Mary Musgrove Bosomworth

Mary Musgrove Bosomworth (1700-1765), some times called the "Empress of the Creek Nation," played a vital role in the founding of Georgia in colonial America. The daughter of a Creek Indian mother and a white father, Mary (whose Creek name is Cousaponokeesa) was a shrewd negotiator and a successful trader. As an interpreter for James Edward Oglethorpe, the founder of Georgia Colony, she helped maintain alliances between the Creek nation and the British at a time when British, French, and Spanish interests in the region were often in conflict.

Mary Musgrove Bosomworth was born in 1700 at Coweta Town on the Ockmulgee River, in what later became part of the state of Georgia. She was born to the Creek Indian (Muscogean) tribe known as the Wind Clan. Her father was an English-born trader from South Carolina and her mother was a Creek princess, whose brother led an unsuccessful effort to force Europeans out of the region in 1715. Mary lived with her mother's people until the age of ten when she was brought to South Carolina to spend some years with her father's family. She was, in her own words, "there baptized, educated, and bred up in the principles of Christianity." Mary returned to Coweta in 1715.

In the early eighteenth-century, the southeastern region of North America was home to several Native American tribes, including the Creek, Cherokee, and Seminole nations. The Creek were the dominant tribe of a loosely confederated group that numbered about 30,000. By this time, pre-colonial Georgia had also been settled by Spanish missionaries and French and English traders. Each nation hoped to exploit the resources of this rich territory. Gaining the support of the Creek nation was critical for this mission. In 1716, the British government commissioned Colonel Musgrove, a South Carolina official, to visit and establish a treaty of peace between the English and Creek Nation. The Colonel's son, John, accompanied his father on the trip and there met Mary, who was about 16 years old. They married and set up a trading post on the Yamacraw Bluff overlooking the Savannah River. The young couple enjoyed a trading monopoly in the area. Both the Creeks and Charleston merchants used their services to facilitate trade.

Oglethorpe's Arrival

James Edward Oglethorpe, the founder of Georgia Colony, was a British philanthropist and a member of parliament. He argued that a colony should be established as a refuge for imprisoned debtors and as a buffer against the Spanish, French, and Native American encroachment into the colony of South Carolina. In 1732, Oglethorpe and nineteen associates were granted a royal charter, making them trustees of the colony of Georgia. The following year, Oglethorpe and 116 emigrants landed in Charleston and sailed up the Savannah River to found the colony of Savannah. At Yamacraw Bluff, he solicited the help of Mary as an interpreter for his initial meeting with the chief of the Yamacraw tribe, Tomochichi.

Service to the Early Colony

Oglethorpe soon realized that Mary could offer him the information and alliances he needed to secure British interests in the area. Her broad acquaintance with the leaders of the Creek Nation was unmatched. Oglethorpe hired her at a salary of one hundred pounds sterling, or about $500 per year. Soon after, she and her husband established a second trading post at Mount Venture on the Altamaha River. In addition to acting as an interpreter, Mary assisted Oglethorpe in establishing treaties and in securing warriors to fight the Spanish.

When she and her husband moved to Savannah, Mary's social prominence grew. Important Native American visitors who came to do business with the colonial authorities would pay formal visits to her home. English guests were also common and included a young Anglican rector, John Wesley, who later broke from the Church of England to found Methodism. During this time, Mary managed to acquire considerable wealth by supplying the early colonists with food and liquor. She also acted as an agent for the British government and, at Oglethorpe's request, made several trips to Frederica, then Georgia's southern outpost, to gain intelligence about Spanish activities.

In 1739, John Musgrove died after contracting malaria. Some accounts also report that Mary lost four sons to the disease at about the same time. Musgrove left his wife a 500-acre plantation, a large number of cattle and horses, ten indentured servants, and a deerskin trade. She was one of the wealthiest women in the colony. In that same year, she married Jacob Matthews, who had been a servant of her former husband. Jacob was a colorful figure known as a critic of English authority, a successful planter, and a heavy drinker. The colonists especially disapproved of his camaraderie with the Creek. William Stephens, later governor of Georgia Colony, wrote in his journal in 1740 that it was useless "to foul more Paper in tracing Jacob Matthews through his notorious Debauches; and after his spending whole Nights in that Way, reeling home by Light of the Morning, with his Banditti about him." Matthews was responsible for defending Mount Venture and commanded a small group of Georgia rangers. When fighting broke out between the Spanish and the British in 1742, the Creeks supported the British, largely due to Mary's influence. An army made up of Creek warriors and Georgia soldiers successfully drove back the Spanish forces. When Matthews died in 1742, her wealth had increased substantially. The following year, Oglethorpe returned to England for good. Upon parting from Mary, he thanked her with a gift of a diamond ring and 200 pounds.

Marriage to Thomas Bosomworth

The following year, Mary married Thomas Bosomworth, a figure even more controversial than Matthews. He came to Georgia in 1741 to clerk for William Stevens, the man who would later be governor of Georgia Colony. He decided instead to join Oglethorpe's troops on a mission to help defeat the Spanish. While in service he wrote essays and "Lyricks." He soon tired of camp life and returned to England in 1743 to be ordained. He was appointed to minister to the colonists of Georgia for a term of three years and returned to America. Bosomworth left before completing his term of service, returning to England once again in 1745, without his wife. He returned to Georgia the following year and was assigned agent to the Creek Nation by the colony of South Carolina. Bosomworth and Mary established a trading post at "The Forks," the confluence of the Ockmulgee and Oconee Rivers where the Altamaha is formed.

Controversy over Ownership of Property

Scholars generally agree that Mary received land grants from the Creek tribes for her assistance as an interpreter and peace negotiator. Some scholars contend, however, that she also obtained land grants through Thomas Bosomworth's shrewd manipulations. In 1747, Bosomworth encouraged Mary's brother, Chief Malatchee, to proclaim himself supreme King of the Creeks. Bosomworth then procured a deed from Malatchee that granted ownership of various lands in return for promises of cloth, ammunition, and cattle. Bosomworth needed the British government to recognize these claims as well. In order to do so, he gained the support of Commander Heron at Frederica by convincing him that an Indian uprising was imminent and only Bosomworth and Mary could prevent it. In response, Heron forwarded documents that set forth Mary's claims to the Trustees of Georgia. It would take almost ten more years for her claims to be recognized by British authorities. Some scholars argue that this was because of differences in British and Creek ideas about property and inheritance. Under the British system, a patrimonial one, property passed from the father to the eldest male in the family. In Creek society, property passed from mother to daughter. Scholars argue that the British, blind to this essentially matrilineal system, were unlikely to recognize the legitimacy of Mary's claim to these lands. While some historians believe that Bosomworth was trying to advance Mary's cause with the British government, other scholars believe that he was largely self-serving and wanted the wealth that the disputed properties could bring.

Conflict with the Colonists

In 1749, Bosomworth was heavily in debt from an investment in cattle that he had made on credit. That year, he demanded that the colonists at Savannah pay Mary for past services rendered to Oglethorpe. They also asked the British government to recognize the legality of the land transfers that Mary's kinsmen had made to her in the past. To make their point, Mary and Thomas marched on Savannah with a force of Creek warriors. Although there are confusing accounts of what occurred during this show of force, several facts are clear: Mary was temporarily arrested; there was no bloodshed between colonists and Creeks; and Mary and Thomas Bosomworth did not receive any payment for services.

A Successful Conclusion

Bosomworth eventually took Mary's suit to the British Board of Trade, where he finally prevailed. In 1758, the Crown settled by giving the Bosomworths proceeds from the sale of Sapelo and Ossabaw Islands and granting them St. Catherine's Island. Mary's additional claims, put forth by Bosomworth, were settled. They included reimbursement for goods expended in the King's service and services as an agent. Even though the British government granted the Islands to Mary for services to the Crown, it never recognized her legitimate ownership of them. Mary Bosomworth went to live on St. Catherine's Island and died there in 1765. All of her property passed to Bosomworth and his heirs, according to English law.

Mary Bosomworth's work on behalf of James Oglethorpe and the English Crown played a vital part in the founding of the Georgia Colony. She was recognized for this accomplishment on March 11, 1993, when she was named a "Georgia Woman of Achievement."

Further Reading on Mary Musgrove Bosomworth

Waldman, Carl, Who Was Who in Native American History, Facts on File, 1990.

"Mary Musgrove Bosomworth," Georgia Women of Achievement, March 11, 1993, http://www.gawomen.org/honorees/long/bosomworthm-long.htm

"Mary Musgrove (Cousaponokeesa)" http://www.netsrgq.com/~dbois/musgrove-m.html

"Mary Musgrove, Queen of the Creek," http://ngeorgia.goldenink.com/people/musgrove.html

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