Biographer reflects on blending of Creek religion, Christianity

Coweta County, USA - Before European settlers came to what is now Georgia, the Creeks had their own religion.

Prominent Creek leaders from the state's early history often were of mixed heritage – among them Mary Musgrove and William McIntosh. Musgrove earned a place in the state's history by serving as a translator to Gen. James Oglethorpe, the Englishman who planted the first British settlement at Savannah.

McIntosh was the chief of Coweta, a Creek town near where Columbus is today. In the 1820s, he operated a trading post at Indian Springs in what is now Butts County and had a home along the Chattahoochee in what is now Carroll County – just across the river from Coweta.

Coweta County is named in honor of McIntosh as chief of Coweta.

Both Musgrove and McIntosh were children of white traders and Creek women from the prominent Wind clan. Though both were connected to prominent white society through their fathers, McIntosh and Musgrove grew up among their mother's people.

"It was a matriarchal society," Pamela Bauer Mueller said of the Creeks. "They were going to stay with Mama."

Mueller, Musgrove's biographer, talked about how the Christian religion impacted such prominent Creeks during and after a talk at Jekyll Presbyterian Community Church on Jekyll Island. Mueller is the author of "An Angry Drum Echoed," a historic fiction novel about Musgrove.

About 150 attended her talk -- many remaining after to talk with her and get books autographed.

Mueller said Musgrove "had to straddle both worlds." Both McIntosh and Musgrove professed Christianity, and McIntosh's son, Chilly, became a Baptist pastor and evangelist after the Creeks moved west to Oklahoma.

Converting -- and making sense of the two religious systems -- was not always easy. Mueller said Musgrove was troubled when she first heard about Christianity. "She wanted to incorporate it into her beliefs," Mueller said, but questioned whether the Great Spirit would approve.

Ultimately, Musgrove found solace in a Christianity which was blended with principles from her Creek upbringing.

Mueller is also the author of "Neptune's Honor," which tells the story of Neptune Small, a black coastal Georgian in antebellum and Reconstruction times. She spoke of "how we can teach history through the novel, how we can read it and learn it."

Mueller remembered meeting a descendant of Small who wanted his story told. "We met several times for coffee," Mueller said.

Mueller was captivated by the story of Small, whose friendship with Henry Lord King continued through some of the most tumultuous moments in American history. She wondered, however, if Small's descendants would work with her on the book.

"I wasn't Southern. I wasn't African-American," she said.

Soon after, Mueller found a copy of "Anna: Letters of a St. Simon's Island Plantation Mistress." The book – which cost $49.99 – contained letters written by King's mother.

"I remember the price. I bought it. I needed it," Mueller said. As she read the letters, Mueller discovered Small was viewed by the King family as "a beloved foster child."

Mueller also found a newspaper interview with Small when he was 72-years-old.

A challenge for Mueller was how to present conversations of Small and his family who spoke the Gullah and Geechee dialects. The issue was resolved by a Small descendant who told the writer, "We want black speech. That's what our great-great-grandfather spoke, and that's what we want."

"It came back to bite me in my first review," Mueller recalled. "But that's okay. I did what the family wanted."

After finishing Neptune's story, Mueller wanted to write a book about a Georgia woman. She read "Strange Fires," which recounted the ill-fated romance between Sophie Hopkey and John Wesley in coastal Georgia during colonial times.

After their breakup, Wesley "went back to England and started the Methodist church," Mueller noted.

Mueller began researching Hopkey's story, but she found she did not like Hopkey. "I can't write a book about a lady I don't like," she said.

Mary Musgrove lived during the same times, and Mueller felt drawn to Musgrove's story. "She is beyond fascinating. She attracted me as much as Neptune Small did," Mueller said.

Beyond the blending of cultures, there was plenty of drama in Musgrove's life. "Times were hard. None of her children even reached puberty. She had three husbands for heaven's sake," Mueller recounted.

When Musgrove's mother died, she was brought to live with her father. She was forced to abandon Creek customs and dress and to choose a new name. She considered Esther and Ruth, but ultimately chose Mary, because Mary was the mother of Jesus, the king.

Musgrove believed her children "were going to become kings, too," Mueller said.

Mueller found much of Musgrove's stories in various archival collection. "They made me wear white gloves," she recalled of one place.

Mueller reflected on the experience of seeing and handling Mary Musgrove's Bible. "She had personal notes in it. It just gave me goosebumps," the writer said. "The stories behind the research are sometimes more interesting than the story."

Musgrove and her third husband, a preacher named Thomas Bosomworth, fought to get payment for her earlier services to Oglethorpe. "Eventually, the got a little bit of money and three islands," Mueller said.

Musgrove spent her last years on St. Catherine's Island. Mueller recalled her visit there and the special feeling she got as she walked "through the woods where Mary walked."

Mueller's first published works were books for children inspired by her family's dogs. A series centered around Diego, a guide dog. In one of them, Diego visits St. Simon's. "They can't get off St. Simon's Island because the water comes over the causeway," she said.

History was not a passion for Mueller when she was a girl. "I remember learning history – going through the history book and not liking it very much," she said.

As she discovered history as an adult, she wanted to share the excitement. "I'm excited about history. How can I excite the kids?" she remembered thinking.

Talking about the process of writing such books as "Neptune's Honor" and "An Angry Drum Echoed," Mueller said the books are firmly based in real, recorded history. "I make up the conversations. The events are real, and the people were real," she said.

Mueller said her books are aimed at young readers, but she finds their parents and grandparents are often at least as enraptured by Mueller's tales from the past. "Adults read them and love them, but I write them for the kids," she said.

Mueller told the Jekyll Presbyterian group a little bit about her newest project, "Water To My Soul: The Story of Eliza Lucas Pinckney." Pinckney ran a plantation and brought up sons who were friends of George Washington.

Mueller's latest foray into historical fiction is set to be published early in 2012. "It's just a passion," she said.

"I'm not originally from here, but I got her as quickly as I could," Mueller said with a smile. Mueller grew up in Oregon and lived in California, Mexico and Canada before coming to St. Simon's Island. She and her husband, Michael, now live on Jekyll Island.