A Woman to Know: Mary Musgrove Matthews Bosomworth

She can read and write, and is a well-civilized [woman]. She is likewise to teach us the Indian tongue. — John Wesley

She can read and write, and is a well-civilized [woman]. She is likewise to teach us the Indian tongue. — John Wesley

(image via University of Georgia Libraries)

In 1733, when English settlers established the colony of Georgia, they owed their relatively amiable relationship with the native Americans to a 30-year-old bilingual trader: Mary Musgrove.

As a prominent member of the Creek clan and a wife to an English deerskin trader, Mary Musgrove knew how to bring two different worlds together. Before James Edward Oglethorpe brought the English to Georgia, Mary had already been traveling back and forth between her Creek family one one side of the Savannah River and the English settlers on the other, in the colony of South Carolina. She spoke fluent English as well as her native Muskogee, so General Oglethorpe sought her out as a valuable translator in his discussions with the Yamacraw and Chief Tomochichi. Mary knew the English desperately needed her services, so she negotiated with Oglethorpe directly, demanding higher compensation for every meeting he required.

Mary’s profile grew with time. Tomochichi granted her a plot of land in the Sea Islands as thanks for her role in forging their alliance, and as the colonial Georgia society grew larger and larger, Mary used her marriages to white men as stepping stones in the social hierarchy.

The new settlers felt threatened by her speedy ascension and growing fortune. Gossipmongers whispered that her wedding to her third husband, a Christian missionary, never took place. And even as Mary celebrated her new status, she fought to keep the land she was awarded from Chief Tomochichi. Georgians contested her right to the Sea Islands and demanded she visit England for a Board of Trade trial in 1760.

As Colonel Heron wrote:

I am highly sensible of the singular service she has done the country (a great part of the expense of her own private fortune) in continuing the Creek Indians in friendship and alliance with the English.

In England, facing the court, Mary once again brokered peace, but this time at her own expense; she forwent her massive claim in exchange for keeping one island, St. Catherine’s. She died there three years later.

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