought into his settlements. He looked on human slavery as a great evil. And he also knew what a bad thing liquor drinking was in England, and would not let any one bring rum into Georgia. All religions were free except the Roman Catholic, but he forbade any Catholics to come into his colony.

Another law that was made was that no man should own a farm beyond a fixed size. He did not want either rich or poor men, but tried to keep all on one level. A curious law was that no woman should have land left her by will. Georgia was to be a military colony, and every one who held land was bound to serve as a soldier when called upon. This was why women, who could not act as soldiers, were forbidden to own land. That was not all. There was no political freedom. All laws were to be made by Oglethorpe and the company he had formed, and the people were deprived of self-government.

Before saying what became of these laws and regulations there is another matter to speak of. Though Spain had not sent a settler into the region of Georgia, she laid claim to it by the right of discovery, for Narvaez and De Soto had journeyed over it two centuries before. The Spaniards of Florida were very angry when they found the English settling there, and when a war broke out between England and Spain there was some hard fighting in that region. Oglethorpe raised an army of white men and Indians in 1740, and tried to take the Spanish city of St. Augustine. He failed in this, and two years afterwards a Spanish army of three thousand men and a fleet of many vessels were sent north to take Georgia from the English. This failed also and the colony was saved.

Some time after this Oglethorpe went back to England. He never returned to America again. In fact, he had plenty of trouble at home. The people complained so bitterly about the severe laws he had made that in time they were all repealed, for they were injuring the progress of the colony. People were then permitted to keep negro slaves, the laws about land-holding were changed, and the settlers were allowed to make laws for themselves. It would have been a good thing if the law to keep out rum had been kept, but strong drink gradually made its way in. In fact, Oglethorpe grew so tired of the complaints that in 1752 he gave his province back to the king, and from that time Georgia was a royal colony.

James Oglethorpe was a good and noble-hearted man, but he did not know just how to govern colonists and was wise enough in the end to give up the effort and leave them to govern themselves. He lived to be a very old man, not dying till long after the Revolution, when Georgia was a flourishing State of the American Union, and the little town he had started on the Savannah River was a fine city, its broad streets planted with beautiful shade trees. No doubt he took great pride in the handsome city and the large State which owed their origin to him.