James Oglethorpe: Facts & Biography

Instructor: Daniel Vermilya
James Oglethorpe was a British philanthropist who was one of the founders of the colony of Georgia. He also served in Parliament and was an officer in the British army.

Introduction

When one thinks of the men who settled and built the American colonies, quite often, thoughts go first to the Mayflower and the pilgrims landing in Plymouth. However, each colony that was settled had its own founders and its own story. The story of how the colony of Georgia is an excellent example. It's a story that can't be told without James Oglethorpe, one of the most important men for the development of the colonial United States.

Early Years

Oglethorpe, born in 1696, was a member of a large and prominent family in England. His father was a Member of the House of Commons when James was just a few years old. Oglethorpe spent part of his early years studying at Oxford and entered into Parliament at a young age. In the late 1720s, however, his life's true work began.

Oglethorpe spent the majority of his life working on matters of social reform in Great Britain. First among those was reforming the prison system. When one of Oglethorpe's close friends was thrown in prison due to debt, he contracted smallpox and died. As a consequence, Oglethorpe took an interest in prison reform. He began working to investigate the filthy and disease-ridden jail cells in Great Britain, finding unimaginable suffering and abuses of the system by guards. As a Member of Parliament, Oglethorpe worked to improve prison conditions.

He also worked to improve the opportunities available to the poor in Britain. Many of those suffering in jail cells had committed no crime other than being unable to pay their debts due to poverty. Oglethorpe thus worked not only to address the terrible conditions of British prisons but to find other means of alleviating the plight of the poor. This led to initial efforts at establishing a new colony in British North America to offer a new life to those struggling with debt and poverty.

Georgia

The effort to create a new colony grew in importance as Great Britain looked to expand its holdings and control over the New World. In 1732, Oglethorpe was one of a group of trustees who were given a charter for a new colony from King George II. The new colony would be called Georgia.

The creation of Georgia was a process that was meant to maximize the opportunities possible for lower class individuals. The trustees who controlled the colony actually interviewed and carefully considered who would be brought to the New World to settle in Georgia. Colonists were given plots of land for them to farm and maintain. Many of these plots were 50 acres in size, or in some cases, even more. The actual colony itself was to be located just south of South Carolina. In one regard, it would serve as a buffer between the British colony and Spanish held Florida, just to the south.

In early 1733, Oglethorpe and the first group of settlers arrived near the future site of Savannah, Georgia. Oglethorpe played a leading role in laying out and establishing the city of Savannah as one of the first settlements in Georgia.

After several years, Oglethorpe returned to England to lobby for money to build and raise forts to defend Georgia. While Oglethorpe had created friendly relations with some of the region's Native Americans, there were serious concerns over the presence of the Spanish to the south. Thus, in 1737, Oglethorpe became a colonel in the British army. During the next several years, Oglethorpe had a major role in defending the colony of Georgia against Spanish forces that threatened British land and security. Oglethorpe's successful military leadership helped to protect and defend Georgia, further cementing his legacy as a primary leader of the colony.

Portrait of James Oglethorpe by Alfred Edmund Dyer
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Return to London

In the mid 1740s, Oglethorpe returned to London, where he met Elizabeth Wright, whom he would soon marry. During this same time Oglethorpe continued his service in the British army, taking part in several military campaigns.

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