What’s now the state of Georgia was claimed for the country of England in 1732 by James Edward Oglethorpe – a fascinating historical figure. Born as the tenth and last child of Theophilus and Eleanor Oglethorpe in London on December 22, 1696, his parents were comfortably well off, with both interested in politics; in fact, his father was elected to the House of Commons.
Oglethorpe was well educated (Eton and Corpus Christi College at Oxford) but longed for adventure. When Turks invaded Europe, he left college to enroll in a French military academy and then traveled to Austria. After serving as Prince Eugene of Savoy’s aide while fighting the Turks, he came home victorious.
Elected to the House of Commons in 1722, he became well known for his attempts to reform prisons after a friend died of smallpox after being imprisoned for debt. He became known as a humanitarian for his prison reform work, but realized that the poor faced many more challenges than just the risk of debtor’s prison – which led to the notion of sending “worthy” poor to the new colonies in America to learn trades, with slavery strictly prohibited.
This ultimately led to England chartering Georgia and Oglethorpe being one of the new colony’s 21 trustees – and the building of the Savannah settlement, which was to be a “classless society.” Oglethorpe held to these ideals, prohibiting slavery, allowing persecuted religious minorities to settle in Georgia, and negotiating with Native Americans.
He spent a significant amount of time in Georgia, becoming a colonel in 1736. His charge was to protect the colony from Spanish invasion, so he moved to St. Simons Island to build Fort Frederica. He and his regiment repelled a Spanish attack in 1742, the Battle of Bloody Marsh, and his success led to his promotion to brigadier general.
He returned to England in 1743, where he married heiress Elizabeth Wright and lived four more decades, rotating between London and Cranham, where his wife inherited an estate. He died on June 30, 1785 at the age of 88, although his name lives on: Oglethorpe County, two towns named Oglethorpe, a university and numerous other schools, businesses, streets and parks were named in his honor.
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