1788: Edward Telfair to Joseph Clay

Signature of Edward Telfair

Signature of Edward Telfair

This letter was written by Edward Telfair (1735-1807), who served as Governor of the state of Georgia in 1786, and again from 1790 through 1793. He was a member of the Continental Congress, and a signer of the Articles of Confederation. Telfair was born in 1735 in Town Head, Scotland. He graduated from the Kirkcudbright Grammar School, before he acquired commercial training. He immigrated to America in 1758 as an agent of a commission house, settling in Virginia. Telfair subsequently moved to Halifax, North Carolina, and finally to Savannah, Georgia, where he established his own commission house in 1766.

Grave of Edward Telfair

Grave of Edward Telfair

Telfair was a slave owner and a consultant on slavery issues. His mercantile firm dealt in slaves, among other things, and contemporary correspondence of his included discussions of such topics as: the management of slaves; the purchase and sale of slaves; runaway slaves; the mortality rate of slaves born on plantations; the difficulty of selling closely related slaves; and the relations between whites and freedmen.

Telfair wrote the letter to his former business partner, Joseph Clay (1741–1804) — a soldier, commission merchant, and public official of Savannah, Georgia. Born in England, Clay immigrated to the United States and settled in Savannah in 1760. During the American Revolution, he served on the local council of safety and was a delegate to the Georgia Provincial Congress in 1775. He was a major in the Georgia Line of the Continental Army during the War of Independence. He was appointed by the Continental Congress as deputy paymaster general in Georgia with the rank of colonel on August 6, 1777. He was elected to the Continental Congress in 1778, but did not attend. He was a judge of the United States District Court for the District of Georgia from 1786 to 1801, and a United States circuit court judge from 1801 to 1802.

1788 Letter

1788 Letter

Addressed to Hon. Joseph Clay, Esq., Savannah

Augusta [Georgia]
June 30, 1788

Dear Sir,

I received your letter by Bute. I have planted so extensive as to require every hand I am master of to dreg the crop out of the grass. This circumstance — with the dull prospect of a sale — was the cause of my declining sending any more lumber down until the fall.

The Indian Commissioners are to meet on Tugelo ¹ the 15th September, there to Treat. I have waited some time in expectation of Mr. [George] Whitefield’s return in order to form some opinion on the propriety of Mr. Clark’s ² re-establishment. I fancy things will moderate and the new Government approaching will bring McGillivray ³ to have some dread of the force of the Union.

Freeman's Journal, 25 June 1788

Freeman’s Journal, 25 June 1788

I placed in Mr. Bourdeaux’s hands a note for 11,000 to tobacco with 7 percent interest, to receive payment. He has received the money and says it is placed to the credit of the House. I think you mentioned that account was about a balance, which was the cause of my drawing on him. Pray send your account & have it settled. I want special indents to pay tax for 1787, £68 & the like sum in special indents for 1788, both of which will be £68 as I am informed they are two ____. I beg you write him to send them without delay. I now stand at the mercy of the Carolina Collector for this & last year’s tax. I shall write you on Mr. [George] Whitefield’s arrival. Pray send my account with the House made up with Store rent, credit 1786. The lumber must wait a sale in the fall. I sincerely wish some expedient may be formed to dreg this ruinous medium out of circulation. It will stand as _____ against payments until limitation will reach when we may expect many advantages to be taken.

I see no payments or prospects of any. I am, dear Sir, your most obedient servant, — Edward Telfair

I want the account of lumber delivered [paper torn] best advantage. Mr. Cummings. I am determined to have no sales in future for goods except immediate barter and then rates to be regulated near to vendue sales.

¹ The Tugelo River is a tributary in the upper reaches of the Savannah River. Edward Telfair, a member of the Southern Commission, refers to an upcoming meeting to be held with representatives from the Creek Indians at the house of Lachland Cleaveland on the Georgia side of the river to consider a treaty to end the Oconee War. Hostilities would not end for another two years, however.

Elijah Clark

Elijah Clark (1742-1799)

² George Whitefield was deputed by the Southern Commissioners to treat with the Creek Nation. Telfair also mentions Elijah Clarke, or “Clark” (1742-1799). Clarke was a Revolutionary War hero who was awarded a plantation after the war by the State of Georgia for his services. Afterwards, he acted as a commissioner for Georgia’s treaties with Native American groups. As a general of militia, he led his men in defeating the Creeks at Jack’s Creek, in present-day Walton County, on September 21, 1787. However, Clarke grew impatient with the failures of the national and state government to bring peace to the frontier and took matters into his own hands. He tried to form an independent republic, known today as the Trans-Oconee Republic, by seizing Creek lands on the Oconee frontier. At least twice, he became involved in plots to invade neighboring Spanish East Florida.

³ Alexander McGillivray (1750-1793) was born Hoboi-Hili-Miko (Good Child King) in the Coushatta village of Little Tallassee (also known as Little Tallase, Little Talisi and Little Tulsa) on the Coosa River, near present-day Montgomery, Alabama. Alexander’s mother, Sehoy Marchand, was the daughter of Sehoy, a mixed-race Creek woman of the prestigious Wind Clan (“Hutalgalgi”), and of Jean Baptiste Louis DeCourtel Marchand, a French officer at Fort Toulouse. Alexander and his siblings were born into the Wind Clan, as the Muscogee had a matrilineal system, and gained their status from their mother’s clan. They identified as Creek. Their father was Lachlan McGillivray, a Scottish trader (of the Clan MacGillivray chief’s lineage). He built trading-posts among the Upper Towns of the Muscogee confederacy, whose members had formerly traded with French Louisiana.

Alec Mc

Alec McGillivray (1750-1793)

As a child, Alexander briefly lived in Augusta with his father, who owned several large plantations and was a delegate in the colonial assembly. In 1773, the boy was sent to school in Charleston, South Carolina, where he learned Latin and Greek, and was apprenticed at a countinghouse in Savannah, Georgia. He returned to Little Tallassee in 1777. The revolutionary governments of Georgia and South Carolina confiscated the property of his Loyalist father, who returned to Scotland.

During the American Revolution, Alexander McGillivray was commissioned as a colonel in the British army. He brokered a British-Muscogee alliance. A skillful diplomat, he was an inept military strategist and rarely participated in battle.

In 1783, McGillivray became the principal chief of the Upper Creek towns. His predecessor, Chief Emistigo, died while leading a war-party to relieve the British garrison at Savannah, which was besieged by the Continental Army under General ‘Mad’ Anthony Wayne. At one time, McGillivray wielded great power, having from 5,000 to 10,000 warriors. McGillivray opposed the 1783 Treaty of Augusta, under which two Lower Creek chiefs had ceded Muscogee lands from the Ogeechee to the Oconee rivers to the new state of Georgia. In June 1784 he negotiated the Treaty of Pensacola with Spain, which recognized Muscogee sovereignty over three million acres (12,000 km²) of land claimed by Georgia, guaranteed access to the British fur-trading company Panton, Leslie & Company, and made McGillivray an official representative of Spain, with a $50 monthly salary. McGillivray became a partner in Panton, Leslie & Co., and used his control over the deerskin trade to expand his power.

McGillivray sought to create mechanisms of centralized political authority to end the traditional village autonomy, by which individual chiefs had signed treaties and ceded land. Armed by British traders operating out of Spanish West Florida, the Muscogee raided back-country European-American settlers to protect their hunting grounds. From 1785 to 1787, Upper Creek war parties fought alongside the Cherokee in the Chickamauga Wars in present-day Tennessee. In 1786 a council of the Upper and Lower Creek in Tuckabatchee declared war against Georgia. The Spanish officials opposed this and, after they told McGillivray they would reduce aid if he persisted, he entered into peace talks with the U.S. A Loyalist like his father, McGillivray resented the developing United States Indian policy; however, he did not wish to leave Creek territory. McGillivray became a leading spokesman for all the tribes along the Florida-Georgia border areas.

One response to “1788: Edward Telfair to Joseph Clay

  • Robert S. Davis

    Joseph Clay’s letter books are in the Georgia Historical Society and are absolutely spectacular. If there is a cache of letters to Clay, I wish they were accessible to scholars.

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