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The Utter Ruin of Mary Musgrove Bosomworth

​An eighteenth-century oil painting owned by the Winterthur Museum claiming to depict James Oglethorpe presenting the Yamacraw Indians to the Georgia Trustees. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Documents included in Colonial America cover daring feats of piracy, bloody wars, rugged expeditions through frontiers infested with ‘vigorous rattlesnakes’ and reams of legislation that ultimately shaped a nation. However, after hours spent tilting my head this way and that in an attempt to decipher the handwriting of various clerks, it has become clear that the lives of women within the Thirteen Colonies were of less interest to record keepers than politics and trade. A queen may have sat on the throne when English explorers first landed on the coast of Virginia, but the age of empire was, primarily, an age of withered, wigged, white men. (That said, council minutes sent from Georgia in 1742 reference an order of two hundred pairs of women’s shoes, suggesting the presence of at least two hundred pairs of female feet - or a prodigious appetite for crossdressing.)

 

Having found snippets about whores, widows and the wives of wealthy lords, I finally stumbled across Mary Bosomworth. Born to a Yamacraw mother and a European father, Coosaponakeesa - later christened Mary - would rise to prominence acting as an interpreter for early settlers in Georgia. Several dozen lords and earls later, a colleague excitedly explained that he had found another half-Yamacraw translator called Mary. Suddenly we had veritable binders of women! Alas, the coincidence was too great, and Mrs B. proved herself not only a talented linguist but a prolific bride too. Through her first husband, John Musgrove, Mary gained the trust of Georgia’s founder, James Oglethorpe; for a decade she acted as his adviser, solidifying ties - both defensive and economic - with local tribes. Though her assistance was vital to Oglethorpe, her power waned upon his return to England.

​Illustration of Mary Musgrove Bosomworth in Joel Chandler Harris' Stories Of Georgia (1896). E-book published 2008. Accessed via Project Gutenberg.


After her first and second husbands died, as husbands were wont to do at the time, Mary married the Reverend Thomas Bosomworth. The clergyman swiftly abandoned his flock in favour of assisting Mary in a series of potentially lucrative land claims. Their legal assault lasted for years, but in one submission to Alexander Heron in 1747, Mary outlined her triumphs – from brokering peace to convincing the Creek Nation to take up arms against Spanish forces – and her ‘Utter Ruin’: ‘your Memorialist hath by her Interest … continued that Important Nation Steady and Steadfast in their Friendship and Alliance with his Majesty’s subjects at the Expense of her own private Fortune’. After raising complaints about compensation and lands, the petition ends with a reminder, or veiled threat: ‘It is with the greatest Reluctancy, that your Memorialist is Drove to the Necessity to declare … that she has at this Day Interest enough to command a Thousand fighting men’.

​​'Memorial of Mrs Mary Bosomworth to Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Heron enclosed in Lieutenant Colonel Heron’s', from CO 5/656. Image © The National Archives. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Though she was temporarily arrested after marching on Savannah with a small force of warriors, Mary eventually prevailed; in 1758 she was reimbursed for her work and granted St Catherine’s Island. While Mary Musgrove Bosomworth, or Coosaponakeesa, fell from favour during her lifetime, her position as an important figure in American history was secured in 1993, when she was declared a ‘Georgia Woman of Achievement’ for her part in the founding of the state.

Module 1 of Colonial America, ‘Frontier Life, Early Expansion and Rivalries’, will be available from September. Full access restricted to authenticated academic institutions who have purchased a license.





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