Today’s guest post comes from Bryan Rindfleisch, Assistant Professor of History at Marquette University. Bryan received his Ph.D. from the University of Oklahoma, in 2014, where he specialized in early American, Native American, and Atlantic world history. His book manuscript focuses on the intersections of colonial, Native, imperial, and Atlantic histories, peoples, and places in eighteenth-century North America.
It’s inevitable. At some point, a friendly conversation about my research—with family and friends, colleagues, students, or even a random stranger at the local coffee shop—will take an unfortunate turn. All it takes is that one question: “Who is George Galphin?”
While I’m overcome with excitement, eager—if not giddy—at the opportunity to share my work with another human being who seems genuinely interested, that person has no idea they’ve opened Pandora’s Box. At first, my audience nods and smiles politely as I begin to describe, in painstaking detail, the ways in which Galphin influenced and shaped the events that unfolded in North America during the eighteenth-century. But as I drone on about “Galphin this” and “Galphin that” without any end in sight—for in my mind, we’ve only just begun—the listener visibly starts to lose patience. As the minutes drag by, a sincere smile slowly fades to a grin, and then a grimace; or, once interested eyes comically gloss over, as my listener stares right through me rather than at me. Finally, my audience manages to interrupt with an apology, or maybe an excuse, for either shifting the topic of our discussion to something else, or creating the pause through which they can escape my monologue. Only then, in my obvious naiveté, do I realize I’ve monopolized the conversation and alienated yet another person from showing interest in my research. Sadly, all in a day’s work.
But in all seriousness, despite my lack of charm or nuanced summation of this man’s importance to history, “who is George Galphin” and why should we care? Most notably, Galphin served as the American Commissioner for Indian Affairs in the South during the Revolutionary War, and he proved a far more effective administrator than his counterparts to the north. In fact, some have compared Galphin to Sir William Johnson, British Superintendent for Indian Affairs who died in 1774. Yet the revolution marked only the end of Galphin’s storied career.
For the first three decades of his life, Galphin lived in poverty, the eldest child of a poor linen weaving family in County Armagh. The Galphin family was Scots-Irish, having joined the wave of emigrants from the Scottish Lowlands who settled in the Ulster provinces in the seventeenth-century. Then, in 1737, Galphin immigrated to South Carolina to seek his fortunes elsewhere. However, we should stop here. Because if one reads between the lines of Galphin’s early life, what emerges is a narrative of epic proportions about the nature of British imperialism and colonialism in Ireland, the interconnectedness of an Irish linen economy with the Atlantic world, and a pattern of Scots-Irish (and later Catholic Irish) immigration to North America. It’s as if Galphin is a window into the many historical circumstances and settings that he was a part of.
Events play out similarly in the American south. Galphin quickly climbed the ranks of the Indian traders in South Carolina and Georgia, eventually owning his own firm by 1756. During the Seven Years’ War, Galphin emerged as one of the British Empire’s primary negotiators with the indigenous peoples of the southeast. To top it all off, Galphin reinvented himself as a merchant and a landed gentleman, who owned a sizable plantation—Silver Bluff—populated by a wealth of enslaved African and Native peoples. By 1773, Galphin’s name was synonymous with the empire’s commercial and political interactions with the Native south, “a gentleman of very distinguished talents and great liberality, who possessed the most extensive trade, connexions, and influence, amongst the…Indian tribes.” But again, Galphin was more than that. He was the quintessential “Go-Between” for European and Native populations in early America, which allows us to consider larger questions about the nature of cross-cultural interactions, intimacies, and violence that defined the eighteenth-century prior to the revolution. More importantly, though, Galphin reveals to us the intimate connections between indigenous and European worlds, as Galphin moved back and forth at-will in an effort to carve out his own niche in North America. And he was far from alone or atypical in that respect. Additionally, Galphin-turned-merchant opened the transatlantic doors to indigenous peoples—like the Creek Indian leaders Escotchaby and Sempoyaffee—who utilized their partnership with Galphin to navigate, and at times commandeer, Atlantic markets for their people.
Did I also mention that Galphin had a wife, Catherine, in Ireland? Or that he took a French mistress in South Carolina? How about the fact that Galphin, as a “Go-Between,” coupled with Metawney, a Creek woman? I may have also neglected to mention that Galphin fathered four children with his African and Native slaves. Needless to say, Galphin’s sexual dalliances and indiscretions lead us to questions about gender, race, and the role of intimacy and violence between men and women—along with master and slave—in eighteenth-century North America.
But do you know what’s even more revelatory about George Galphin? His death. Although he lived until 1780, Galphin codified his will and inventoried his estate in 1776. If you read that document (eighteen pages in Microsoft word, 12 point font), you are assaulted with name after name, starting with Galphin’s children and ending with faceless individuals like Clotworthy Robson, Patrick Carr, William Dunbar, and Galphin’s slaves like Cloe and Indian Peter. In the beginning, I limited myself to immediate family, primarily Galphin’s Anglo, Creek, and African children, all of whom are fascinating unto themselves. But over the course of my research, I was forced to pay more attention to the numerous others that Galphin mentioned or referenced in his will and inventory. Why? Because these individuals, and were talking hundreds, kept cropping up here, there, and ultimately everywhere…it was infuriating. But as I reflected on these new developments, it became quite apparent that all of these people meant something to Galphin, be it family and friends, political allies or commercial partners, and even slaves or servants. In other words, all of these people were part of Galphin’s physical and mental world. And as I tracked down these many and disparate individuals, it all started to make sense.
In Ireland, it was Galphin’s relationships with extended family members, friends, and neighbors that helped him survive and escape his family’s poverty. Meanwhile, in North America, Galphin’s intimacy with Metawney ushered him into the kinship, political, and commercial circles of the Creek Indians. From there, Galphin established lifelong friendships and partnerships with indigenous leaders like Escotchaby and Sempoyaffee, which in turn attracted colonial governors, imperial authorities, and transatlantic merchants who all wanted to tap into Galphin’s connections throughout the indigenous south. Altogether, Galphin lorded over a proverbial network of relationships spanning British, Spanish, and Native North America as well as Europe, Africa, and the West Indies, all of which Galphin brought to bear on behalf of the revolutionaries in 1776. In the end, relationships defined the ways in which eighteenth-century peoples like George Galphin understood, moved about, and structured the larger worlds that they were a part of. As one of Galphin’s merchant contacts put it best, they lived according to “the intimate connections” between them.
Maybe next time when someone asks “who is George Galphin,” I should lead with all of this…
 John Gordon to James Grant, July 19, 1769, James Grant of Ballindalloch Papers, 1740-1819, Microfilm 687, Reel 17, David Library of the American Revolution, Washington Crossing, PA. (Originals at the Library of Congress.)