John Treutlen arrived in America as an indentured servant and rose to become a wealthy merchant and landowner. He was a leader in Georgia of the American Revolution (1775-83) and helped write Georgia’s first constitution. In 1777 he became Georgia’s first elected governor. Treutlen County, in central Georgia, is named in his honor.
Early Life and Voyage to America
John Adam Treutlen was born in 1733 in southern Germany. Although his family were Protestants, Treutlen’s mother was a Catholic. Thus the Treutlens were very likely persecuted by the Protestant establishment in Germany, causing the elder Treutlen to take his wife and children on the arduous and dangerous voyage to seek a new life in America in 1743.
They traveled first to Gosport, on the southern coast of Britain. During the voyage Treutlen’s father perished. In August 1745 Treutlen, his mother, and his brother left Gosport for Georgia with a group of Salzburgers. Upon their arrival in Georgia, the Treutlens were indentured to Michael Burckhalter of Vernonburg, a town ten miles south of Savannah in present-day Chatham County. Pastor Johann Martin Boltzius of the Salzburgers in Ebenezer took notice of the extraordinary talents of John Treutlen and endeavored to enroll him at the school in Ebenezer. Overcoming the stigma of his parents’ past, Treutlen entered the school; he did extremely well in his studies and acquired a broad education.
In 1756 Treutlen married Marguerite Dupuis, an orphan who was also educated at Ebenezer. He soon began acquiring land and established a large plantation and a successful merchant business. In 1766 he was appointed justice of the peace of Ebenezer. He served as commissioner and surveyor of roads and spent several terms in the 1770s as Ebenezer’s representative in the Georgia Commons House of Assembly.
Treutlen assumed an active role in the religious life at Ebenezer. He was a leader of the Rabenhorst faction in the sometimes violent conflicts between the Ebenezer pastors, the Reverend Christoph Triebner and the Reverend Christian Rabenhorst. Rabenhorst accepted the many differences among the people in the colonies as a result of the different countries and cultures from which those people came. In their practical day-to-day activities of ministering to this diverse population, ministers like Rabenhorst found it most effective to employ various strategies in the gracious work of conversion. Treutlen’s religious views, formed by his association with Rabenhorst, undoubtedly helped him to develop his support for those democratic political institutions that seemed so consonant with this diversity.
Politics and Revolution
In July 1775 Treutlen represented Ebenezer at the Georgia Provincial Congress. He took an active role in the American Revolution, quickly becoming a leader, along with Button Gwinnett and George Wells, of the radical faction. In February 1777 Treutlen, Gwinnett, and Wells were on the drafting committee of Georgia’s first constitution. As a result, this constitution included such democratic provisions as virtual universal suffrage and annual elections of officeholders. On May 8, 1777, the immensely popular Treutlen was elected by a wide margin as Georgia’s first governor under the new constitution. Clergyman Henry Muhlenberg called Treutlen a man of “native intelligence” who under pressure could reply “coolly and laconically” to his political opponents, and was thus well suited for the difficult task of leading the new state.
Treutlen’s term as governor was marked by political conflicts between the radical and conservative factions of the patriots. The conservatives opposed the democratic provisions of the new constitution, which allowed many of those from the lower classes (like the former indentured servant Treutlen) to be elected to positions of power in the government. The radicals referred to the conservatives as Tories and, in some cases, treated them accordingly. The radicals and conservatives clashed over the issues of civil control of the military, the conduct of the war, and the conservatives’ initiative to merge Georgia with South Carolina. The radicals were defeated in their attempts to remove the conservative General Lachlan McIntosh from his position of leadership in the Continental army in Georgia when such national leaders as George Washington sided with McIntosh.
Throughout the war these political conflicts erupted into violent and tragic confrontations. In February 1777 the conservative Joseph Habersham killed the radical Lieutenant Nathaniel Hughes in a dispute at the opening of the convention called to write Georgia’s first constitution. On May 16, 1777, the conservative McIntosh mortally wounded the radical Gwinnett. On February 16, 1780, the conservative James Jackson killed the radical Wells. Treutlen and the radicals lost many of their battles with the conservatives.
The Revolutionary War was particularly hard on the Salzburgers at Ebenezer. Both British and American soldiers plundered the community as many as ten times over the course of the war. On December 30, 1776, Rabenhorst died, leaving Ebenezer with no spiritual leader. Thus, when John Houstoun was elected governor in January 1778, Treutlen dropped out of state politics and returned to Ebenezer to help the community and the people who had provided him with so much during his three decades in America.
Late in 1781 Treutlen reentered state politics as Ebenezer’s elected representative to the Georgia legislature. He served in the January 1782 session and was one of the few radical democrats in the government that year. The imbalance in power between the radicals and the conservatives helped create an atmosphere in which the conservatives felt free to seek revenge for old scores and wounds.
One night in early spring 1782 Treutlen was brutally murdered outside his home. Legend says a group of Tories killed him. Another theory is that a jilted suitor may have attacked him—just days before, Treutlen had married for the third time. It is uncertain where Georgia’s first elected governor is buried.