Published on January 22, 2011 by John
Mary Musgrove (c. 1700-1767) facilitated in the development of Colonial Georgia and became an important intermediary between Creek Indians and the English colonists. She bridged the gap between two distinctly different societies and became a cultural mediator, who not only translated but counseled those who acknowledged her capabilities. She attempted to carve out a life that merged both cultures and fought for her rights in both worlds. Born Coosaponakeesa, she was the daughter of a Yamacraw Creek Indian woman and Edward Griffin, a Carolina trader from Charles Town, South Carolina. Her mother died when she was nine years old, and soon after, she was taken into custody of her father. She later became known by her Christian and married names, Mary Musgrove Matthews Bosomworth.She decided that she would be named Mary by having her father read her a story of a woman who was royal from the bible. Coosaponakeesa was born in the key Creek town of Coweta, and she came from a prestigious matrilineal family. Her mother was claimed to be the sister of Brims, an important headman of Coweta.
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Coweta was connected by a trading path to the Upper Creek town of Tuckabatchee. It is likely that Coosaponakeesa’s family traveled, traded, and lived in both towns and had kin in each town, which may account for some historians considering her a Tuckabachee Creek. Coosaponakeesa herself stated she was born in Coweta and lived with the Creeks until the age of seven when she “was brought Down by her Father from the Indian Nation to Pomponne in South Carolina; There baptized, Educated and bred up in the principles of Christianity.” After being baptized her Christian name became Mary. Mary continued to live in Pon Pon until the Yamasee War of 1715 broke out and then she returned to her Creek home.
Captain John Musgrove Sr. was a South Carolina trader and planter. He was employed by the Carolina Assembly to arrange peace between the Creeks and the English. Musgrove’s party was welcomed in Coweta by “Chieftainess Qua” who most probably was the elder sister of Brims, and if not her mother, at least the aunt of Mary. John Musgrow met the Coweta headman Brims, who the English had earlier designated as “Emperor” so that in the eyes of the English at least Brims could speak for the other Chiefs or headmen. In talks with Brims it was decided a young niece from Brims family would be betrothed to Musgrove’s son, so as to maintain the native rules of kinship and reciprocity and thus help reinforce the peace treaty. Captain Musgrove was married to a Creek woman and therefore his son Johnny Musgrove, like Mary, was of “mixed blood.”
Mary and Johnny Musgrove in time married and lived amongst her Coweta kin which was the traditional practice of matrilineal cultures such as the Creeks. But in 1725 the couple moved to Pon Pon. By the 1730’s they had four sons, but none of their children lived to adulthood. John and Mary owned land in Colleton County and in 1732 they were asked by the Carolina Governor and the Yamacraws, a group of Creeks and Yamasees, to start a trading post near the Savannah River. Their trading post was well established by the time James Oglethorpe (1696-1785) and his colonists landed near Georgia.
James Oglethorpe and a group of trustees had been granted a Royal charter by King George II (r. 1727-1760) to start a settlement colony in Georgia. Oglethorpe, a pastor, a physician and 114 colonists arrived in Charles Town in January 1733 before embarking south to ascertain a suitable site. Oglethorpe met the chief of the Yamacraws, Tomochichi (d. 1739) on February 1, 1733 and after several weeks of ritual kinship building on Tomochichi’s part and Oglethorpe’s responsive acts of reciprocity, quasi-kinship ties were established. Tomochichi granted land to Oglethorpe which violated previous Creek Treaties with South Carolina that prohibited English settlements south of the Savannah River . A three day conference was held which resulted in the Articles of Peace and Commerce allowing Oglethorpe to settle “upon the river Savannah as far as the tide flowed and along the Sea Coast, excepting the three Islands, Sapalo [Sapelo], St. Catherine’s and Ossabaw.”
John Musgrove traveled as the interpreter for Tomochichi, his wife and other Creeks who sailed with Oglethorpe to England to meet the King In 1734. During this time the Musgrove’s English partner Joseph Watson drank heavily, caused extensive problems in the trading post, bragged that he helped an Indian drink himself to death, slandered Mary as a witch, tried to shoot her, and caused a sequence of events where Musgrove’s slave Justice was killed. Mary filed actions against Watson, who was fined, but in the end he had to be jailed for his own protection.
On June 12, 1735 John Musgrove died of a fever. Mary married her former English indentured servant Jacob Matthews who was several years her junior in the spring of 1737. Between 1737 and 1738 Mary assisted Oglethorpe in securing land sessions from the Creeks. Under his request she established trading posts along the Altamaha so as to monitor Creek loyalty and Spanish activities. Both trading posts had to be eventually abandoned causing financial losses for Mary. For a decade Mary continued to be interpreter, mediator, and advisor to Oglethorpe helping him to secure treaties and land cessions. The minister John Wesley (1703-1791) also visited her and commented that “Tomochichi’s interpreter was one Mrs. Musgrove. She understands both languages, being educated amongst the English. She can read and write, and is a well-civilized women. She is likewise to teach us the Indian tongue.”
Mary became a widow once more in 1742. The next year Oglethorpe left for London and never returned to Georgia, leaving Mary £100, an unfulfilled promise of £100 a year, and the diamond ring from his finger. Though Oglethorpe had relied on Mary as an important intercessor who entertained important leaders and helped keep Creeks aligned with English interests, the remaining trustees and leaders did not.
Mary Musgrove Matthews met the Reverend Thomas Bosomworth and they were married in July of 1744. Bosomworth ignored his ministerial duties and concentrated on helping Mary with her many enterprises. Back in 1738 Oglethorpe had met with Lower Creek town leaders. Mary had also attended as his interpreter but she was also there as recipient of lands from the Yamacraws. The bestowing of Indian lands to Mary in the presence of Oglethorpe implied English endorsement by default and created a series of legal battles that would last for twenty years. Bosomworth now attempted to help his wife in securing English title to the land. While waiting for a response to their case Mary sent a memorial to the Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Heron in Georgia requesting compensation for her past contributions to the Georgian colony and his Majesty’s subjects. Colonel Heron also noted that he “had personal knowledge of her merit since my first arrival in this country, and 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.” While waiting on her replies from London, Mary received from Brims’ successor Malatchi the three islands of St. Catherine, Sapelo, and Ossabaw. On St. Catherines Island she had moved cattle and started plowing fields and constructing buildings. After many memorials and petitions Mary chose to invite Creek headmen to Savannah to collect their gifts and help convince the English to recognize her Creek land grants.
Malatchi and others arrived in the summer of 1749 but Mary was ignored as a translator and had to wait outside of the conference. After several hours an angry and humiliated Mary interrupted the meeting and started to give her speech before the male assembly. One white eyewitness scorned her actions:
[She] rushed into the Room, in the most violent and outrageous manner, that a Woman spirited up with Liquor, Drunk with passion, and disappointed in her Views could be guilty of…declared, She was Empress of the Upper and Lower Creeks, Yea, went so far in her imaginary Sovereignty, as to call herself King, and that she should command every Man in these Nations to follow her, and We should soon know it our cost.
Her angry outburst outraged the colonial magistrates who then arrested her. Thomas Bosomworth had to publicly apologize for her and promise no future outbursts. Mary’s behavior also estranged her from her male kin and she spent the next year in the Creek Nation trying to restore her standing. By 1752 the Bosomworths were in Charles Town waiting to sail to England to plead their case in person. They were delayed for two years as they assisted the South Carolina governor in establishing peace between the Creek and the Cherokee. After a year in England the Bosomworths came back to Savannah empty handed. With the arrival of Henry Ellis the new governor of Georgia in 1757 the problem was begrudgingly settled. Mary and Thomas were given title to St. Catherines Island and gave up the other two islands and the Yamacraw lands which were to be sold and the proceeds given to Mary for her past salary and losses. The matter was finally resolved in 1759 with Mary’s acceptance of £2100.00. Governor Ellis utilized Mary’s talents as representative, interpreter and mediator a few last times before she settled quietly on St. Catherines Island. Mary Musgrove Matthews Bosomworth died in the summer of 1765.
Creek is an Anglican name that the British gave to the Muskogee people. Those living along the Tallapoosa and connecting rivers became known as the Upper Creeks, while those along the Chattahoochee River and to the east became known as the Lower Creeks. Mary Musgrove was a Lower Creek who stated she was born along the Oakmulgee (Ocmulgee) River.
Creek society was matrilineal; therefore a person’s status and identity were determined through their mother. Fathers were not considered blood relatives, but only related by marriage. Both males and females traced their ancestral lineage through their mother and social connections were based on matrilineal kinships. Several matrilineal kinship groups claimed the same mythical ancestor thus forming a clan, such as the Wind, Bear, or Turtle clans. The Creeks consisted of many clans and there were over thirty to forty different known clans to have existed within the Creek nation. The Creeks, like many kinship based societies, did not know how to behave or respond to people who were not connected by lines of kinship. Therefore Creeks created kinship ties by adoption or marriage, but also through rituals fashioned to signify simulated kinship relationships. Mary Musgrove’s first marriage was one such example of using marriage to create kinship ties with whites. Tomochichi’s initial encounters with James Oglethorpe were designed to create fictitious lines of kinship to facilitate reciprocity.
Creek women could own land and possessions separate from their husbands. Mothers had control over their children and supervised their upbringing. Benjamin Hawkins an Indian agent felt “that a white man by marrying an Indian woman of the Creek nation so far from bettering his condition becomes a slave of her family.” A more sympathetic onlooker was the naturalist William Bartram who noted that “the traders are fully sensible how greatly it is to their advantage to gain their [Creek women’s] affections and friendship in matters of trade and commerce.” White traders married Creek women to gain kinship ties and these mixed marriages produced children that technically spanned two cultures. Coosaponakeesa was one of these children.
The derogatory term “half breed” was coined by Europeans. Creeks did not see those children from mixed marriages or relationships as white or “mixed blood” but as nothing less than a full Creek. Those with Creek mothers meant they were Creek and had full rights as any clan member. Even white women who had been captives and then were adopted into a clan had full rights of any Creek. When they married Creek men their children also were considered entirely Creek, not necessarily because of their father, but because their white mother was considered a full Creek when she was adopted into a clan.
The only blood relatives in Creek society were that of the mother, fathers were not considered to be a blood relation but only related by marriage and the rules of kinship. Therefore a child’s closest and most important male relatives were their maternal uncles. Which was why Brims arranged the marriage of his niece and she referred to him in her demand to be recognized as an important Creek woman. “Mixed blood” Indians in white society and culture were considered important intermediates in the early development of European goals of colonizing, trade, and land acquisition, but they were still not considered white and therefore maintained marginal status in the white world. “Mixed blood” children bridged two cultures, but because of the matrilineal customs there was no marginal status in Creek society for women like Mary Musgrove and others in the Muskogee world.