THE ANTE-BELLUM PERIOD
At the beginning of the nineteenth century the census of Wilkes
County showed a population of 13,103. Wilkes, known as the
mother county of upper Georgia, covered a great tract that ten
years previously had held more than a third of the state's inhabitants. From this land was made the entire areas of the
present Elbert (1790) and Lincoln (1796) Counties as well as
parts of Oglethorpe (1793), Warren (1793), Taliaferro (1825-28),
Madison (1811), and Hart (1853). In 1802 Greene received a
part of Wilkes that was later transferred to Taliaferro. Wilkes
County thus lost many fine lands and settlers but finally retained
293,120 acres and an energetic people from whose numbers there
frequently arose citizens of distinction.
Although Washington had been founded hardly a quarter of a
century earlier, it had its charter amended in 1804. In clearing
lots the citizens, whenever possible, left intact the fine old native
trees for shade. Later the newly imported chinaberry trees were
brought up from Savannah, but soon it was found that views and
sunlight were cut off by the thickly massed branches. The next
ornamental plantings were locusts and shade mulberries. At last
oaks and elms were decided upon as most satisfactory and were
planted profusely along the narrow streets.
Wilkes County began to receive its share of the wealth that
came to Georgia as a result of ELI WHITNEY's invention, and planters greatly increased their cotton acreage. The production for the
state had been only 1,000 bales in 1790, but it reached 20,000 in
1801, went up to 90,000 in 1821, and skyrocketed to 561,472 in
1859. This enormous yield was made possible by the use of slaves,
who by 1802 numbered 5,039 in the county. A few of them had
been brought by early settlers from Virginia and the Carolinas,
but most of them had been bought in Georgia. Newspaper
notices of 1807 show that L. PRUDHOMME, JR., a refugee from the
revolution in Santo Domingo, conducted a remunerative slavetrading business in Washington. Wilkes County men never
owned as many Negroes as some of the planters of the coastal
region, but the average holding for the county steadily increased
throughout the ante-bellum period. In 1820, 1,057 farmers owned
8,921 slaves. After this many plantations were increased in size,
as the less successful farmers sold their estates and moved to new
acres in the western part of Georgia. Consequently there were
only 469 owners in 1857, but they possessed 7,587 slaves, representing an average holding of 16.17 Negroes, as large as that of any
county in the state.
Wilkes County planters were usually kind to their slaves, because, if for no other reason, they considered them capital that
must be protected. Some were especially concerned with the
clothing of their Negroes and bought shoes whenever they could
not get cobblers to make them on their plantations. GARNETT ANDREWS gave his slaves "full common overcoats, reaching below the
knees, made of common osnaburgs, or Negro shirting, and made
impervious to water" for the protection from rain in the field, but
he later complained that the "only difficulty was they never had
them in the field except in fair weather." Others maintained
"sick houses" and had the best doctors for their slaves in times of
illness. Unlike planters in some parts of the state, many Wilkes
County men encouraged their slaves to attend churches and hold
religious gatherings, for they felt that religion would make them
With the increase in size of plantations, a few Wilkes County
men came to own land not only in Wilkes but in neighboring
and even distant counties. GARNETT ANDREWS had a plantation of
1,313 acres in the far-removed Dougherty County, which he offered for sale in 1856. By 1857 LODOWICK MERIWETHER HILL owned
8,229 acres, part in Wilkes and part in adjoining Oglethorpe
County. For efficiency the land was divided and operated as two
|40||THE STORY OF WASHINGTON-WILKES|
distinct plantations. ALEXANDER POPE, residing in Washington,
maintained three widely separated plantations, while ROBERT
TOOMBS had a farm in Stewart County and owned land in other
sections of£ southwest Georgia.
Cotton, which quickly supplanted tobacco as the leading crop,
brought a high price throughout the early part of the nineteenth
century, and many Wilkes County planters became wealthy. Except for a short depression caused by the embargo acts at the beginning of the War of 1812, the prices remained good until two
years after the national panic of 1837. Then it began to decline
and reached a low rate of 5.9 cents a pound in 1844. Many farmers lost money and some even became bankrupt, since the average
for the period from 1840 to 1845 was only 7.7 cents. Encouraged
by a subsequent rise, they were again disheartened in 1849, when
the price fell to 7.55 cents, but in the following year it soared to
13.5 cents and remained high throughout the lavish years that
were ended by the War between the States. The farmers once
more made money. It is said that ROBERT TOOMBS made as much
as $50,000 annually on his plantations.
The fact that cotton could be easily cultivated and sold for cash
profits enticed many farmers to abandon all efforts to maintain a
well-balanced farm economy. The rapid fluctuation of cotton
prices, however, did stimulate a few prudent men to grow diversified food crops. A record of one such attempt was made in 1828,
when D. P. HILLHOUSE of Washington published a long account of
his experiments in planting sugar cane in Wilkes County. The
stalks grew to a height of eight or ten feet but did not mature
sufficiently to develop seed cane the second year. The Wilkes
County Agricultural Society, incorporated in 1819, made sustained
efforts to raise farming standards, and their annual livestock
shows, with awards for the best animals, stimulated considerable
improvement. Nevertheless, the fertility of the soil was generally
wasted by the cultivation of cotton, and many pioneering citizens
moved westward with the state frontier to clear new acres. After
the livestock exhibit of the society in 1843, the Washington News
commented: "It is by such associations . . . that exhausted lands
are to be revived, that the disastrous spirit of emigration that has
devastated this county is to be checked." But those who remained
learned to increase their yield by the use of Peruvian guano, which
became extensively used after 1850, when freight rates were lowered and the prices became moderate.
As additional roads were built and progress in transportation
was made, Washington became a busy junction for mail and
stagecoach routes. An advertisement early in the nineteenth century for bids to carry the mail from Augusta by way of Washington, Greensboro, Lexington, and Georgetown, back to Augusta
shows that departures were made from Augusta every other Saturday at six in the morning and that arrivals were made in Washington on the following morning at eleven. The carrier, traveling
on horseback, plodded over rough roads hardly more than trails.
Later, when he was able to increase his speed and spend the night
in Washington before an early morning start for Greensboro, the
mail was delivered weekly. A company to operate stages between
Augusta and Washington was incorporated in 1804, and it was
not long before a line was in operation from Powelton by way of
Washington to Petersburg and points in South Carolina. Facilities were improved in 1816, when a new company was chartered
to run stagecoaches from Augusta through Washington to Athens,
and again the following year, when a company began operation
from Washington to Greensboro and Eatonton.
Both the mail carriers and the stagecoach drivers stopped on
the south side of the public square at a small hostelry (now the
Washington Market), where the mail could be locked overnight
in the vault that extends from the basement beneath the sidewalk
and where travelers could find accommodations or await another
stage. A story is told that the innkeeper once went out to urge
|42||THE STORY OF WASHINGTON-WILKES|
the coachman to alight from his box and found that the poor
fellow was frozen to death. The well-trained horses had brought
the passengers to their destination unguided.
In addition to the stagecoach station. Washington had several
other inns. THE WILLIS HOTEL, built in 1802, was perhaps the most
fashionable, for it was host to many notable men. In 1824 the
old Washington Tavern, formerly operated by MRS. CORBETT, was
taken under the management of SAMUEL B. HEARD. The building
was near the public square and faced the main road leading
through Washington from Augusta to Athens. HEARD announced
that his bar was plentifully supplied with choice liquors and that
the stables "were under the direction of an experienced ostler."
Rice's popular tavern had a "Long Room," where a MR. COLMESNIL held a dancing school.
Washington's high-spirited gentry took their pleasures whenever they could be had. Cock fighting, popular in the 1790's,
gave way to theatrical entertainments, and almost from the beginning of the nineteenth century the town had a theater. Most
of the dramatic performances consisted of readings and songs,
but in 1817 the Thespian Society obtained the professional services of MR. and MRS. DURANG, MISS MOORE, and MISS LETTINE of
the Charleston Theater for a series of "theatrical exhibitions."
Shortly after this time the old playhouse was converted into
quarters for the Washington Female Academy, but another
theater was soon built. OTHELLO, a popular Negro entertainer
from Monticello, Georgia, came in 1824 to present his "Grand
Phantezzine or Norfolk Tragedy."
The town was very gay on May 19, 1819, when PRESIDENT JAMES
MONROE stopped there over night. In the presidential party were
JOHN C. CALHOUN, then Secretary of War; MAJOR-GENERAL EDMUND
GAINES; MR. GOVERNEUR, the president's private secretary; and
LIEUTENANT MONROE, a relative. This group was welcomed enthusiastically a few miles out of town by a self-appointed horseback delegation made up of most of the town's citizens, as well as
an official committee consisting of MAJOR D. G. CAMPBELL, MAJOR
A. H. SNEED, and DR. JOEL ABBOTT, a member of Congress and a
personal acquaintance of the President. The party arrived in
town at half-past three in the afternoon and went to dinner at one
of the taverns, probably the popular WILLIS HOTEL. "At early
candlelight the company returned to their homes," and the next
morning the distinguished visitor left for Lexington "bearing
along with him the sincere blessing of all the Washington
Except for an occasional ball at the tavern most parties were
held in the town and plantation houses. Here young ladies
danced the minuet, square dances, reels, and jigs to the accompaniment of fiddles and banjos played by slaves. During the
summer months they frequently gathered about a mile from
town at Mineral Springs, where a hotel had been built to accommodate families who fled from the malarial fever of the low
counties south of Augusta. A popular recreation of the rural
districts was the corn-shucking, held often with Negro participants. The occasion was especially enjoyable when there was a
good leader for singing; then the shucks flew faster from the ears
as the men and women kept time to the music. The following
was a popular song:
Did you ever hear the cow laugh?
Ha, hi, ho!
And how you think the cow laugh?
Ha, hi, ho!
The cow say moo, moo, moo,
Ha, hi, ho!
The cow want corn and that what the cow want
Ha, hi, ho!
Late in the 1830's this section began to show interest in the railroad developments that had become prominent throughout the
country. Routes were undergoing change as a result of the building of the Georgia Railroad from Augusta to a site that later be-
|44||THE STORY OF WASHINGTON-WILKES|
came Atlanta, and four-horse coaches were running every alternate day from Athens and Gainesville by way of Washington to
the end of the forty-two miles of track already laid. On January
1, 1839, the Washington Railroad and Banking Company was
authorized to construct a railroad from the town to some convenient point on that line, either in Taliaferro or Warren County.
The body incorporate was composed of ALEXANDER POPE, GARNETT
ANDREWS, ADAM L. ALEXANDER, CHARLES L. BOLTON, SAMUEL HARRIETT,
JOHN F. PELOT, MARK A. LOVE, AARON A. CLEVELAND, JAMES M.
SMITH, WILLIAM H. DYSON, EDWARD M. BURTON, JOSEPH W. ROBINSON, and JAMES ALEXANDER. Although these men never built their
line, they succeeded in 1847 in inducing the Georgia Railroad itself to build a branch from the main line to Washington. The
spur of eighteen miles from Double Wells (Harriett) to the town
was at last completed in 1853. Shortly before its completion a
prophecy was made that when the "iron horse" was among the
Washington people, it would "open an era in the history of
venerable old Wilkes, in which we hope to see her regenerated to
the unexampled vigor and freshness of her youthful day." The
population of Wilkes County decreased from 12,107 in 1850 to
11,420 in 1860, but Washington continued to grow; although the
depot was placed a mile from the business section, only a few
years passed before the small station was surrounded by the town.
The first half of the nineteenth century was a time of steady
commercial expansion despite two destructive fires in the business
district, the first in 1837 and the second in 1841, after which a fire
engine was purchased and manned by twenty-five volunteers.
In 1800 Washington had its first newspaper, the Washington
Gazette, founded by ALEXANDER MCMILLAN. The following year
the paper became the Monitor and was edited by DAVID HILLHOUSE
until his death in 1804, when his widow SARAH HILLHOUSE assumed
the management and thus became the first woman newspaper
editor in the South. A four-page paper with four columns to the
page, the Monitor was clearly printed in old-fashioned hand-set
type. A typical copy contained a short, non-controversial editorial
on the weather and a long essay on education by the REVEREND
MR. MORTON extracted from the minutes of the Sarepta Baptist
Association. The principal item of domestic news, copied from
an Augusta paper, described the depredations of a band of
mounted bandits who were terrorizing north Georgia. The principal foreign event related was the coronation of Napoleon and
and Josephine, which had taken place more than two months previously. MRS. HILLHOUSE, who also printed reports for the state
legislature, published the paper until 1820, when it was purchased
by a man named GIEU and rechristened the Washington News.
Seven years later it came under the editorship of a MR. PASTEUR.
In 1833 JESSE MERCER brought the Christian Index to Washington from Philadelphia, where it had been founded in 1821. He
published it until 1840, when he presented it to the Baptist Church
as its official organ. That organization continued its publication
in Washington until the presses were worn out; then in 1857 the
publication was transferred to Macon. A new journal, The Spy,
first published in 1834 by MICHAEL J. KAPPEL and edited by JAMES
T. HAY, JR., was described as "beautifully executed ... and the
purity of its principals corresponds with its outward appearance."
Despite these attributes, The Spy soon ceased to operate. An interesting journalistic experiment of this decade was The Medical
Reformer, published semi-monthly at Washington by JAMES PRICE.
The Wilkes Manufacturing Company was chartered in 1810
for "manufacturing cotton and woolen goods by machinery," with
MATTHEW TALBOT, BOLLING ANTHONY, BENJAMIN SHERROD, JOHN BOLTON, FREDERICK BALL, GILBERT HAY, and JOEL ABBOTT as managers.
Capital stock was initially $10,000 with provision for expansion
to 550,000. A mill called Bolton's Factory was established on
Upton Creek, but after a few years it proved unprofitable. This,
the first of the cotton mills in the South, led to the establishment
of others in Georgia and thereby stimulated the growth of cotton.
The evolution of the Colonial settlement into a modern town
|46||THE STORY OF WASHINGTON-WILKES|
is shown, by the coming of new business enterprises. One of
these even suggests the modern chain store, for CHARLES COX, who
came to Washington in 1823 as a house and sign painter and
paper hanger, was already operating a similar establishment in
Greensboro. Another new venture was the "dying and scouring
business" conducted by WILLIAM MCNEAL, who "scoured men's
clothes in the neatest style, extracting spots of paint, grease, ink,
pitch, or tar." WILLIAM WOODLY, who had established himself
here as "friseur, coiffeur, etc," after long experience in "convoluting, pirilating, bruturating, and carburating hair," offered to the
ladies and gentlemen at slight expense "ringlets, patent twister,
Circassian, or Georgian convolution." He claimed to have power
to "bestow upon his customers whatever degree of grace or beauty
their modesty or deficiencies in those particulars may require."
Business houses rapidly replaced the few remaining residences
around the public square, each selling a variety of articles at high
prices. Calico was $1 a yard, a nutmeg 25 cents, pins $2 a pound,
and handkerchiefs ranged in price from 56 cents to $1.75 each.
In professional circles, R. W. WORSHAM was willing to attend
any call in the practice of medicine. RICHARD H. LONG and JOHN
RAY, associated in the practice of law, agreed to attend any session
of the inferior court or superior courts in Wilkes County or on
the northern circuit. The early doctors and lawyers were hardy
men who traveled the rough county roads on horseback, carrying
their medicine and books in saddlebags. For short trips they used
the two-wheeled gigs, locally made vehicles called "riding chairs."
In 1820 a branch of the Georgia State Bank, the first financial
house to be opened in north Georgia, was established in the town.
The handsome three-story brick building which was erected
served also as the cashier's residence. It was used as a bank until
the time of the War between the States, after which it became
only a dwelling. A statement of revenue in 1824 for the town of
Washington listed $164.44 as received in taxes, $30.37 collected
for licenses, and a balance of $69.62 carried over from the previous
year. A man named BRUCKES was paid $70 for keeping the clock,
a town well was dug for $125, the sum of $2.87 was expended on
bridges, $15.25 was paid to the town marshal, and sundry expense
was listed as $18.87. The treasurer thus had a balance of $32.44.
Taxes were levied against all vehicles, the rate being determined
by whether the conveyance had two or four wheels.
During 1815-17 a red brick courthouse was built in the center
of the public square to replace the smaller wooden structure, and
in the tower was placed a bell and also a clock that cost the citizens the seemingly enormous sum of $1,000. Annual financial
statements show that the man hired to set the clock and to keep
it running also rang a curfew for slaves each evening at nine and
that he was paid at first $30 and later $70 a year.
After the building of this second courthouse, political life grew
more lively. Once the people became aroused to participation in
factional politics, Washington was an arena for battles of words
and bloody fist fights. The region produced two of Georgia's
leading public men of the early nineteenth century: JOHN CLARK
of Wilkes County and WILLIAM H. CRAWFORD of neighboring
Oglethorpe County. CLARK was the son of ELIJAH CLARKE, but he
had dropped the final e from his name because he considered the
simpler form more democratic. So bitter was the enmity between
the two men that it is even believed that in 1802 CLARK's adherents
organized a plot to kill CRAWFORD, for young PETER VAN ALLEN, an
Elberton lawyer and a friend of CLARK, met CRAWFORD in the
WILLIS HOTEL and goaded the man into challenging him to a duel.
In the subsequent exchange, however, it was VAN ALLEN who was
killed. In 1806 CLARK himself challenged CRAWFORD and succeeded in shattering his wrist by a shot from the designated duello
distance of ten paces.
CRAWFORD's part in local politics became less prominent with
his election to the United States Senate in 1807, after which
CLARK's chief opponent was GEORGE M. TROUP. The conflict
reached intense heat when these two were opposing candidates
|48||THE STORY OF WASHINGTON-WILKES|
in the gubernatorial race of 1819. CLARK won this contest and that
of 1821 by narrow margins, but when he supported MATTHEW
TALBOT against TROUP in 1823, his party was defeated. Although
a second defeat two years later caused his withdrawal from active
political life, the followers of both CLARK and TROUP continued
their antagonism for many years. The CLARK faction called themselves the Union Party and later was absorbed by the Democrats; the TROUP adherents became known as the States Rights
Party and later were aligned with the Whigs.
JOHN A. CAMPBELL and ROBERT TOOMBS, two Washington men
who later became nationally celebrated, began their careers here
in 1829. In that year both were admitted to the bar, the admission
having been gained by legislative act since both men were too
young to enter by the regular procedure. CAMPBELL, appointed an
associate justice of the United States Supreme Court in 1853, and
TOOMBS, who later became Secretary of State of the Confederacy,
furthered the tradition of Wilkes County men in public service.
During the first seventy-five years after the establishment of
Wilkes County, nine men who had lived within its area served
as governors of the state: STEPHEN HEARD (1780), GEORGE MATHEWS (1787 and 1793-96), PETER EARLY (1813-15), WILLIAM RABUN
(1817-19), MATTHEW TALBOT (1819), JOHN CLARK (1819-23), JOHN
FORSYTH (1827-29), WILSON LUMPKIN (1831-35) and GEORGE WASHINGTON TOWNE (1847-51). Most of these men also served terms in
Congress, either as senators or as members of the House of Representatives.
When the Constitutional Union Party of Wilkes County met
in the courthouse in June, 1833, ROBERT TOOMBS, GARNETT ANDREWS, A. POPE, JR., and ISAIAH T. IRVIN, were chosen to represent
the county at the state convention at Milledgeville. The delegates
were instructed to support FRANKLIN PIERCE for President instead
of his opponent, GENERAL WINFIELD SCOTT.
ROBERT TOOMBS spoke on slavery before a large audience in
Boston on January 4, 1856. Boston papers noted that, although
there was little applause, "his style at times was fervid, rarely
colloquial, but uniformly in good Caste," An oratorical contest
that has been termed the most brilliant in Georgia history was
held in a large oak grove in Washington in 1856, with TOOMBS
and BENJAMIN H. HILL as speakers. By breakfast time throngs
had gathered and the roads into town were crowded with wagons
bringing farm families to hear their distinguished fellow townsman and the talented young speaker from LaGrange debate on
current topics. HILL opened the debate with witty remarks on
the inconsistencies of public servants, confronting TOOMBS with
his change from Whig to Democrat. When he stated that
TOOMBS had slept over the people's rights in Congress, his opponent shouted back, "I have been protecting your rights and
your children's rights in spite of yourselves."
In 1857, when ISAIAH T. IRVIN, of Washington, led a nominating
committee to select a compromise gubernatorial candidate, he
appeared before the Democratic Convention and named JOSEPH
E. BROWN of Cherokee County. Two years later IRVIN and A.
POPE, JR., went to Milledgeville as the Wilkes County representatives at the convention of the Union Party, and IRVIN was elected
a delegate to the national convention at Baltimore.
Early in the century, the town and county began to take increased interest in the education of girls. In 1805 MADAME MARY
PAULINE DUGAS, who had come to America as a refugee from the
French Revolution, opened a private school for girls in Washington. The institution was so successful that after five years it was
removed to the larger city of Augusta. Considering access to the
Washington Academy on Mercer Hill too difficult for girls and
wishing to give them a more genteel school, the trustees decided
to divide the school into the Washington Male and Female Academies. They inserted the following advertisement in newspapers
on June 16, 1814: "Washington Female Academy. A seminary
is opened by MR. BOWEN, under the immediate commissioners of
the Washington Academy, where will be taught every branch
|50||THE STORY OF WASHINGTON-WILKES|
of useful and ornamental education, with unremitting attention.
Every effort will be made to introduce the pupils gradually to an
acquaintance with those accomplishments that are sought after
as indispensable requisites, with sedulous care in forming the
manners and polishing and proportioning instruction to the abilities and temper of the pupil." Board and tuition, were $100,
payable quarterly in advance; music, French and drawing were
extra; and a charge of $11 a year was made for washing. Patrons
were evidently pleased with the new venture, for in 1820 the
theater was purchased for the school. One of the early principals
of the Female Academy was DUNCAN G. CAMPBELL, father of the
well-known United States Supreme Court JUSTICE JOHN A. CAMPBELL. In 1822, as the Wilkes County representative in the state
legislature, he introduced a bill to provide collegiate training for
women. Although the measure was defeated by reactionary opponents, CAMPBELL's zeal was widely effective in arousing sentiment for this cause.
Private schools both for boys and girls became so numerous
that the academies began to lose pupils to a serious extent. ELISHA
W. CHESTER, with a recommendation from Middlebury College
in Vermont, opened an academy in 1819, and nine years later
T. P. CLEVELAND opened his select English school for young persons of both sexes. To meet this competition the Washington
Academy improved its faculty, opening the 1828 term with the
REVEREND E. S. HOPPING conducting the male school and MRS.
ALEXANDER WEBSTER, widow of the first pastor of the Washington
Presbyterian Church, supervising the girls' academy with the
assistance of MISS MARGARET MCKENZIE, the piano instructor. The
cottage in which MARY MINTON conducted a select school for small
children for many years following 1840 is now used as a storeroom and garage.
After the division of the Washington Academy similar schools
were established throughout the county: Mallorysville (chartered in 1821), South Liberty (1833), Rehoboth (1837), Danburg
(1838), Rocky Mount (1838), and Washington Female Seminary
(1838). These institutions, like all academies receiving aid from
the state-appropriated academic fund, were considered members
of the University of Georgia and made annual reports to the
Senatus Academicus, me university board of trustees. Since the
state appropriation was not sufficient for maintenance, they too
were forced to charge tuition. Two of these academies, sponsored
by local churches, were opened in Washington, Rehoboth under
the direction of the local Baptist board of trustees, and Washington Female Seminary under that of the Presbyterians. The principals of the schools were called rectors and, like the earliest
teachers in the county, were often ministers of the gospel.
The most influential of these academies was Washington Female Seminary, which was opened soon after its incorporation
on December 31, 1838. The trustees secured the services of SARAH
BRACKETT, who had come from East Hampton, Massachusetts, in
1835 to tutor the children of ADAM ALEXANDER. Under her administration the school prospered and received pupils not only
from cities of Georgia, but from those of neighboring states. The
second annual catalogue (1840) listed a wide variety of courses
ranging from the study of PETER PALEY's Geography to that of
Wilkin's Astronomy and Homer's Odyssey. The fees were low,
running from $24 to $48 a year, but the extras were higher. Music
was $60 a year and French $20.
The academies received small appropriations indeed from the
state academic fund; in 1829 Wilkes County's portion was only
$778.30. In addition, however, the county obtained an appropriation of $1,875.13 from the state poor school fund. Since Georgia's
schools were operating principally as private institutions, charging
tuition, this latter fund was for the purpose of providing an elementary education for children whose parents were unable to
pay the fees. The school period for these unfortunate children
was at times limited to three years, and the term frequently to
four months. Since those who received aid from the appropria-
|52||THE STORY OF WASHINGTON-WILKES|
tion were permitted to go to any school that would receive them
for the small allowance, many enrolled in the county academies.
One educator, unable to find a record of any expenditure of the
fund in 1829, expressed a hope that "the enlightened County of
Wilkes had not forgotten the children of the poor." The following year the county received and expended $1,074.91 as its share
of the poor school allotment.
Meanwhile it had become evident that the churches intended
to participate vigorously in movements for higher education.
When Washington again entertained the Georgia Methodist Conference in 1834, "UNCLE ALLEN" TURNER opposed a resolution that
the convention contribute to the support of Randolph-Macon
College in Virginia and insisted in an eloquent speech that
Georgia Methodists should have a college of their own. His sentiments were repeated on later occasions by IGNATIUS FEW, who became the first president of the Methodist college opened at Oxford
in 1838 and later expanded into Emory University. In 1835 the
Presbyterians made an effort to have Oglethorpe University located in Washington. The school was opened near Milledgeville,
but the effort strongly impressed JESSE MERCER, who immediately
set out to found a Baptist school in Washington to be called the
Southern Baptist College. By April 1, 1837, forty thousand dollars had been subscribed, and on April 16 an Athens newspaper
quoted the Washington Spy as stating that the proposed Baptist
college would be built in Wilkes County and that more than
$100,000 had been subscribed toward the building fund. Financial difficulties, however, proved to be too great; so the Georgia
Baptist Convention procured a transfer of the donations to Mercer
Institute, which was rechartered as Mercer University.
The statement that Washington had a theater before it had a
church, though literally true, is misleading as to the attitude of
the sincerely devout citizens. Religious services were held frequently in the courthouse and later in the academy on Mercer
Hill. Worship was conducted by many noted visitors, including
BISHOP ASBURY and LORENZO DOW, the eccentric Methodist evangelist who traveled about the eastern half of the United States
proclaiming dire threats of hell and eternal hopes of paradise. A
deep sense of personal sin led him to work not only for his own
salvation but for that of the people of any community where he
could find a hearing. On his visit to Georgia early in 1802, he
came to Wilkes County to visit HOPE HULL, by whom he had been
converted in his native Connecticut. Disheveled and with long
hair and beard, this young minister preached in Washington first
on February 16 and then on several later dates. Witnesses have
told how on one occasion he came into town without speaking
to anyone, delivered an eloquent sermon in the courthouse, and
silently left, looking straight ahead with spiritual intensity.
DOW's fervor led to strong religious activity among all church
members, who long remembered the years 1802, 1803, and 1809
for their vigorous evangelistic meetings. Such revivals later
stirred the community after periods of sorrow and disaster; especially noteworthy were those that followed the fever epidemic
and other illnesses of 1825, still known as the "sickly year." Early
in the century the Presbyterians inaugurated the custom of holding camp meetings; other denominations followed their example;
and soon the county was dotted with "arbors," where both town
and rural people, white and black, could meet their friends for
a few days of intensive religious zeal. At these meetings and in
the houses of worship hymns were sung from manuals prepared
by HOPE HULL and JESSE MERCER, for hymn books were expensive
and difficult to obtain. HULL's book, Hymns and Spiritual Songs,
was published in Washington in 1803 and came to be widely
used by Methodists throughout Georgia. Still more successful
was MERCER's Cluster of Sacred Songs first printed in Augusta and
later by a Philadelphia publisher. The first of three Philadelphia
editions was in 1817, the last in 1835.
As the century advanced, the churches succeeded in establishing
themselves more firmly. In 1823 the Methodist congregation,
|54||THE STORY OF WASHINGTON-WILKES|
which had been holding services for many years in the courthouse or academy building, erected its own church, the first
within the town limits. In 1938 the members celebrated their
sesquicentennial anniversary, for they date their origin from the
organization of the Grant's Meeting House congregation. At
first this church, with its gallery for slaves, was used not only by
the Methodists for regular services but by other denominations
on special occasions. In 1827 the Washington Presbyterian congregation was incorporated, with ANDREW G. SEMMES, THOMAS
TERRELL, SAMUEL BARNETT, JOSEPH W. ROBINSON, FELIX G. HAY,
JAMES WINGFIELD, and DUNCAN G. CAMPBELL as trustees. The
Baptist church was incorporated the same year, JESSE MERCER,
JAMES ARMSTRONG, WILLIAM G. GILBERT, JOHN W. BUTLER, and OSBORNE STONE being named as executive officers.
Religion continued to play an important part in the life of the
ordinary man, but when restrictions became severe they sometimes met with sharp resistance from pleasure-loving members.
A high church official, summoned to explain why he had taken
his children to the circus, stoutly answered that he had taken
them for his own enjoyment and was not in the least sorry. When
his nonplussed cross-examiner, unwilling to antagonise so generous a contributor, begged him at least to be sorry for the escapade, he gayly promised to try and retained his high position.
Many of the ardently religious people of Wilkes County abstained from spirituous liquors, but many others made their own
wines and beers. Liquor stores and bars were dependent chiefly
on transient business for their support. At first, licenses not to
exceed $500 a year in cost were granted by the state, and not
until 1821 was Washington permitted to grant its own licenses
for the sale of alcoholic beverages.
Although Indians had long ceased to give trouble, Washington
retained its old military organizations to provide a colorful parade
now and then. Muster days brought out the full splendor of
brass-buttoned coats and blue and buff breeches. The Wilkes
Dragoons, the best known of these organizations, assembled on
its parade ground at ten o'clock each Saturday morning, fully
armed and equipped with six rounds of blank cartridges, and a
crowd usually gathered to watch the drill.
Despite the impoverishment of the county's fertile soil by injudicious planting and a consequent fall in population, this section
shared in the wealth that made this era the heyday of the South.
Especially was this true of the 1850-60 decade, when cotton prices
went skyrocketing and many of Washington's columned houses
were built. But dark threats of secession hovered close and filled
the wiser citizens with fear. ROBERT TOOMBS' impassioned
speeches on the issues of the day were but a small part of the
great national frenzy that was drawing the country into war.
Workers of the Writers' Program of the WPA of GA, The Story of Washington-Wilkes
(Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1941) pgs. 38-55
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 V - War Between the States and Reconstruction