Oglethorpe County, GA History

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Oglethorpe County History
The information on these pages was compiled by the
Northeast Georgia Regional Development Center

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Developmental History of Oglethorpe County

Historical evidence suggests white traders and trappers lived in Oglethorpe County before the 1780s.  However, these early residents left no permanent settlements. In Miss Florrie Smith's History of Oglethorpe County, the author claims a trapper named Kennedy lived between the Fork of the Broad River and Long Creek before the Revolutionary War.  Governor Gilmer also notes a trapper named Kennedy in his book Georgians.   The Governor claimed that as a boy he had seen the dilapidated hut of Kennedy -- the last of the Broad River trappers.  The section of the river closest to his hut was called Kennedy's Gate.

Cherokee Corner is a historic site in Oglethorpe County that predates white settlements. Once an angle in the boundary between Creek and Cherokee lands, Cherokee Corner was an important area for Native-Americans, serving as a gathering spot for meetings and trading. This area was also close to the Cherokee Trail that extended from Virginia to the Mississippi River.   At one time, the site was important to surveying in the region.

The early history of Oglethorpe County is very similar to that of Wilkes County.  The Cherokee and Creek tribes originally inhabited Wilkes County.  In 1773, Governor James Wright acquired the land within Wilkes County from Indians in the name of the English Government.  In exchange for this parcel of land, the English did not require repayment of the large debts the tribes incurred.  The land received from the Indians was, at that time, part of Wilkes County.  Although Governor Wright's main objective was to populate the newly acquired lands, the Revolutionary War slightly delayed the settlement of Wilkes County.

Many of the first settlers came from North Carolina and Virginia. These early settlers acquired land through two methods. First, the Land Act of 1777 created the "head-right" system that allowed the head of the family to select up to 200 acres of unoccupied land for himself and 50 acres for each family member and slave. Second, those who were loyal during the Revolutionary War or served in the military were given "bounty" land as a method of land disbursement.  By 1808, property was also being distributed through land lotteries.

The rich lands and properties surrounding the Broad River were the first areas settled.  In the 1780s, Colonel George Mathews (twice appointed Governor of Georgia) led a migration of settlers from Virginia into the Goose Pond/Broad River area of what was then Wilkes County. The families who settled this rich, new territory mainly consisted of tobacco farmers.  Prominent families, such as the Meriwethers, Gilmers, Johnsons, Jordans, Marks, and McGehees, brought with them the slave plantation system that quickly thrived. These families also brought their own cultural traditions once practiced in Virginia. The fertile lands and southern climate proved conducive to tobacco and cotton production. The plantation system and the planted crops soon flourished. Despite the widespread growth of tobacco and cotton, most of the plantations were self-sufficient; capable of providing copious amounts of food and raw materials.

In order to accommodate population growth, Oglethorpe County was created from a portion of Wilkes County in 1793. Oglethorpe County, the 19th county in Georgia, was named in honor of James Edward Oglethorpe, founder of the colony of Georgia and the state's first governor.  Shortly after the county's creation, the legislature began to plan the county. The county seat was established in Lexington and lands were also reserved for public buildings. The construction of a jail and courthouse were planned and town lots sold.

Oglethorpe County was formed by a series of land transactions. A part of Greene County was added to Oglethorpe County in 1794. Parts of Oglethorpe County were added to Greene County in exchange for parts of Greene in 1799. In 1811, parts of Oglethorpe County were given to Madison County. In 1813, a portion of land was taken from Clarke. In 1825, a part of Oglethorpe County was given to Taliaferro County and in 1831 another part was added to Madison County. In 1906, Winterville residents voted to become part of Clarke County--a right granted by the state legislature in 1906.

The years immediately following the War of 1812 were very prosperous for residents in Oglethorpe County. During this time, the plantation system and the county's white population were well established. During the 1830s, cotton prices were high and banks were providing many loans. However, this prosperity did not last for long. The stock market crash of 1837 greatly affected the area's economy. This economic decline continued into the 1840's. The depression manifested itself in bank closings, plummeting cotton prices, and exclusion by the railroad. At the same time, nearby Athens continued to grow.

By the late 1840s, the railroad boom helped revive the area's economy. Between the years 1840-1860, the west was rapidly developing. Older counties continued to devote their resources to cotton production. Small landowners began selling their farms to the larger plantations. Rather than remaining in Oglethorpe County, these farmers sold their farms and moved west. The land in Oglethorpe County was noticeably less fertile, but not completely depleted of nutrients. The majority of the plantations diversified their plantings and remained self-sufficient. The railroads allowed cotton to be marketed quickly and cheaply. Cotton prices remained high and production soared throughout the 1860's.

The plantation system peaked in Oglethorpe County during the 1850's. At this time, the slave population was recorded at 7,111 and the white population at 4,382. White slave holders totaled 587, of which 120 were large planters with 20 or more slaves. According to former slaves, their owners were relatively humane and enlightened despite the harsh realities of the slavery system. The majority of the slave owners did not abuse or mistreat their slaves. Many provided their slaves with food, clothing, shoes, medical care, and a basic education. The unusually humane treatment of slaves in Oglethorpe County can be attributed to the large number of well-educated slave owners in the county.

The Civil War disrupted the agricultural and economic development of the South and Oglethorpe County. Oglethorpe County sent four companies of men to fight in the war. Although the war interrupted the patterns of life in the South, the need for supplies brought new industry to the county.  In Lexington, a munitions plant, harness and saddle factory, commissary, and tanyard all provided supplies to the Confederate Army.

After the Civil War, tenant farming replaced the plantation system. Widespread poverty gave rise to a crop-lien mortgage system that trapped farmers in a cycle of poverty and debt. Crops were no longer diversified. Loans for perishable food crops were unavailable to farmers and they consequently concentrated on all-cotton production. The majority of the freed slaves remained on plantations, working for wages and sharecropping.  Many freed slaves were employed as agricultural workers, domestics, and skilled craftsmen -- such as carpenters, woodworkers, blacksmiths, masons, and wheelwrights.

Recovery from the Civil War was slow and people began leaving Oglethorpe County for Athens, Atlanta, and other Southern states, like Alabama and Mississippi. Lexington's economy declined so much that the local government considered moving the courthouse to nearby Crawford.

Oglethorpe County saw the return of prosperity in the 1880s and 90s. Cotton prices rose again and new industries developed. While the economy was improving, a gold rush hit the area. Gold was discovered in the Flatwoods section of the county. Companies moved in and began to set up gold mines. Foreign capitalists traveled to the county and secured high-priced options on some lands, many being bought out right at inflated prices. However, large quantities of gold were never discovered, thus causing the abandonment of the mines and eventually ending the gold rush in Oglethorpe County.

In 1917, America's participation in World War I caused an expansion of county businesses and industries.  Unfortunately, the war also created a shortage of labor, materials, and supplies.  Oglethorpe County sent many young men to fight.   The remaining farmers and laborers went to work in stockyards, mills, and plants in Northern and Mid-Western cities. These jobs offered higher wages for both men and women. The large farms had a difficult time operating due to high costs and shortages of labor and materials.  Many landowners were forced to sell portions of their land, which sparked a real estate boom, spreading from farms into the towns. High cotton prices and high yields, in conjunction with the high cost of living and food shortages in urban areas, motivated families living in cities to return to the county's farms.

The end of World War I brought wartime prosperity to a close. In 1920, cotton prices again dropped and remained low for almost twenty years.  During this period, Oglethorpe County's population was greatly reduced, falling from 20,287 in 1920 to 12,926 in 1930. Many landowners lost their property and farmers were not able to make a living. World War I allowed many young men to experience the excitement of America's cities.  Rural living was no longer desirable since the cities provided modern conveniences, better jobs, and entertainment.  For the next thirty years, people migrated back to urban areas.

A steady decrease in population and local businesses continued until recent years. The mechanization of farming, disappearance of cotton production, growing population of Clarke County, and the large amount of commuters are factors contributing to the steady decline of Oglethorpe County's population.  Although Oglethorpe County is the largest county in northeast Georgia, development has been limited because a significant amount of land is held by forestry and related businesses as well as large family holdings.  In 1990, the population was listed at 9,763, which was the smallest population of any county bordering Clarke County.  By the year 2000, Oglethorpe County's population increased to 12,635 residents.

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