Musgrove, Mary (c. 1690–c. 1763)

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Musgrove, Mary (c. 1690–c. 1763)

Influential intermediary between the Muskogee (Creek) tribe and English colonists, and successful trader and landowner, who made claims against Georgia based on her status among Creeks and ownership of certain Creek lands. Name variations: Mary Bosomworth; Mary Matthews; Coosaponakeesa. Born near Muskogee (Creek) town of Coweta, around 1690; died in English colony of Georgia, around 1763; daughter of regal Creek woman (name unknown) and an English man, possibly Henry Woodward or Edward Griffin (traders); educated in Pon Pon, South Carolina; married Johnny Musgrove, in 1717 (died 1735); married Jacob Matthews, in 1735; married Thomas Bosomworth, in 1744; no children.

Possibly a Beloved Woman of the Creeks; established successful trading centers in Georgia colony; was Creek interpreter, negotiator and diplomat for James Oglethorpe and Trustees of Georgia Colony (1733–47); served as interpreter for Methodism founder-evangelist John Wesley (1736); engaged in legal battle with colonial government over ownership of three coastal islands and other property given to her by Creeks (1747–62).

Trade and military reports of the colonial period in North American history presented the arrangement of Muskogee (Creek) society as male dominant. Clan membership, however, was matrilineal, and those reports also indicated the involvement of women in civil affairs. Coosaponakeesa, or Mary Musgrove as history has come to know her, was one such influential woman.

Coosaponakeesa was born among the rich rivers and forests of Creek territory just 150 years after the first Europeans traveled through the region. Already this had become a land of opportunity for the English, French, and Spanish, whose struggles for control of the territory would eventually displace the native peoples to whom it belonged. The daughter of a woman of the Creek royal line and of an Englishman who was probably a trader, Coosaponakeesa was about seven when she was taken from her home in the chief Lower Creek town of Coweta and brought to Pon Pon, South Carolina. There she remained for several years, later saying she was "baptized, Educated and bred up in the Principles of Christianity." It is unclear when she returned to her people, but the education she received stood her in good stead throughout her life, though not necessarily as the English would have imagined.

The encroachment of Europeans on Native territories upset the usual patterns of existence throughout the entire region. War among all factions was common, with the Europeans constantly bargaining against each other for the good will of various tribes. In the early 18th century, a peace settlement was reached between South Carolina and the Yamacraw Creeks around the Savannah River.

In 1716, South Carolina sent two emissaries to seal the peace agreement. As part of the alliance, Johnny Musgrove married Coosaponakeesa, who was the niece of Brims of Coweta. Given the title "emperor" by the English, Brims was a primary Creek leader whose town was a political and spiritual center of the tribe. Political alliances sealed by marriage were common practice among the Creeks, and Brims gave this "regal woman" as a pledge of his intentions. Mary, as she became known, thus had influence not only because of her political marriage but in her own right.

The Musgroves spent some years in South Carolina and in 1732 returned to Mary's home territory, establishing a trading center on Yamacraw Bluff, near the future site of Savannah, Georgia. Mary reported they took in 1,200 pounds of deerskins in trade annually for the first few years; this was one-third of the total deerskin export of Charleston. Many of Mary's relatives and friends settled nearby, as did a band of outlaw Indians drawn by sacred burial grounds. The leader of the village, Tomochichi, was a friend to the Musgroves.

The prestige and power of the Coweta regal line reached even to the female members and is to be seen in the prestige and influence of … Mary Musgrove.

—David Corkran

In 1733, Mary was recommended as an interpreter to James Oglethorpe, an English general and philanthropist, when he arrived at Yamacraw Bluff. The Yamacraws were concerned by Oglethorpe's plans to found a colony for "industrious" debtors, because the agreement with South Carolina was that no white settlements would be allowed past the Savannah River. Mus-grove demonstrated her diplomatic abilities, calming fears and pointing out the significant trade advantages of the proposed settlement.

A treaty between Tomochichi and Oglethorpe allowed the English settlers to found a new colony (Georgia) and the Yamacraws to keep their land; however, since the treaty violated the earlier one with South Carolina, the major headman at Coweta was invited to come and participate. Eight headmen arrived. The Musgroves interpreted and helped to work out the resulting treaty: Georgia would send traders to Creek towns, and the Creeks would permit the English to settle lands the tribe did not need, as long as each new town provided a resting place for traveling Creeks. In addition, there were reciprocal agreements regarding punishment of injury or death by members of either party, and agreements on slavery, non-English settlers, and trade prices. In facilitating this treaty successfully, the Musgroves became a major influence with the English. Oglethorpe acknowledged them as important liaisons with the Creeks, and their cattle and crops were an essential food supply to the white colonists.

Oglethorpe took Tomochichi to England in 1734, with Johnny Musgrove as interpreter. While Johnny was gone trade suffered, because Watson, the Musgroves' partner, took the profits. When he began to drink and accused Mary of being a witch, she sued for slander and won. Then Watson assaulted her with a gun, but she overpowered him, charged him with assault, and won again. Tribe members, who supported Mary, were angered by his actions; Watson so feared them that he chased away friendly Yamacraws at gunpoint. Mary told him to leave. Instead, Watson took a servant hostage in the storeroom, and when the Yamacraws attacked, the servant was killed and Watson fled to Savannah. Finally, after continuing discord and threats, Colony Trustees appeased the Yamacraws and paid Musgrove for the loss of her servant. Things settled down after Johnny returned, and their influence with Oglethorpe increased the Musgroves' prosperity. Mary had gained a reputation as a "fighting woman."

A new treaty was signed in 1735, building on the agreement of 1733. Negotiated by both Mary and Tomochichi, the new treaty defined Georgia's limits for white settlement. The Creeks retained three coastal islands for hunting and fishing, islands which would later become central in the long-running legal feud Musgrove and her third husband would have with the colony.

Johnny Musgrove died in 1735, leaving Mary with a great deal of property and a reputation of influence with both Creeks and with Oglethorpe. She was wooed by one of her servants, Jacob Matthews, who had come to the colony as an indentured servant. After their marriage, he used Mary's fortune for his own ends, damaging it seriously. Despite her husband's profligate ways, Musgrove's influence with the Creeks was maintained due to her birthright.

In 1737, events for which Mary later gained most of her notoriety were set in motion. Tomochichi transferred all Yamacraw holdings—those recognized in the treaties of 1733 and 1735—to Musgrove. He announced this to Georgia Trustees President William Stephens at a barbecue on Yamacraw land near Savannah; Stephens made no objection at the time. Still, Savannah leaders considered it undesirable that Mary's husband, a British citizen, had so much influence and power by land ownership through his wife. The English had recognized Tomochichi's right to cede land to Britain, but now the colonists were faced with accepting the premise that if he could grant land to Britain, then he also had the right to give Creek lands to another Creek. Colonial leaders feared taking action against the transfer due to Musgrove's trade and her influence with the Creeks. She was the link with the leaders in Coweta, and supplied beef to the colonists as well as taking responsibility for entertaining visiting Indians. Uncomfortable as they were with the transfer, they made no counter-argument to Tomochichi's move until some time later.

Shortly after this event, Oglethorpe persuaded Musgrove to establish a trade center, Mt. Venture, farther south, to improve Creek protection of the area against the Spanish in Florida and to act as a liaison with those Creeks. Mary's influence with the Creeks persuaded them to support England in the war with Spain (1739–48). Her diplomatic abilities continued to be valuable; at one point, she intervened with the Creeks at the request of President Stephens, convincing them to allow some Cherokees with Oglethorpe to return home safely.

By 1740, Jacob Matthews had become a drunkard, had joined the anti-Trustees group, and was generally making himself obnoxious, including inciting the Creeks to intimidate Savannah residents. In 1742, he sent a letter to the Trustees asking for a reward for interpreting services and for acknowledgement of Tomochichi's land grant to Mary; this was denied. Jacob's ire at the Trustees' response and his sway with Mary may have provoked the change in Musgrove's attitude toward the Georgia colonists, from her early friendship to animosity for wrongs, imagined or real, done to her. At any rate, Musgrove's dealings with the colony then took a decidedly difficult turn.

In May of 1742, Jacob died. That autumn, Spanish Yamasee warriors looted and burned the Mt. Venture trading center, destroying both buildings and goods. Nevertheless, when Oglethorpe called on Mary to interpret at Fred-erica, she went there and stayed until his departure for England the following year.

As he left, Oglethorpe gave Musgrove a diamond ring, £200 pounds, and the right to draw drafts on him for £2,000 more. Possibly she met her third husband, Thomas Bosomworth, then. He was described as "an adventurer from England," who had been brought over to be clerk to President Stephens but refused such a lowly position upon his arrival. When another promised position in Savannah was not open, he went back to England to be ordained a minister and was given a post in Savannah upon his return there. During this period, Mary married Thomas, who returned to England a second time, angered by the Trustees' refusal to listen to some complaints. When he wrote saying he had no intention of returning, the authorities considered his ministerial post vacant and filled it. Bosomworth did return, however, and began to manage Mary's properties.

By now the Creeks were less a wandering people and more settled, owning property and stock animals, and Musgrove was the largest property owner among them. Despite her Christian baptism and white father, she considered herself Creek and was considered so by the Indians. As a member of a royal family, she had as much right to land ownership as a headman. At this point, she owned the original Musgrove plantation, 500 acres given to Johnny Musgrove by Georgia for interpreting services, and the lands given to her by Creek leaders. Thomas began pushing her to press claims as a Creek for the three islands reserved in the 1735 treaty. She made over her Indian titles to him, angering the Georgia authorities.

Mary's properties had been ill-handled by Jacob Matthews, and the destruction of Mt. Venture by Yamasees in 1742 had piled up more debts. To pay these debts, and those being accrued by Thomas because he thought the ownership claims would be favored, Musgrove also began pressing claims for payment of interpretation services over the years. Thomas began a cattle ranch on St. Catherine's Island, making drafts against Oglethorpe who was himself bankrupt. The drafts bounced, and Thomas went to England to present Mary's claims to the Board of Trade in London and to see Oglethorpe.

Mary and Thomas hoped the Board of Trade would see things as they did, since Jacob Matthews had made application to the Georgia Trustees and appealed to Oglethorpe about these lands in the past. In the earlier request, the Trustees had told Matthews and Oglethorpe that if land was acquired from Indians, the acquisition must come either through Oglethorpe, as one of the Trustees, or through the Trustees themselves. The only possible way a claim could be approved was if the land were given to Oglethorpe, who then recommended that the Trustees grant said land to Mary and Jacob. This position gave the Trustees legal protection and was within their rights to require, given the treaties. However, these legalities assumed that the colonists were now governors of all the lands, that European understandings of ownership and governance were the standard against which all claims would be judged, and that the Creeks had neither rights nor lands with which to give land grants.

Coweta headman Malatchi, a cousin of Musgrove's and successor to Brims, deeded to Mary and Thomas the three islands in 1747, although in the midst of the later controversy he would deny having done so. Mary's and Thomas' claims and their attempts to have a hearing and a decision in their favor came to a head that summer. In mid-July, a small party of Creeks led by Malatchi arrived in Savannah with concerns that, because of her claims and outspoken assertions about the rights of her Native American ancestry, Musgrove was to be "put in chains and sent to England." They may have received encouragement in this belief from Mary and Thomas to ensure that their behavior would intimidate residents and Trustees, as Jacob Matthews had done years earlier. Another party of Indians arrived a few days later, allegedly to meet Thomas' brother whom they had appointed as their agent to England.

The following days, until the Creeks left on August 18, brought a series of struggles both physical and mental between the supporters of Mary and Thomas and the Trustees. The friendship of the Creeks was vital for both sides. Malatchi and other leaders were unpredictable from the Trustees' point of view; the Trustees were simply swindling Indians once again, according to the Creeks. Each group believed it acted legally and within its rights. The residents of Savannah lived in fear of an outbreak of war for most of that month. The Trustees attempted conciliation and persuasion by a series of dinners and entertainments buffering the discussions of the claims. Each night, the Indian leaders heard the alternative rationale as developed and put forth by Thomas and Mary, often returning to the Trustees the next day angered anew. This pattern continued day after day, until yet another entertainment was offered and Mus-grove could stand the delay no longer. She rushed into the house, according to official reports, "in the most outragious [sic] and unseemly manner, that a Woman Spirited up with Liquor, Drunk with Passion, and disappointed in her Views could be guilty of," and asserted her claims and birthright as queen of the Creeks. She was arrested for this behavior, making Malatchi angry again. He roused the warriors to arms, but the Creeks subsided when confronted with the militia. After another night of fear, there was calm. Thomas apologized for Mary's behavior and promised to control her; after the presentation of yearly gifts from the English and another dinner, the Creeks departed.

Mary and Thomas did not give up their claims, however. In the next few years, they continued talking among the Indians and managed to gain some support. In 1750, Thomas' brother was told about their behavior and rejected them. In 1752, Mary and Thomas decided to go to England to present their case, but were sidetracked when the governor of South Carolina asked Mary to interpret and assist in settlement of a matter between Creeks and Cherokees; the governor also promised to support her claim. Mary was so successful at solving the conflict that she increased her popularity once again. She and Thomas finally reached England in 1754 and presented their case, which, because the Trustees had disbanded, was remanded to the governor of Georgia Colony.

The outgoing governor refused approval of a solution to the controversy. His successor, however, was able to see that the case was long overdue for closure, especially in light of England's need for Creek support in the war with the French and other Native American tribes. He suggested a compromise that was approved by the government in late 1759. The following year, Musgrove was given St. Catherine's Island, where she and Thomas had lived during most of the controversy, and £2,100 from the sale of the other two islands, which she and Thomas had deeded over to Georgia on agreeing to the compromise.

Mary Musgrove died about a year later, in considerably different circumstances from the "Red Stroud Petticoat and Osnabrig Shift" she wore when Oglethorpe arrived. Due to her years of battling the colonial government, she was also perhaps less congenial than the young woman who had helped negotiate treaties between the Creeks and the colonists at Yamacraw Bluff. Because of her stamina and despite her trials, wrote one historian, Mary Musgrove had "one quality which cannot but endear her to all who study her career. She was a fighter who did not know how to quit."


Braund, Kathryn E. Holland. Deerskins and Duffels: The Creek Indian Trade with Anglo-Americans,1685–1815. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1993.

Corkran, David H. The Creek Frontier, 1540–1783. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1967.

Corry, John Pitts. "Some New Light on the Bosomworth Claims," in Georgia Historical Quarterly. Vol. 25, no. 3. September 1941.

Coulter, E. Merton. "Mary Musgrove, 'Queen of the Creeks': A Chapter of Early Georgia Troubles," in Georgia Historical Quarterly. Vol. 11, no. 1. March 1927.

suggested reading:

Jones, Charles C. History of Georgia. Boston: n.p., 1883.

Kidwell, Clara Sue. "Mary Musgrove" in Gretchen M. Bataille's Native American Women: A Biographical Dictionary. NY: Garland, 1993.

Todd, Helen. Mary Musgrove: Georgia Indian Princess. Savannah, GA: Seven Oakes Press, 1981.


"The Bosomworth Controversy Manuscript" in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress.

Candler, Allen D., ed. Colonial Records of the State of Georgia. 26 vols. Atlanta: n.p., 1904–16.

Margaret L. Meggs , independent scholar on women's and disability issues and on feminism and religion, Havre, Montana