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The Story of Washington-Wilkes - part I - Settlement



IT WAS not until after the middle of the eighteenth century that white men began to lay plans for permanent settlement in the part of Georgia that is now Wilkes County. At that time the Cherokee and Creek Indians claimed the land as a hunting ground, and only overgrown clearings indicated that they had once lived here the year round. The Cherokees had moved north into the mountains and the Creeks had gone west into the piedmont region and south into the coastal plain. In 1763 a small band of Englishmen who attempted to come into the Little River valley from their colonies along the Savannah River were vigorously driven out by the Indians. In that year the Colonial governors of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia met with seven hundred Indians in Augusta and signed a treaty fixing the Little River as the northern boundary for white settlement in Georgia. The title of the Indians to their hunting lands was thus legally confirmed.

Since the Indians wished to deal with the white men, the treaty provided that the governor could continue issuing licenses to authorized traders. But the Indians proved to have little commercial acumen and were not able to pay for their purchases with the products of their hunting, fishing, and trapping. The claims of the white men were established at last, therefore, not by force but by trading. The history of land ownership in this period was made by such well-known merchants as JAMES JACKSON and GEORGE GALPHIN. Although some were men of integrity, others were




ruthless and deliberately drew the Indians into debt. To appease the white men, who clamored for payment, the Indians offered a cession of land to settle these debts, and, in order that an amicable settlement might be made, Sir JAMES WRIGHT, Georgia's royal governor, called a congress to convene in Augusta on June 1, 1773. JOHN STUART, his majesty's agent and superintendent of Indian affairs in the South, exerted his influence to control this conference of wily traders and suspicious Indians. For their indebtedness of from forty to fifty thousand pounds, the tribal representatives agreed to relinquish to Georgia two great tracts of more than two million acres. One tract, ceded by the Creeks alone, lay between the Ogeechee and Altamaha Rivers; the other, ceded by both the Creeks and the Cherokees, extended from the Little River up the Savannah River beyond the Broad River almost to the junction of the Keowee and Tugaloo Rivers and westward to embrace the expansive territory that later became Wilkes County. From the sale of this land the provincial government would liquidate the claims held against the Indians.

The white men lost no time in taking possession of their newly acquired lands. Soon after the conference a party of surveyors, chain carriers, markers, artisans, guards, and astronomers, as well as a few adventurers and Indian braves, set out from Augusta. Crossing Little River, the company entered a country of magnificent forests abounding in deer, black bear, wolf, wildcat, and such small game as squirrel and rabbit. Quail rose whirring from the underbrush, and the clear, rapid streams were full of fish.

Although the Indians did not always sanction the processes employed—they deemed the compass a devil's instrument to cheat them of their lands—the surveying was continued. GOVERNOR WRIGHT immediately spread news along the Atlantic seaboard that grants in this "New Purchase" area were available for settlement. His proclamation of June 11 stated that the territory would "be parceled out in tracts varying from one to a hundred acres the better to accommodate the buyers." The head of a family would



be allowed a hundred acres for himself, fifty for his wife and each child, the same number for each, slave and white male servant, and twenty-five for each female servant between fifteen and forty years. In order to induce settlers to come into the area, he set forth attractive terms of sale, praised the condition of the land, and stated that the fertile soil would be "fit for the production of wheat, indigo, Indian corn, tobacco, hemp, flax, &."

According to the plan of settlement, commissioners were appointed to place a value upon each tract and to negotiate sales, charging not more than five shillings an acre. Five pounds sterling were to be paid as "entrance money for every hundred acres." In order to make settlement easier, land courts were opened in Savannah, Augusta, and also in the ceded lands at the confluence of the Broad and Savannah Rivers, where CAPTAIN THOMAS WATERS and his company were stationed to preserve peace between white men and the Indians. Three years later, WILLIAM BARTRAM, the noted botanist, visited the fort built there and later gave the following description in his Travels: "Towards evening I ... arrived at Fort James, which is a four square stockade, with salient bastions at each angle, mounted with a block-house, where are some swivel guns, one story higher than the curtains, which are pierced with loopholes, breast high, and defended by small arms. The fortification encloses about an acre of ground, where is the governor's or commandant's house, a good building, which is flanked on each side by buildings for the officers and barracks for the garrison, consisting of fifty ranges, including officer's, each having a good house well equipt, a rifle, two dragoon pistols, and a hangar, besides a powder horn, shot pouch, and tomahawk." The point between the two rivers, for a distance of two miles back of the fort, was laid out for a town called Dartmouth in honor of the Earl of Dartmouth, who influenced King George to favor the cession of the newly acquired area. This village was thus the first real settlement made upon the "ceded lands." The Broad River



was also named for the distinguished nobleman and for a short time was called the Dart.

When the commissioners opened the land court at Dartmouth on September 27, 1773, a rush for possession began. Court records show that settlers seeking new land came from North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia. One application came from a distant country, for on November 16, 1773, JAMES GORDON, of Scotland, was given permission to bring from his country within a year a sufficient number of emigrants to settle five thousand acres near the junction of the Broad and South Broad Rivers. According to tradition in Wilkes County, GORDON brought with him sixty or seventy families of Scotch Highlanders who had agreed to serve a five-year apprenticeship to pay for their passage. But this venture was not successful. GORDON, soon frightened by threats of the oncoming revolution, carried his people into South Carolina and sold their indentures. An upper portion of Wilkes County where some of the Scots lived has been called Scotchtown by succeeding generations. An unsubstantiated story has long attributed the settlement to the efforts of LORD GEORGE GORDON, an eccentric English gentleman later involved in anti-Catholic riots in London.

On the last day of December, 1773, a band of Westmoreland County Virginians reached the primeval forest that stood on the present site of Washington, and on New Year's Day they began the arduous work of conquering the wilderness. As a precaution against Indian forays, great trees were felled for a stockaded fortification which was called Fort Heard in honor of one of the Virginia families. The Heards, reputedly descendants of William the Conqueror, had settled in Virginia in 1720 as neighbors of George Washington's family, from whom they had obtained Arabian horses. JOHN HEARD, JR., with his wife and sons, BARNARD, JESSE, and STEPHEN, was included in the group that migrated to Georgia. JESSE remained at Fort Heard, which stood just north of what is



now the public square. STEPHEN, who had done military service under GEORGE WASHINGTON, soon left and settled on Fishing Creek, eight miles away, where he built another stockade, this one called Heard's Fort.

GOVERNOR WRIGHT had told the English Board of Trade and his Majesty's Council that he expected the new cession to add ten thousand families to the population of Georgia, to increase the militia roll by fifteen thousand men, and to bring more than 100,000 worth of produce into the market. Promise of speedy development, however, was thwarted early in 1774, when seventeen white persons were murdered by the Creeks at Sherrill's Fort. As, other attacks and skirmishes followed, the new inhabitants left their holdings and settlement was delayed. GOVERNOR WRIGHT and CAPTAIN STUART consequently asked for a conference with the Creeks in Savannah. After a new treaty of peace and amity, signed there on October 18, 1774, by twenty Creek chieftains, white men once more were brave enough to go into the New Purchase territory. With the return of confidence many old settlers returned, and new applicants came in good numbers.

Early migrants, restricted by the Appalachian Highland to the west, usually followed that mountain range southward in search of new land. The first Wilkes County settlers were therefore joined by others from South Carolina, North Carolina, and even from more remote colonies. Few were drawn from GENERAL JAMES EDWARD OGLETHORPE's coastal communities. Coming on horseback, the children riding with their mothers, these pioneers were able to bring only a very few household articles and domestic animals with them. They hastily felled oak and pine trees from the dense wilderness, constructed log cabins with clapboard coverings, and made crude furniture from axe-hewn planks. Life was hard for these early settlers. After working all day cultivating the fields or hunting rabbits or opossums for food, the men frequently sat around the open hearth at night to tell stories as they picked the lint from cotton seed. The women wove cloth while



caring for infants in cradles improvised from hollow logs. The children were often frightened by the cries of panthers when they took the cattle out to graze, and housewives had to be constantly on the alert for snakes that sometimes crawled in through cracks in the walls and made their way across the bare dirt floors. For pleasure there was dancing, and the men and boys went to "musters, shooting-matches, and horse-races." Despite the crudeness of their manner of living, these early settlers were not mere traders and adventurers, for the old land court record (1773-75) reveals that applicants for grants had to show satisfactory character vouchers.


Workers of the Writers' Program of the WPA of GA, The Story of Washington-Wilkes
(Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1941) pgs. 10-15

Transcribed by Keith Giddeon. All text is as found in the book, except the deletion of most hyphens
on line breaks, and several instances of italics being deleted.

Read Part II - In the Revolution

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