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Georgia Founded 281 Years Ago Today

February 12, 2014
The bust of James Oglethorpe inside the Georgia Capitol in Atlanta

James Oglethorpe founded the colony of Georgia 281 years ago today. Many people mistakenly hear that Georgia was founded as a "prison colony" — a place to send former prisoners and criminals. But that's not exactly true.

The original idea of the colony is indeed connected with England's prison system. Much like the changes that Georgia is experiencing today with its corrections process, Oglethorpe worked tirelessly to reform the prisons in England. He, however, dealt with different circumstances.

Back in the 18th century, inmates had to pay prison staff if they wanted a decent room. If you were unable to pay, you might be thrown into a cell with other people — where illnesses and diseases flourished. Many of the people thrown in these English jails could barely be considered criminals. They had done a minor act (such as not paying their debt) but were treated as severe criminals.

Oglethorpe saw the horrible conditions and abusive behavior prisoners endured and devoted his life to helping correct it. He became one of Britain’s most active humanitarians.

Despite his heroic efforts in England, he and his colleagues couldn’t eradicate or prevent the extreme number of poor people living in England who were ultimately jailed for small offenses such as unpaid debts. They began looking at their options — especially in this new world called America. They started brainstorming and predicted that they could take all these debtors to America and transform them into hardworking people with some sort of trade: farmers, merchants or artisans. That way, they could get to the root of the problem and work to prevent further jail time for the poor.

It was a brilliant plan. However, money rules the world. King George II gave Oglethorpe the charter but only to advance economic circumstances for England and to be a buffer to the Spanish military present in Florida. So the first setters of Georgia were not debtors but instead carpenters, tailors, bakers, farmers, merchants and military men. After months of travel and exploration, on February 12, 1733, Oglethorpe and 114 men, women and children settled along the Savannah River becoming the 13th of the original American colonies.

Although his dream for a debtor colony didn’t turn out the way he intended, Oglethorpe did let Jews, Lutheran Salzburgers and other persecuted religious minorities settle freely in Georgia. He also respected the Native Americans of the area and continuously protected them from white traders.

In the late 1730s, Oglethorpe had to focus all of his attention, energy and resources on the Spanish in the south, thus resulting in his dream of an ideal agrarian society of reformed debtors to be put on hold and then never fully accomplished.

Today, 281 years later, Georgia has about 10 million people living within its borders — a big stretch from 114 colonists. Even though Oglethorpe didn't see extravagant prison reform in his lifetime, today we can fulfill his dream. Over the past few years, all three branches of the Georgia state government have been working diligently to reform the correctional processes in Georgia. Their goal is to make sure correctional facilities are doing the best they can to benefit Georgians.

A clear example of this can be seen with the passage of HB 252. Under this bill, only extremely serious and violent underage offenders will be kept in custody. Children and youth with misdemeanors and other minor offenses will participate in community-based programs. Rather than punishing the offender, time and energy will be spent fixing the root of the problem that resulted in the alleged act — such as dysfunctional families, substance abuse or anger problems — an idea synonymous with the one that started the process of founding Georgia 281 years ago.

The text "Happy birthday, Georgia!" is shown in a photo featuring the James Oglethorpe statue at the Georgia state capitol.

Learn more about Georgia's history, facts, symbols, and government in our About Georgia pages.

Georgia facts courtesy of the New Georgia Encyclopedia

About the Author

Bethany McDaniel is the Interactive Web Content Manager for GeorgiaGov. She graduated from Berry College in Rome, GA with degrees in Visual Communication and History.

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