Oglethorpe the Protector
By Arlene Angwin
James Oglethorpe was a mere 36 years of age when he took on the challenge of forming a new colony of Georgia – Named for King George II. The land, extending from South Carolina to Florida, was to be settled as a buffer between the British to the north, the Spanish in the south and French in the west.
Today, it is hard to remember that Europe suffered numerous wars as different countries struggled to gain or maintain preeminence. At the time of Oglethorpe, Spain was the dominant power, yet it was on the wane. Whatever hostilities dominated European life also affected America, as the English, French and Spanish all rushed to claim land for their various sovereigns.
Oglethorpe met with the local chief, Tomochichi, soon after his arrival in early February, 1733. The two men negotiated a treaty that both honored until the old mico’s death six years later.
Besides protection, the Georgia Trustees expected Oglethorpe to generate wealth for the mother country. Because silk was in high demand, he arrived with hundreds of mulberry tree plantings and silkworms. In a very short time, he came to understand Georgia’s climate would not support a silk industry and the venture soon lost its favor.
Soon after his arrival, Oglethorpe recognized his main focus must remain on the Spanish, who had long claimed the land from Florida to South Carolina, which had become known as the “debatable land.” The English ignored the Spanish claim to settle Georgia – which Spain considered an insult.
In 1734, Oglethorpe returned to England to give the Georgia Trustees a more accurate picture of what the new colony faced. He asked for and was granted the right to recruit Scots Highlanders – tried veterans known for their fierceness in battle – to come to Georgia. Once here, he settled them in Darien, approximately half way between Savannah and St. Augustine.
Hostilities between the two countries intensified as British mariners ignored the current treaty with Spain to smuggle goods into Spanish ports. Spain retaliated by seizing British vessels. At last, the Spanish and British met to discuss new terms. If Spain would pay reparations for all the seized ships and goods, the British would cede Georgia to Spain. England was in an uproar at Prime Minister Walpole’s offer to give up Georgia.
In the middle of the upheaval, a captain, Robert Jenkins, asked to address Parliament to update them on the current state of affairs at sea. During his impassioned speech, he laid out all of the Spanish cruelties against the British (illegal smugglers). At the most dramatic point, he whipped a severed ear from his coat with the announcement that a Spanish soldier had severed it during a sea battle.
“He cried he only wished it were the ear of his majesty, King George II,” Jenkins thundered. Parliament leapt to their feet, all talks of peace forgotten. They roared for war – and got it. The conflict, which lasted from 1737 – 1748 became known as King George’s War in Europe and the War of Jenkins’ Ear in America.
The Spanish had sworn to pillage and burn every British settlement from the St. Johns River at the Florida border to Port Royal in South Carolina. Knowing Frederica would be a primary target, General Oglethorpe busied his men by raising more forts in strategic places, including two at the tip of St. Simons Island.
When the Spanish sent a letter to Oglethorpe expressing a desire for peace, he responded in the same vein. However, he did not trust them. Later, when the Spanish secretary traveled north to meet with the general, he had him escorted to a British ship instead, rather than allowing the envoy to witness Frederica’s true weakness. There, the general feted the secretary with a lavish meal.
As it progressed, Oglethorpe toasted King Philip of Spain. Immediately, the ship’s captain ordered a cannon shot. On cue, cannon from three British forts responded, giving the sensation of the ship being surrounded. The Spanish retreated.
Oglethorpe knew such deception bought him very little time. He ordered all the forts reinforced while still begging South Carolina’s governor and the king of England for men and supplies.
King George, busy with the war in Europe, and Governor Bull , focused on the French in the west, ignored every plea.
On June 28, 1742 the long-anticipated word arrived of more than 30 Spanish ships sailing toward Fort Frederica. They anchored off the coast of St. Simons for a week, studying the tides. Then, several advanced upriver on the flood tide. After a fierce three-hour naval battle, the Spanish ships retreated. Oglethorpe ordered the two forts, St. Simons and William, destroyed to concentrate on saving Fort Frederica. He especially commanded all fresh wells destroyed to cut off a fresh water supply from the enemy.
On July 5, 1742, 5000 Spanish troops landed, quickly found the destroyed forts and set up their own defenses. Two days later, they discovered the military road between the those forts and Frederica. Their leader, Governor Montiano, ordered a small party of soldiers to locate Fort Frederica. The moment scouts discovered their movements at nearby Gully Hole Creek, Oglethorpe ordered a frontal assault. His tiny forces of 700 troops and 100 braves quickly overpowered the Spaniards, sending them back to their own lines.
Oglethorpe knew the enemy would return – and soon. He needed a clever plan to outwit the much larger army. Knowing the land, he planned an ambush at a narrow part in the military road, close to the two destroyed forts. Despite the earlier repulse, the Spaniards were so sure of victory, they marched back up the road Frederica with drums beating and boisterous laughter.
As they approached a flat area, the commander called a halt. The Spanish stacked arms, started fires and began cooking lunch. Meanwhile, the Scots and braves melted through the thick foliage, moving ever closer to their targets. However, before a signal to attack could be given, horse spooked. The Spanish dashed for their arms, only to find themselves surrounded on all sides by screaming Highlanders and shrieking braves along with wailing bagpipes. They quickly retreated behind their lines for the second time that day.
However, Oglethorpe could not afford to rest. He needed another clever plan to drive the enemy from the island. He’d already learned the Cuban troops and had quarreled with the Spanish and now bivouacked in separate camps. The general planned to take advantage of the discord, surround the camps and force surrender amid the confusion.
As he approached the area, one of his trusted aides shot his musket to alert the enemy before dashing into to the Spanish lines. Oglethorpe tasted desperation since the aide knew his true strength. How could he save his men and the colony?
He settled on another ruse through a carefully crafted and highly confidential letter addressed to the traitor. After planting it on a captured Spaniard, he sent him back to his own camp. The discovered letter threw Governor Montiano into bewilderment. Was the traitor true to him or was he a double-agent? When more British ships appeared on the horizon (Governor Bull had ordered them south to ascertain Oglethorpe’s claims of vulnerability) on July 14, the Spaniard ordered all troops to vacate the island.
Even though the Battles of Gully Hole Creek and Bloody Marsh were little more than military skirmishes, they ended the Spanish threat to Georgia forever.