A remarkable gathering of letters and other documents, submitted in 1736 by James Oglethorpe to the Duke of Newcastle and addressing the festering boundary dispute between the Colony of Georgia and Spanish Florida. Copied in a secretarial hand for transmission to King George II, with a signed cover letter by Newcastle. In all, a rich trove of primary source material for early Georgia history, including Oglethorpe’s pivotal relationship with Yamacraw Creek chief Tomochichi. Transcript provided on request.
In 1732 the Trustees of Georgia received from George II a charter to the territory between the Savannah and Altamaha Rivers, bounded on the east by the Atlantic Ocean and extending from their headwaters west to the “South Seas”. The Trustee’s goals were to provide opportunity for England’s “deserving poor” while creating a buffer between Spanish Florida and wealthy South Carolina. What the Trustees considered a “buffer”, however, was in Spanish eyes a grave trespass, as their expansive claim to “La Florida” extended to 32° 30’, the latitude of South Carolina’s Edisto Island.
In early 1733 Trustee James Oglethorpe (1696-1785) and a first cohort of settlers established a settlement on the south bank of Savannah River. Oglethorpe, the only Trustee ever to set foot in Georgia, became the colony’s “indispensable man” and acted as de facto governor for the next decade. He had a hand in most matters of importance, particularly diplomatic and military affairs. From a security perspective, and germane to the documents offered here, two of his important contributions were the development of a strong alliance with the native Creek peoples and the foundation in 1736 of Fort Frederica on St. Simon’s Island near the mouth of the Altamaha.
All this took place against the geopolitical backdrop of growing tensions between Great Britain and Spain, which nominally kicked off in 1731 when the Spanish authorities cut off the ear of British Captain Robert Jenkins as punishment for smuggling. The tensions finally erupted into the War of Jenkins Ear (1739-48), which saw hostilities in the Caribbean, New Granada (northern South America) and Georgia and Florida. During that conflict forces under Oglethorpe failed twice to capture Spanish St. Augustine, but they did successfully defend the colony against a Spanish counter-invasion in 1742. Hostilities in the region more or less ended, but the War merged into the War of the Austrian Succession and was only concluded by the 1748 Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, which recognized the status quo ante bellum, effectively—though not explicitly—setting the Georgia-Florida border at the St. Johns River.
On April 17, 1736, as tensions were mounting with the Spanish in Florida, Oglethorpe wrote from Fort Frederica for instructions to Thomas Pelham-Holles (1693-1768), the 1st Duke of Newcastle and Secretary of State for the Southern Department. The package included a cover letter from Oglethorpe, a memorandum laying out Britain’s territorial claim to the region, copies of letters between Oglethorpe and Florida Governor Francisco del Moral y Sánchez, copies of letters between Oglethorpe and Charles Dempsey, his representative in St. Augustine, and three depositions regarding the lack of Spanish presence north of the Altamaha River. Newcastle had at least two copies of the package made, one of which (offered here) he forwarded to Prime Minister Walpole on July 2. To this Newcastle added his own cover letter, along with a copy of his reply to Oglethorpe, both of which are also present.
Oglethorpe’s cover letter to Newcastle describes how “the Indian King Toma Chichi” [aka Tomochichi, more on whom below] “put us in possession of all the Lands held by their Nation from this Island [i.e., Simon’s Island, site of Fort Frederica] to the Spanish Frontiers [i.e., the St. Johns River].” He then relates that he has “heard that the Spanish Generall [i.e., Governor Moral y Sánchez] intends to order me to quit as far as the River Edistow, that is to say, all Georgia and part of Carolina”. He expresses complete confidence in his ability to repel an attack, and that he awaits orders from King George II about how to respond.
“I will alive, or dead, keep possession of it, till I have his Majesty’s orders, and if it is his Majesty’s Pleasure, not to give up this most valuable part of his Dominions, I can assure your Grace that the Fidelity of the Indians to his Majesty, and the Gratitude for their treatment when in England, is such, that with the same Assistance which we had last year from Parliament, I shall not only be able to keep possession, in spite of all the Force of Florida, Cuba, & Mexico, but if I have Orders (considering the Divisions amongst the Spaniards in one of those Provinces) there is more probability that the British army should entirely conquer them, than that they can ever drive me out.” (Oglethorpe to Newcastle, April 17, 1736)
Finally, Oglethorpe mentions “the Spaniards are very apprehensive of our Indians invading them” and describes the steps he has taken to prevent them from doing so “and thereby keep up the Tranquility between the two Crowns”.
The rest of the documents in the package provide supporting material for the cover letter and in aggregate present a rich picture of the state of affairs on the Georgia-Florida border in early 1736. Several documents lay out both Britain’s legal claim to all territory north of the St. Johns River and Spain’s failure to establish settlements in the disputed region. Others reveal the ongoing communications between Oglethorpe and Moral y Sanchez, both direct and through Oglethorpe’s man-on-the-ground Charles Dempsey. These letters are expressed in gentlemanly terms but with an underlying firmness on Oglethorpe’s part in defending British claims and implicit threats of force on the part of Moral y Sanchez. Throughout, however, Oglethorpe makes clear that his preference is to maintain peaceful relations with the Spanish:
“I do not love to talk big, but War is not my Inclination. It is more for the advantage of the King of Great Britain that Augustine and Florida should beheld by the King of Spain than by any other Prince. The Spanish & the English Interest are naturally the same, we furnish them with provisions, they us with silver. They have more Lands in America than they can use, the King of Great Britain also has more lands than sufficient, therefore he is not desirous of increasing by Injustice his Dominions but of cultivating & peopling with regular Towns & establishing good Laws in those w:ch he already possesses[.]” (letter to Charles Dempsey, April 10, 1736)
Throughout, there is much of interest regarding allegations and counter-allegations by the Creek and Spanish on one another’s settlements, and of Oglethorpe’s attempts to maintain the peace by forestalling Creek retaliation.
Newcastle’s reply to Oglethorpe, also present in the package, validates the latter’s measured approach to the tensions with Spain:
“Her Majesty wishes, that you may have proceeded, with so much Caution, and Circumspection, in what has passed hitherto, as not to have Occasioned any Complain from the Spaniards; and Her Majesty is persuaded, that you will carefully avoid doing any thing, that may commit the two nations together, or create a Misunderstanding between the two crowns.” (Newcastle to Oglethorpe, July 2, 1736)
Indeed peace with Spain held until 1739, when negotiations over the Georgia-Florida boundary broke down. Great Britain declared war in October and Admiral Vernon initiated hostilities with a series of attacks on Spanish holdings in Central and South America, most famously sacking Portobelo (in modern Panama) in November of that year.
Oglethorpe and Tomochichi
Perhaps the most intriguing figure appearing in the documents is Tomo Chachi (or “Toma Chichi”, today more commonly “Tomochichi”). Possibly born among the Lower Creek ca. 1644, and possibly exiled therefrom over a political dispute, around 1728 he formed a small band—the Yamacraw–of some 200 Creek and Yamasee Indians and settled on a bluff overlooking the Savannah River. He formed a strong working relationship with Oglethorpe and served as a go-between with the Lower Creek, encouraging them to align with the British. In 1734 he traveled with Oglethorpe back to England, where he met King George II and other dignitaries, represented the interests of his people, and, incidentally, sat for a portrait by Verelst, later rendered as a mezzotint.
In February 1736, back in Georgia—and just weeks before the documents offered here were penned—Tomochichi and Oglethorpe made an expedition to determine the colony’s southern boundary at the St. Johns. This expedition is referred to repeatedly in these documents. In his cover letter to Newcastle, for example, Oglethorpe writes, “The Indian King Toma Chichi, (pursuant to the Assurances he gave to his Majesty, and your Grace in England.) went down with me to the utmost Limits of the King of Great Britain’s Dominions; to put us in possession of all the Lands held by their Nation from this Island to the Spanish Frontiers.” How Tomochichi himself viewed this transaction is unclear: Though the documents style him as “King”, he certainly did not have the authority to negotiate away Creek lands to the British, even if he had wished to.
Tomochichi died in the Fall of 1739, just as Oglethorpe was traveling far inland to conclude a treaty of alliance with the Lower Creek. In recognition of his contribution to the Georgia colony, Oglethorpe ensured that he received a military funeral.
Publication and surviving copies
Newcastle had a second copy of Oglethorpe’s package forwarded on July 3 to the Board of Trade. This latter copy presumably survives in the National Archives, as it was published in volume 42 of Calendar of State Papers Colonial, America and West Indies (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1953, pp. 234-248). That publication of course does not include either Newcastle’s cover letter to Walpole or his reply to Oglethorpe, both present here. None of the documents are reproduced in volume 21 of The Colonial Records of the State of Georgia, which covers “correspondence, Trustees, General Oglethorpe and others” for the years 1735-1737.
Beyond the aforementioned copies at the National Archive, I do not know whether additional copies of some or all of the documents survive. I can say that the documents are not listed in the catalog of the Newcastle Papers held by the British Library. It is likely that copies exist in the Royal archives at Windsor Castle, but as of this writing they have barely been catalogued.
Taken together, a substantial and most interesting group of contemporary papers addressing the complex geopolitical situation in southeastern North America, produced for use at the highest levels of Great Britain’s imperial government.
Provenance and references
Sotheby’s New York 4th December, 1961, lot 394. Doyle Auctions, The Collection of Jay Kislak (June 15, 2022), lot 184.
Background on Oglethorpe and the Georgia Colony from “James Edward Oglethorpe” on the web site of the Georgia Historical Society, accessed April 18, 2023. Background on Tomochichi from online articles at The New Georgia Encyclopedia, the web site of the Georgia Historical Society, and Wikipedia (accessed April 20, 2023). As mentioned above, the contents of a second set of these documents were published in “America and West Indies: July 1736, 1-15”, in Calendar of State Papers Colonial, America and West Indies: Volume 42, 1735-1736 (London, 1953), pp. 234-248 (accessed April 18, 2023 at British History Online.
- Cover letter from Newcastle to P.M. Robert Walpole, July 2, 1736 and signed by Newcastle, asking that the enclosed documents be submitted to the King George II, then in Hanover. “Her Majesty has directed me to write to M:r Oglethorpe, that He should proceed with the utmost Caution, and Circumspection, and take Care to give no just Cause of Complaint to the Spaniards”.
- [Secretarial copy] Letter from Newcastle to Oglethorpe, July 2, 1736. Acknowledging receipt of the package of documents and instructing him to “proceed with the utmost Caution…”
- [Secretarial copy] “Memorial of Georgia”, laying out Great Britain’s legal claim to the region north of the St. Johns River.
- [Secretarial copy] Letter from Oglethorpe to Don Francisco del Moral y Sánchez, February 15, 1735/6.
- [Secretarial copy] Letter from Oglethorpe to Don Francisco del Moral y Sánchez, April 10, 1736.
- [Secretarial copy] Letters (in Spanish) from Moral y Sánchez to Oglethorpe, March 24 & 30, 1736.
- [Secretarial copy] Translations of March 24 & 30, 1736 letters from Moral y Sánchez to Oglethorpe.
- [Secretarial copy] Deposition of John Latter, John Barber, Richard Pike, David Holmes and Darby Kallihorne[?], all of Georgia, taken at Frederica on April 13, 1736. Attesting that they traveled with Tomochichi to the Altamaha and St. Johns Rivers and encountered no Spanish settlements in the area, and that the territory north of the St. Johns was in possession of “the Indians”
- [Secretarial copy] Deposition of William Horton, taken at Frederica on April 13, 1736. Attesting to same.
- [Secretarial copy] Deposition of Jonathan Bryan, taken at Frederica on April 13, 1736. Attesting that he traveled with Tomochichi to the St. Johns River and encountered no Spanish settlements north of said river.
- [Secretarial copy] Letter from Oglethrope to Charles Dempsey, April 10, 1736. Addressing Britain’s legal case for its territorial claims, Oglethorpe’s preference for an accommodation with the Spanish instead of war, Spanish allegations of “300 men erecting a Fort in the Uchees country”, Creek thirst for revenge following a Spanish attack, and Oglethorpe’s efforts to keep the peace by mounting guards along the [St. Johns?] River “to prevent their passing to invade the Spaniards”.
- [Secretarial copy] Letter from Oglethrope to Charles Dempsey, April 12, 1736. Continuing on similar themes regarding allegations and counter-allegations by the Creek and Spanish, and once again emphasizing Oglethorpe’s desire to maintain the peace.
- [Secretarial copy] Letters from Dempsey to Oglethorpe, March 29, April 1 and April 5, 1736. The first reports on his discussions with Moral y Sánchez, including their disagreements over British and Spanish territorial claims, and allegations “that 300 of your [i.e., Oglethorpe’s] men went into the Province of the Uchees, w:ch he also pretends belongs to the King his Master”. The second mentions Spanish anxiety about “tidings… of Your Indians falling upon them here” and Moral y Sánchez’ intent to send an envoy to Oglethorpe to negotiate the boundary. The third reports allegations of a Creek attack on a Spanish post, and further allegations that 300 Georgia men have entered the “Province of the Uchees” and established a fort there.
- [Secretarial copy] Letter from Oglethorpe to the Trustees of Georgia, April 17, 1736. Reports on intelligence of a Spanish expedition against Georgia.
- [Secretarial copy] Resolution of the Trustees of Georgia, June 17, 1736. Resolving to forward Oglethorpe’s package of documents to Newcastle.
- [Secretarial copy] Cover letter from Oglethorpe to Newcastle, April 17, 1736. Describes how Tomochichi transferred to Britain possession of territory between Simon’s Island and the St. Johns. He then relates that he has “heard that the Spanish Generall [i.e., Governor Moral y Sánchez] intends to order me to quit as far as the River Edistow, that is to say, all Georgia and part of Carolina”. He expresses complete confidence in his ability to repel an attack, but that he awaits orders from King George II about how to respond.