Distinguished Women of Past and Present

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Mary Musgrove (Cousaponokeesa)


Mary Musgrove, the Creek (American) Indian interpreter, diplomat and businesswoman, was born in 1700 to the prestigious Wind Clan of the Creek tribe. Her original Creek name was Cousaponokeesa. She was born in the small settlement of Coweta near the present day Macon, Georgia, U.S.A. The Creek clans trace their lineage through the maternal line. Cousaponokeesa's mother was an esteemed clan matriarch, a sister of Hoboyelty, the civil chief of Coweta, called Emperor Brims by the Europeans. Cousaponokeesa's father is unknown, but the legend has it that he was a Scottish or English trader.

When Cousaponokeesa was a young girl, her family sent her to live with a white family on the outskirts of Charles Towne (modern day Charslton, South Carolina). She attended an English school there, was baptized and given a Christian name of Mary. During Mary's stay with the whites, there was a revolt by many of the southeastern Indian tribes against abusive Carolinian trading practices. Initially, the Indians held the upper hand, but they couldn't win without additional help. When they couldn't convince the Cherokees to join their cause, they sued for peace.

Mary returned to Coweta during the time of the insurrection. She was soon betrothed to John Musgrove, Jr., the son of an Indian woman and an important Carolina landowner. At first Mary and John Musgrove lived among the Creeks, but later they moved to the Musgrove estate in Pomponne. They set up a trading post near the mouth of the Savannah River.

When the Englishman, James Edward Oglethorpe, came to start the British colony of Georgia, he sought out Mary to be his interpreter and adviser. Mary helped Oglethorpe negotiate land treaties with the local tribes, which led to the founding of Savannah in 1733 and of Augusta in 1735.

John Musgrove died in 1735, leaving Mary with a 500-acre plantation, a large number of cattle and horses, 10 indentured servants and a thriving deerskin trade. She became the wealthiest woman on the Georgia frontier. In the next few years, her influence with the whites and with the Indians continued to grow. She was soon asked to establish a new trading station closer to Florida to double as a listening post to keep tabs on the Spanish forces in Florida. She called the post Mount Venture.

Mary married again. Her second husband was Jacob Matthews, an Englishman and a former indentured servant of her first husband. Matthews was placed in charge of defending Mount Venture with a force of Georgia rangers. When fighting broke out between Spain and Britain in 1742, the Creeks sided with the British due to Mary's influence with them, and the joint Creek-Georgian army successfully pushed the Spaniards back. Oglethorpe left Georgia for good the following year. On parting, he expressed his appreciation to Mary for her help by taking a diamond ring off his finger and presenting it to her, along with a bank note for 200.

Since 1737, Mary's landholdings increased substantially after her kinsmen transferred their own holdings to her. She now owned thousands of miles of land along the Savannah River and the islands of Sapelo, Ossabaw and Saint Catherines. The British refused to accept the legality of these land transfers to Mary, althought they saw no problem with transfers made by Indians to the British crown. The reluctance of the British to honor land transfers to Mary, who was now the oldest living woman in the clan's line of succession, infuriated her kinsmen, who saw the Savannah authorities setting up rules to bilk the Indians of their own possessions.

Two years after her second husband's death in 1745, she married Thomas Bosomworth, an Anglican clergyman. Her third husband supported Mary's claim most vigorously for which he was accused by Georgians of high treason. Mary, Bosomworth, and numerous Indians were outraged by the actions of the British and in summer of 1749 they marched on Savannah in protest. They were outnumbered, however, and Mary was placed under arrest. She was soon released for fear of a larger revolt by the Indians. She was allowed to travel to London with her husband to argue her case before the British Board of Trade. In London, she accepted a compromise where the islands of Ossabaw and Sapelo were to be sold by the British at a public auction and Mary would get the proceeds. She was to retain St. Catherines Island, but only "in consideration of services rendered by her to the province of Georgia," rather than because she had been the rightful owner. When Mary died five years later, all her property passed to her English husband and his heirs according to the English law, and not to Mary's female relatives according to the Creek law of matrilineage. Today, Saint Catherines Island is a wildlife preserve.

Contributed by Danuta Bois, 1998.

1. The Woman's Way by the editors of Time-Life Books, 1995

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