WLOV interviews local historian, Mark Waters:
History of Wilkes County
Even before the colonization of Savannah, Georgia, pack traders and trappers were in this area and intrepid families were slowly moving in.
However, from the moment the broadside issued by Governor Wright
in 1773 went out into the Carolinas, Virginia, and Pennsylvania offering the
rich, deep-loamed, well-watered hills of these ceded lands of northeast Georgia
for headright settlement, sturdy pioneers of English, Scotch-Irish, and
German descent brought their families to claim this favored earth. In 1774,
the first forts were established near the confluence of the Broad and the
Savannah Rivers just north of the present town of Washington, Georgia.
Soon after, another stockade, called Heard's Fort, was constructed eight
miles away on Fishing Creek. This stockade, named for Stephen Heard from
one of the Virginia families, was constructed for protection against
possible Indian attacks and later served as defense against British assaults
during the Revolutionary war. (Heard's Fort served as a temporary seat of
government in 1780 during the British occupation.) One year after the
Declaration of Independence, the Executive Council re-designated these ceded
lands as Wilkes County (1777), making it one of the eight original counties
of the new State of Georgia.
In early 1779, Wilkes County men, under leadership of Elijah Clarke and John Dooly, overwhelmingly defeated the British in the Battle of Kettle Creek, eight miles from the site of present day Washington. Momentarily, relieved of British assaults, Clarke and Dooly united these men again to fight and defeat a band of 800 Creek Indians in March 1779. They distinguished themselves in Revolutionary battles in other states, for example Cowpens and the Battle of Kings Mountain. From the spring of 1780 until July 1781, the British occupied Augusta, sending raiders into Wilkes County to subdue the zealous Patriots. One band murdered John Dooly in his home; Stephen Heard's wife and child died from exposure in a snowstorm when their cabin was burned; and Elijah Clarke's wife and children were driven from their home and forced to flee to North Carolina. Nancy Hart, a Wilkes County mother, became the hero of numerous legends including one in which she killed two Tories and held others at gunpoint while her daughter ran for help. In July 1781, Wilkes County troops assembled for the last time and drove the British from Augusta. On July 11, 1782, the British left Savannah, and in November, the War was over.
In the peaceful years following the Revolutionary War, Washington and Wilkes County began to prosper, and population grew rapidly as planters were attracted by the soil. The cotton era began. Wagons and flatboats, loaded with the money-making fiber traveled post roads and rivers to reach their market. With wealth came fine white-columned homes of the antebellum period, replacing early log cabins and austere plain-style homes. Prosperity and peace brought the promotion of education and religion. Sanders Walker organized Fishing Creek Baptist Church in the northern part of the county in 1783. Washington Academy, one of the first three public schools chartered by the State, was opened in 1786 for boys and girls of all ages and offered a traditional academic education. The Methodists opened Succoth Academy near Washington in the 1790s, operating until 1803. The Rev. John Springer, first Presbyterian minister to be ordained in Georgia, was ordained in 1790. Educator as well as minister, Springer operated a school at his home, Walnut Hill. One of his first pupils, Jesse Mercer, later founded Mercer University.
From the original Wilkes County, nine other counties were taken, and it is from this area that Georgia has been populated. Of the first thirteen governors, eleven were from original Wilkes. Wilkes County was named for John Wilkes, a Colonial supporter in the British House of Commons. George Walton of Washington, Georgia, who was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, was a large landowner and first circuit judge in Wilkes.
History of Washington, Georgia
On January 23, 1780, the Legislature appointed five men to lay out a hundred
acres in Wilkes County into a common and town "which shall be called
Washington." Stephen Heard and Micajah Williamson, two of another set of
five men appointed by the Legislature, served as commissioners to see that
lots were sold, a free school was built, and surplus money was used for the
construction of a church.
In 1786, Micajah Williamson opened a tavern, located on the present site of the Wilkes County Courthouse. Here, politicians met and one of the tavern rooms temporarily served as a courtroom. In 1790, the town also served as a stop for stagecoach lines from Augusta.
In 1804, a stage line was incorporated to operate stages between Augusta and Washington. New business enterprises took place in the expanding town, and rapidly replaced the few remaining residences around the public square.
The railroad began to develop in Georgia in the late 1830s. However, it was not until 1847 that Samuel Barnett and other members of the Washington Railroad and Banking Company were able to induce the Georgia Railroad to build a branch from the main line to Washington. The spur was completed in 1853.
On the night of January 19, 1861, messengers brought the news of Georgia's secession, and a new Confederate emblem, a blue flag with a single five-pointed star, was raised in front of the courthouse. Four-years later, on May 5, 1865, remnants of the Confederate Cabinet from Richmond assembled in Washington, and President Jefferson Davis met with them for the last time.
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