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The Story of Washington-Wilkes - part III - Growth Under the State


Wilkes County began to prosper almost as soon as the Revolution was over. The peaceful era that followed was important not only because of the rapid acquisition of wealth through the development of the land's resources but also because of the promotion of social, political, educational, and religious enterprises. When soldiers returned to their farms and stores, commerce began to stir. The population grew rapidly with, the coming of wealthy planters who, encouraged by the reports of. their predecessors on the fertility of the soil, came south seeking new lands. Many,



like those before the war, were from Virginia and the Carolinas, while others were from more distant states, such as Maryland, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut. The great body of immigrants was of Scotch-Irish extraction, but a few were of English cavalier and French Huguenot stock. Often the men brought their families in great wagons loaded with fine possessions—mahogany, pewter, brass, and silver, of which many pieces are still used by Washington and Wilkes housewives.

During the Revolution Dartmouth had struggled hard for existence, but afterward it took on new life as settlers, seeking new land, crossed the Savannah River by means of THOMAS CARTER's ferry into Wilkes County. By 1786 the citizens were prosperous, but they still remembered the devastation wrought by the English during the Revolution. Like other Georgians, they felt an aversion to English names and voted to call their town Petersburg after the Russian capital. A town across the Broad River was called Lisbon, and one across the Savannah in South Carolina was named Vienna. In that year Dionysius Oliver erected in Petersburg a warehouse for the storage of tobacco. This act seems to have given an incentive to tobacco culture, for it was not long before other warehouses were built and tobacco inspectors, appointed by the inferior court, were coming from Washington- Wilkes. In 1790 Petersburg was cut off from Wilkes and made a part of Elbert County, It continued to prosper until well within the nineteenth century, when cotton, which needed no inspection, became the leading crop. The town then began to dwindle, and this decline was hastened by a yellow fever epidemic and the call of new land to the west.

In this same prosperous era there was a thriving settlement on the Goosepond Tract about ten miles up the Broad River from Petersburg. When COLONEL GEORGE MATHEWS was serving as colonel of the Virginia troops in South Carolina with ELIJAH CLARKE, he came into Wilkes County, saw the productive land, and took an option on a vast area. Back in Virginia, he induced



many of his friends, restless and impoverished because the English tobacco markets were closed to them, to come with him to Georgia. These men, including FRANCIS MERIWETHER, BENJAMIN TALIAFERRO, and THOMAS GILMER, lived on widely separated plantations but formed an intimate society based on personal co-operation.

Energetic, high-tempered, and amusingly conceited, GEORGE MATHEWS perpetually sang his own praises in a high-pitched voice and acknowledged no superior but GENERAL WASHINGTON, with whom he had served. His political activities in Georgia at once brought him into prominence. Although he did not move to Georgia until 1784, he was elected governor in 1787 and again served in this capacity from 1793 until 1796. Barely literate, he wrote the word coffee as kaughphy but, conscious of his failing, he sent important messages during his terms as governor to a schoolmaster to be "turned into good grammar." MATHEWS was also prominent in the early educational life of the county. A clerk's record states that as a commissioner of Wilkes County he bought "forty Latten books and eight copperplates" for the academy.

Like the county, Washington was slow in getting a start during the Revolution but began to grow rapidly now that fighting had ceased. Because the first commissioners had failed to comply with certain restrictions, the legislature in 1783 declared that the town grant should revert to the state. Consequently the legislature appointed STEPHEN HEARD, MICAIJAH WILLIAMSON, ROBERT HARPER, DANIEL COLEMAN, and ZACHARIAH LAMAR as commissioners to see that the acre lots be sold, that a building be erected in town to serve as a free school for the county, and that the surplus money be used to erect a church. During the same year the section of Washington known as Old Town was divided into forty- eight lots forming a rectangle, but the surrounding common brought the shape of the town into a square. As the town grew, there was need of additional lots and also of additional funds for the maintenance of Wilkes County Academy; so in 1793 the com-



missioners received authorization from, the state legislature to divide the common into lots and sixty-eight new sites for homes were thereby created.

The legislative act of 1783, which authorized the organization of a school, also permitted the governor to grant a thousand acres to Wilkes County, the income from this area to be used for the maintenance of the institution. Thus the Wilkes County, or Washington Academy was one of the first three public schools lo be chartered by the state and one of the first to receive such a grant. The board of commissioners met in 1784 to consider their problems, but it was not until January 1, 1786, that the school was opened. Both boys and girls of all ages were offered a traditional academic education, with strong emphasis on Latin and Greek for the older students. This school, like the other state academies, was never able to function as a "free school" but was forced to charge tuition, small at first and later raised. The pupils during the first few years paid the equivalent of $2 a quarter for spelling, reading, and writing; $4 for English grammar and arithmetic; and $6 for "Latin grammar and forwards." The first teacher was SAMUEL BLACKBURN, an Irishman, who was furnished with a rented room and paid £150 a year. His keen wit, fine voice, and forcible language made a strong impression on his pupils. After teaching three years, BLACKBURN married ANNE, the daughter of GEORGE MATHEWS, and undertook the practice of law in Elbert County.

Classes were held in rented houses until 1797, when a dignified red brick building of two stories was erected on Mercer Hill outside the city limits. The ten-acre campus was given by ELIJAH CLARKE's son-in-law, BENAIJAH SMITH, and funds for construction were raised by popular subscription, the largest donation being $532. For a few years the academy flourished, but in 1805 the trustees were in need of financial assistance and appealed to the state legislature. Since the state had made no provision for the support of its academies except for the initial endowment, the



assembly was helpless and decided to let the Wilkes County people help themselves. A Washington Academy Lottery was authorized during the year, but the drawing did not occur until 1807. Four thousand tickets were sold at $4 each, of which 1,354 called for prizes, the highest $1,000 and the lowest $5. The academy continued to increase its attendance, but the town grew in the opposite direction; so in 1824 the trustees sold the property and moved the school nearer the center of community activity.

Increased educational opportunities were afforded by the opening of private and denominational schools in rural Wilkes County. HOPE HULL, a Methodist divine, and BISHOP ASBURY induced the Georgia Methodist Conference in 1789 to agree to open the state's first denominational school in Wilkes County. The plan to purchase 500 acres of land and erect large buildings for an institution to be known as the Wesley and Whitfield School proved to be too great an undertaking for HULL and his friends; so HULL later settled in Wilkes and built a modest brick building on land donated by GENERAL DAVID MERIWETHER about three miles from Washington. This school, known as Succoth Academy, educated many pupils who later became distinguished men until HULL moved to Athens in 1803. The REVEREND JOHN SPRINGER, the first Presbyterian minister to be ordained in Georgia, opened a school at his home Walnut Hill soon after he came to Georgia in 1788. His academy, offering a sound classical education, was successful until the death of SPRINGER eight years later. JOHN FORSYTH and NICHOLAS WARE, later United States Senators, and JESSE MERCER, benefactor of Mercer University, were educated at this school. SILAS MERCER, a well-known Baptist preacher, secured the services of JAMES ARMOR as teacher in 1793 and opened a school at Salem, his residence nine miles south of Washington. After MERCER's death in 1796 the school was continued for a while by his son JESSE but was soon closed for lack of support.

While plans for the first schools were being discussed, settlers throughout the county were rapidly putting up log meeting



house, where they listened to long sermons seated on uncomfortable backless pews. Washington, except for well-attended services conducted by visiting ministers in the courthouse and later the academy, was dependent on rural churches for religious worship. Although the law of 1783 authorized the building of a religious edifice from the surplus money after the academy was constructed, no church was built from the fund, for the commissioners became involved in financial difficulties. The problem was at last solved by so constructing the academy building that it could be used both as a school and a church. Meanwhile the Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians were rapidly spreading their doctrines throughout the area and forming the first organizations of these religious bodies in the state. To a less degree the Roman Catholics were also busy.

In 1783 the Baptist denomination, led by the REVEREND SANDERS WALKER from Kiokee Church in Columbia County, organized Fishing Creek Church, the oldest congregation in Wilkes County. The Upton Creek Church, later called Greenwood, followed in 1784 and Phillips Mill in 1785. The founder of this latter church was SILAS MERCER, who during the previous year had been most influential in organizing the Georgia Baptist Association, the first of the religious groups that later formed the Georgia Baptist Convention. After serving as pastor for a few years, MERCER was succeeded by his son JESSE, who preached there for thirty-seven years. Another church was organized in 1786, when ELIJAH CLARKE deeded "out of good will and with desire that religion may be promoted in the settlement" one acre of land "including spring and spring house" to the Georgia Baptist Association for a meeting house. This church, built two years later, is still prominent in community affairs and is now known as Clarke's Station. Other churches of this denomination created in the county during this period were Ebenezer (1788), Sardis (1788), and Danburg (1795).

Records and stories of the time show that the war had left



memories that could not be softened even by religion. One such story tells how JOEL PHILLIPS, donor of Phillip's Mill Church, saw a Tory who had come in for his Sunday devotions, ousted him with a mighty kick, and returned to join heartily in the services. Another anecdote relates how a Tory, falling under the conviction of his sins, begged a good Whig brother to pray for him. The honest old Whig, who had suffered outrages at Tory hands, could not bring himself to pray but offered to ask a devout friend to perform this unpleasant duty.

The Methodists followed closely behind the Baptists in preaching the gospel and establishing churches in the new territory. In 1785 the REVEREND BEVERLY ALLEN was sent as a missionary into Wilkes County by the General Conference. After remaining about a year he was followed by two other evangelists who were successful not only in organizing the Methodists within the county but in converting many other men to their faith. Two of these new members, DANIEL GRANT and his son THOMAS, permitted services to be held in their home, which became known as Grant's Meeting House. A permanent congregation, organized there in 1787, grew so rapidly that about three years later the Grants erected a church for the members near their house and store, about five miles from Washington. This was the first Methodist Church to be built in Georgia. Another early congregation convened at Scott's Meeting House on the Augusta Road, where a chapel was constructed soon afterward.

The stirring sermons of the early Methodist preachers gained so many new members for Methodism that in 1788 Wilkes County contained more than two-thirds of the sixteen hundred Methodists in the state. Consequently, the first annual convention of the Methodist Church held in Georgia met during that year at GENERAL DAVID MERIWETHER's home on the Broad River; the following two assembled at Grant's Meeting House, the fourth at Scott's Meeting House, and the fifth in the courthouse at Washington. Much of the early success of Methodism in Wilkes County was



no doubt due to the religious strategy of BISHOP FRANCIS ASBURY, who visited WilKes County on almost every one of his seventeen trips to Georgia.

The early Presbyterian congregations in Wilkes County were under the supervision of the Presbytery of South Carolina. There is doubt as to whether they had church buildings at the time, but in 1788 several congregations petitioned the officials of their presbytery for supplies, among them the congregations of Falling Creek and Bethlehem. Another early group was that of Liberty Church, organized soon after the Revolution by a few devout Presbyterians under the guidance of the REVEREND DANIEL THATCHER. The members later erected a chapel near the Kettle Creek battleground and in the following century changed the name of their church to Salem. In 1790 the REVEREND JOHN SPRINGER was called to Smyrna Church, which served the Presbyterians of Providence and Washington as well as its own congregation. As the number of churches in the county increased, it became necessary for them to be set off into the Presbytery of Hopewell. On March 16, 1797, this organization held its first meeting at Liberty Church.

In the 1790's a group of Roman Catholics from Maryland founded a church at Locust Grove, now Sharon, in a part of Wilkes that later became Taliaferro County. The earnest priests also established a good school, where ALEXANDER H. STEPHENS received a part of his early education. After flourishing for more than half a century, the church was abandoned because the Catholics were attracted to newer lands farther west.

The life of the region was sustained by extensive agricultural development. The men who returned from fighting to farming again planted corn, flax, and indigo as well as large crops of tobacco, of which the county exported three thousand hogsheads in 1790. During the first decade after the Revolution, cotton was cultivated in quantities sufficient only to supply clothing for the families and their slaves, but after 1795, when ELI WHITNEY per-



fected his cotton gin invention in Wilkes County, thousands of acres were cleared for this crop. During every autumn of the years that followed, heavily loaded flatboats floated down the Broad and Little Rivers into the Savannah River, while wagons drawn by four or six horses traveled the post roads to Augusta, the nearest cotton market. Planters on horseback accompanied these caravans and returned later with household purchases for the winter. The trip to Augusta was the greatest pleasure of the year, for the men stopped at wayside inns to meet old friends and exchange the news.

The growth in population and prosperity engendered a parallel need for a more complex structure of government. On December 4, 1784, a plea for prompt payment of taxes to the Superior Court of Wilkes County was made by CHIEF JUSTICE GEORGE WALTON. This able jurist, one of Georgia's three signers of the Declaration of Independence, pointed out that a county so rich in men and resources must produce its share of the public revenues. In the following year a courthouse was built in Washington. WILLIAM STITH, chief justice of the first court held in the structure, proclaimed that all barristers should wear robes and that the sheriff, also robed, should carry his badge of office, perhaps a drawn sword. After a few years this English custom was abandoned as traditions of Colonial days were forgotten. Soon the county government had been welded into a strong unit and assumed its place in state affairs. In 1785 the grand jury presented a protest to the state legislature for negligence in collecting taxes on state imports; in 1788 Wilkes County sent GEORGE MATHEWS, FLORENCE SULLIVAN, and JOHN KING as delegates to the convention in Augusta for the ratification of the new Federal Constitution.

One of the state's shrewdest lawyers was the younger JOHN DOOLY, admitted to the bar in Washington in 1789. "A sallow, piney-woods-looking lad" who seldom went out in the daytime because his clothes were shabby, he rose so rapidly by sharp natural wit that he soon occupied the superior court bench. A story



relates that one evening DOOLY, having dealt severely with some professional gamblers on trial, returned to his hotel room only to have his rest disturbed by the same men in a noisy faro game in the next room. Joining the group, he remarked that since he had failed to break their bad habits by one method he would try another. He thereupon entered the game and "broke the bank," gravely warning them on his departure against disturbing the dignity of the court.

Some early records of the court show the energetic hopefulness of the people in building roads and bridges for the new county; but other documents show the grim side of this period when debtors were imprisoned and criminals were flogged, fastened in stocks, branded, and publicly hanged. When the courthouse was accepted from the contractor in 1785, directions were given that the northeast corner of the lot should be reserved for the stocks, then seemingly indispensible instruments of punishment. There too, after receiving a stated number of lashes, criminals were stood in a pillory as subjects of public scorn. Those convicted of manslaughter were branded on the right thumb with the letter M in the presence of the court, and thieves received the letter R on their shoulders. It was not until 1796 that the Inferior Court received bids for a permanent jail. When completed two years later, this structure had two rooms, one reserved for convicts and the other for debtors.

Among other curious early documents found in the ordinary's office are orders and bonds relating to marriage, which apparently was accompanied by involved legal procedure at that time. Apparently many young ladies of the eighteenth century were wed before they had reached the age when permission was no longer necessary. The order was always from the father of a young lady, stating that he permitted a specified young man to have a license to wed his daughter. In lieu of written permission a prospective bridegroom was required to post bond, usually for £500, "to indemnify the . . . register" if he should be prosecuted for issuing



the license. Thus the officer protected himself. Perhaps many young men gave bond rather than ask for written permission to obtain the license and admit lack of cash or credit.

The census of 1790 showed that of the 82,548 people then living in Georgia, more than one-third lived in Wilkes County. Stagecoach lines were operating from Augusta by way of Washington into the North, and the town was a thriving village of thirty-four dwellings, a courthouse, a temporary jail, and an academy, maintained in a rented house. Four years previously JOSEPH WILSON and MICAIJAH WILLIAMSON had opened taverns to be operated "according to the law," which rigorously specified rates. Charges for meals ranged from one shilling sixpence for a hot dinner down to eightpence for a cold breakfast or supper. A night's lodging was fourpence, horses were stabled and fed for one shilling, and good pasturage cost eightpence for twenty-four hours. The prices for liquors were also unmistakably set forth. WILLIAMSON's hostelry was opened by the ageing Revolutionary soldier on the present site of the Wilkes County Courthouse. Two log cabins were joined by an open hallway, and a large picture of GEORGE WASHINGTON was hung in front. Politicians foregathered here, and before the courthouse was built one of the rooms was used for holding court. In fair weather the jury pondered its verdicts seated outside on logs; on one occasion a Tory passed and all the jurors sprang up to give chase.

Intermittent Indian outbreaks called for constant military vigilance. In 1791 two militia battalions were organized, and apparently they were needed, for in 1794 the grand jury complained that at the time when tax returns should have been made "a number of the respectable inhabitants" had been called out to defend the frontiers. Contests in marksmanship, rough games, and fist fights frequently followed the periodic drills of the militia bodies.

Business and even industry began to appear, WILLIAM HAY opened an office in the town for the purpose of selling land and



also offered his services as surveyor at a dollar a day. A commission of 2 ½ per cent was charged on all sales of land made through his office. Records also show that there was a small ironworks in the county.

Social life was hearty and hospitable, with plenty of visiting and much outdoor play, especially among the younger men. The pleasures of hunting and fishing were equalled only by those of horse racing. The Washington Jockey Club was organized in 1798; two years later it was announced that races would be held for the third time. Eligibles included horses, mares, and geldings. The first day's purse for three-mile heats was $250, the second day's purse for two-mile heats was at least $250, and the entrance money was the prize for the third day.

Picnicking was enjoyed at the Mineral Springs on what is now South Spring Street, The curative power of the water is described in The American Geography (published in 1789) written by JEDIDIAH MORSE, who had served for five months as pastor of the Midway Church in South Georgia. The springs were given to the town in 1787 by NATHANIEL COATS with the proviso that he be made one of the town commissioners and that the waters should never be sold. Chantilly, a fine hotel, was built near-by in the early 1800's by SAMUEL GOODE to accommodate those seeking health and entertainment. The site of the Mineral Springs, which has now for many years been neglected, is still owned by the city.

In January, 1797, the crowded, eventful life of ELIJAH CLARKE came to an end. GENERAL JAMES JACKSON said: "When Georgia and South Carolina were evacuated by their governments and the forces of the United States were withdrawn from them, CLARKE alone kept the field, and his name spread terror through the whole line of British posts, from the Catawba to the Creek nation. . . The United States by the death of CLARKE has lost a brave and meritorious officer, and the State of Georgia in gratitude to her departed hero ought to perpetuate his name by some public art."



Workers of the Writers' Program of the WPA of GA, The Story of Washington-Wilkes
(Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1941) pgs. 26-37

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 IV - The Ante-Bellum Period

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