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The Formation of a Planter Elite: Jonathan Bryan and the Southern Colonial Frontier.

Alan Gallay's thorough and perceptive biography of Jonathan Bryan makes a significant contribution to the growing body of innovative scholarship on the early American frontier. His portrayal of Bryan's economic and political ambitions, leavened with Christian charity, adds substantially to our understanding of colonial patriarchy and yields valuable insights into the interaction of British, Spanish, and Indian interests on the southern frontier.

Bryan was the son of one of the early settlers of the Port Royal region of South Carolina, and Gallay opens his study with a summary of the initial settlement of the area. He stresses the vulnerable nature of life on the exposed frontier, noting the critical role played by the Yamasee Indians as buffers against the Spanish in Florida and as a source of Indian slaves for the Carolinians. The 1715 Yamasee War removed this protection, and stagnating trade and a quitrent dispute halted land patents and slowed further settlement. Only the closely-knit Bryan family and a few others stuck it out. Jonathan himself gained valuable experience by exploring the interior and establishing friendly relations with the region's Indians.

During the early 1730s the colony resolved the quitrent dispute, and in 1731 Parliament passed legislation allowing the colony to export rice directly to Spain, stimulating renewed settlement around Port Royal. Rather than invest all of their resources in rice production, Jonathan and his brothers, Hugh and Joseph, diversified their efforts, building roads and ferries, supplying newly arrived immigrants, engaging in extensive land speculation, and investing heavily in shipping and lumber production. They were prime movers in the colony's unsuccessful 1729 plan to establish several towns on the southern frontier to aid in the region's defense.

Gallay shows that the Bryans' real opportunity came with the opening of a new frontier in Georgia. His story of the brothers' relationship with James Oglethorpe and their subsequent involvement in early Georgian history is an important addition to the growing body of literature on the colony. Hugh supplied Oglethorpe with cattle, beef, and other supplies; Joseph let him use his slaves to clear land and become part of the General's inner circle; and Hugh and Jonathan profited from various public works projects. Jonathan became disillusioned with Oglethorpe, though, when the General failed to aggressively attack St. Augustine during the 1740 invasion of Florida.

The Bryans soon found another hero--George Whitefield. Gallay's discussion of the relationship between the Great Revivalist and the Bryan family is perhaps the book's most signal contribution. Jonathan already had a reputation for the love and hospitality that graced his table, and he was one of the first South Carolina slaveholders to try and convert his slaves. Thus Whitefield's attack on the institution found a sympathetic ear. The Bryans established a long correspondence with the minister, donated supplies to the Bethesda Orphanage, and even bought and ran a plantation for him. Their efforts to Christianize and educate blacks, though, drew the Assembly's attention, and the representatives chastised Jonathan and Hugh and extracted promises that they would teach only their own slaves and refrain from publicly denouncing the institution. Disillusioned, the Bryans abandoned the Anglican church and in 1743 established their own Independent Presbyterian congregation. Ironically, Whitefield himself soon became a slaveowner, arguing the institution was justified if masters made conscientious efforts to Christianize their slaves.

The outbreak of King George's War in 1744 brought new dangers to the South Carolina frontier. Jonathan was elected to the Assembly and worked to take advantage of the northern region's new-found empathy for the Southerners' needs. But while the Assembly made a number of concessions to backcountry concerns, they refused to accommodate demands for paper money and debtor relief. Hugh's recent death, moreover, had increased the pressure on Jonathan to provide for the large Bryan clan. When Georgia legalized slavery, he and several other frustrated planters moved to the new frontier.

Bryan was so successful in this new environment that he eventually accumulated 32,000 acres of land and 250 slaves. He used his position on the Georgia Council to find out about the best available land, and he mined his perceptive geographical knowledge to further refine the likely prospects. He bought and sold a number of tracts at handsome profits. Gallay's detailed discussion of Bryan's activities sheds new light on the relationship between political influence and land acquisition on the colonial frontier. But while Jonathan was ambitious, even voracious, in his search for land, power, and wealth, Gallay shows that he remained guided by a belief in his Christian and patriarchal duty to improve the well-being of others. Hence he negotiated with, rather than confronted, Indians and frontiersmen. He became a generous creditor and a champion of artisans, debtors, and dissenters. Gallay's emphasis on this combination of political and economic ambition, public service, and religious piety provides a compelling example of a strain of colonial patriarchy that presaged the future course of American capitalism.

Bryan attained his ultimate status as patriarch when he decided to support the patriots' cause in 1769. The Proclamation of 1763 had angered all Georgians and threatened to cut off Bryan's own access to future land acquisitions. Backcountry yeomen organized to express their protest, and after the Townshend Acts the Georgia patriots joined other colonists in the cry for non-consumption. Bryan was ideally suited to heal the colony's internal division. One of the wealthiest Georgians, he retained the loyalties of artisans and backcountry farmers. His open defense of the colonists' position led to his expulsion from the Council, but it also made him an admired symbol of colonial virtue.

As the Revolution approached, Bryan attempted his boldest maneuver. He exploited his close ties with the Creek Indians to purchase a huge tract of land from them in northern Florida, apparently hoping to establish an independent colony and to provide for his own patriarchal ambitions and the economic futures of the family children. The Creeks themselves were anxious to find new ways of maintaining their independence and insuring continued access to British trading goods. Their position had become increasingly precarious since the end of the Seven Years War, and their reliance on British trading goods and ammunition had forced them to reluctantly agree to a substantial cession of land in 1773. Bryan and the Creeks signed a ninety-nine year lease for 4-5 million acres of land. Angered over Bryan's independent actions, Governor Wright and the Council investigated, but their ignorance of Creek ways allowed Bryan and the Indians to complete their deal, itself doomed by the outbreak of war. Gallay's detailed reconstruction of this remarkable plan sheds new light on Bryan's often secretive relations with the Creeks and on the ignorance of the colonial governments regarding Creek culture and diplomatic methods.

Jonathan Bryan's luck finally ran out during the war. He failed to convince General Charles Lee to invade Florida and remove the irritating Spanish presence that threatened Georgia's (and his own) future ambitions. Worse still, the British captured Jonathan and his son, Hugh, and kept the elder Bryan in prison for almost two years. On his release, he became a heroic, patriarchal figure to another generation of Georgians. But he also suffered the devastating loss of his wife, Mary, who died as he left Philadelphia to return home. During the last years of his life, he continued his efforts to Christianize his slaves and remained active in church affairs.

Gallay's work draws an intriguing portrait of a man driven by a mixture of self-interest, a sense of patriarchal duty, and a pervasive Christian piety; we have few better examples of the power of patron-client relations in colonial life. Along the way, Gallay provides perceptive summaries of life on the early South Carolina frontier, the initial decades of Georgia settlement, and the colony's movement toward the revolution. Finally, he sheds new light on the importance of negotiation and tolerance to economic and political success in the volatile backcountry. The book is well organized and thoroughly researched, written in a clear and graceful style. The maps and appendices further clarify the text.

There are weaknesses. Gallay fails to fully explore the relationship between Bryan's personalized, pietistic patriarchy and the larger symbolic worlds of republicanism and liberalism, and as a result his explanation of Bryan's decision to become a patriot does not fully satisfy. Little is said, moreover, about whether Bryan pursued gentility with the same fervor, and ambivalence, that drove other planters. After the stimulating chapter on the Awakening and Bryan's feelings about slavery, we all but lose sight of the importance of religion in the Southerner's life. Did he feel any uneasiness at all about his own vast wealth? These reservations aside, Gallay has provided us with a valuable and suggestive study of the connection between self-gain and moral righteousness in southern ideology. At times, moreover, Jonathan Bryan seems to have much in common with Chesapeake planters and even with small New England farmers in his struggle to provide for the family children. The peculiarities of life on the southern frontier, though, made his pilgrimage unique. As Gallay shows, the frontier did indeed have a formative impact on this early American life.

Ronald P. Dufour Rhode Island College
COPYRIGHT 1994 Journal of Social History
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Copyright 1994, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Dufour, Ronald P.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1994
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