George Washington Papers

[Diary entry: 20 May 1791]

Friday 20th. Viewed the ruins, or rather small remns. of the Works which had been erected by the British during the War and taken by the Americans—also the falls, which are about 2 Miles above the Town; and the Town itself.

These falls (as they are called) are nothing more than rapids. They are passable in their present state by boats with Skilful hands, but may at a very small expence be improved, by removing a few rocks only to straighten the passage. Above them there is good boat navigation for many Miles; by which the produce may be, & in some measure is, transported. At this place, i.e., the falls, the good lands begin; & encrease in quality to the westward & No. ward. All below them, except the Interval lands on the River and Rice Swamps wch. extend from them, the whole Country is a Pine barren. The town of Augusta is well laid out with wide & spacious Streets. It stands on a large area of a perfect plain but is not yet thickly built, tho’ surprizingly so for the time; for in 1783 there were not more than half a dozen dwelling houses; now there are not less than [ ] containing about [ ] Souls of which about [ ] are blacks. It bids fair to be a large Town being at the head of the present navigation, & a fine Country back of it for support, which is settling very fast by Tobacco planters. The culture of which article is encreasing very fast, and bids fair to be the principle export from the State; from this part of it, it certainly will be so.

Augusta, though it covers more ground than Savanna, does not contain as many Inhabitts. the latter having by the late census between 14 & 1500 hundred Whites and about 800 blacks.

Dine at a private dinner with Govr. Telfair to day; and gave him dispatches for the Spanish Govr. of East Florida, respecting the Countenance given by that Governt. to the fugitive Slaves of the Union—wch. dispatches were to be forwarded to Mr. Seagrove, Collector of St. Mary’s, who was requested to be the bearer of them, and instructed to make arrangements for the prevention of these evils and, if possible, for the restoration of the property—especially of those Slaves wch. had gone off since the orders of the Spanish Court to discountenance this practice of recg. them.

Forts Grierson and Cornwallis were erected at Augusta after Loyalist forces occupied the town in June 1780. Both works fell in the spring of 1781 when beseiged by Patriot militia aided by the Continental troops of Henry Lee’s Legion (BOATNER [1] description begins Mark Mayo Boatner III. Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. New York, 1966. description ends , 49–51; BOATNER [2] description begins Mark M. Boatner III. Landmarks of the American Revolution. New York, 1975. description ends , 75–77).

Under the terms of an act passed by the Georgia General Assembly 13 Feb. 1786, the falls of the Savannah River were to have been cleared for navigation and a lock built at the lower end. This improvement scheme collapsed when the land tax that was to finance the work was repealed the following year (JONES AND DUTCHER description begins Charles C. Jones, Jr. and Salem Dutcher. Memorial History of Augusta, Georgia . . .. 1890. Reprint. Spartanburg, S.C., 1966. description ends , 446; CANDLER [2] description begins Allen D. Candler, comp. The Colonial Records of the State of Georgia. 26 vols. Atlanta, 1904–19. description ends , 19:534–40, pt.2).

Augusta in 1791 was reported to have 250 houses and 1,100 people within its boundaries (JONES AND DUTCHER description begins Charles C. Jones, Jr. and Salem Dutcher. Memorial History of Augusta, Georgia . . .. 1890. Reprint. Spartanburg, S.C., 1966. description ends , 137).

The private dinner with Governor Telfair may have been the occasion for presenting a congratulatory address to GW that Telfair signed today at the statehouse. Telfair’s address and a copy of GW’s reply are in DLC:GW.

The fugitive slave problem, which GW discussed at length with Telfair during his stay in Augusta, had troubled Georgia planters for years, but particularly since 1783 when Spain regained the Floridas from Great Britain. Under an old Spanish policy any American slave who crossed the St. Marys River into East Florida was granted freedom, and it was only after many protests from the Georgians that authorities in Spain consented to a change. By a letter of 28 Aug. 1790 from Juan Nepomuceno de Quesada, newly appointed governor of East Florida, the American Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson learned that the Spanish monarch had given orders “not to permit, under any pretext, that persons sold in slavery in the United states introduce themselves, as free, into the province of East Florida” (Quesada to Jefferson, 28 Aug. 1790, and Jefferson to José Ignacio de Viar, 27 Oct. 1790, JEFFERSON [1] description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 41 vols. to date. Princeton, N.J., 1950–. description ends , 17:341n, 638–39).

The new policy, however, did not satisfy Georgia’s planters, for it applied only to the future and no mention was made of returning slaves lost since 1783 (Edward Telfair to Thomas Jefferson, 12 Jan. 1790, JEFFERSON [1] description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 41 vols. to date. Princeton, N.J., 1950–. description ends , 18:491–92). Jefferson was reluctant to push the matter further, considering it a relatively trivial affair that might jeopardize the more important goal of inducing Spain to open the Mississippi River to American traffic, but the final decision was left to GW and Telfair. Jefferson promised the Georgia governor in a letter of 26 Mar. 1791 that when GW reached Augusta “you will have an opportunity of explaining to him the extent of the losses complained of, and how far they could probably be recovered, even were the dispositions of your [Spanish] neighbors favourable to the recovery, and what those dispositions may actually be” (JEFFERSON [1] description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 41 vols. to date. Princeton, N.J., 1950–. description ends , 19:429–33, 519).

Although GW acquiesced in Telfair’s arguments, the instructions he wrote today for James Seagrove, collector for the port of St. Marys, Ga., show that he shared much of Jefferson’s cautious attitude toward the matter. Seagrove’s “first care” was to insure that the Spanish king’s new orders to stop sheltering American slaves were fully enforced by Governor Quesada; his second, to seek the return of any slaves who had fled to Florida since the announcement of the new orders; and his third, to recover the slaves lost since 1783. “This last instruction,” GW warned, “will require peculiar delicacy, and must be entered on with caution and circumspection, or not to be taken up at all” (GW to Seagrove, 20 May 1791, DLC:GW).

Seagrove, a Savannah merchant whom GW had named to his rather unremunerative post in Aug. 1789, adhered to GW’s injunction. While conferring with Quesada at St. Augustine in early August, he apparently brought up only the first two “cares” and succeeded in making detailed arrangements for returning future fugitives to their masters and in convincing Quesada to issue an order to penalize East Florida inhabitants who harbored runaways. Seagrove, however, failed in the request that he made for immediate restoration of slaves who had entered East Florida since the date of the king’s orders. Not “even a single Slave,” Quesada replied, had come into his province between the date of the royal orders and their promulgation in East Florida. Even if slaves had fled into Florida, however, his instructions would not allow them to be returned (Seagrove to Quesada, 2 and 7 Aug. 1791, and Quesada to Seagrove, 6 Aug. 1791, all enclosed in Thomas Jefferson to Edward Telfair, 15 Dec. 1791, DLC: Jefferson Papers). Seagrove’s skill in carrying out this mission was apparently a factor in his being appointed federal agent to the Creeks in September of this year (SMITH [7] description begins Daniel M. Smith. “James Seagrove and the Mission to Tuckaubatchee, 1793.” Georgia Historical Quarterly 44 (1960): 41–55. description ends , 42–43).

GW’s tour of the town today included a stop at the Richmond Academy, where “he honored the examination of the students with his presence, and was pleased to express himself handsomely of their performances” (BELL AND CRABBE description begins Earl L. Bell and Kenneth C. Crabbe. The Augusta Chronicle: Indomitable Voice of Dixie, 1785–1960. Athens, Ga., 1960. description ends , 29; CORDLE description begins Charles G. Cordle. “The Academy of Richmond County.” Southern Association Quarterly 3 (1939): 78–84. description ends , 79–80; HENDERSON description begins Archibald Henderson. Washington’s Southern Tour, 1791. Boston and New York, 1923. description ends , 243–47).

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