When the Romans came to Great Britain, they built a bunch of forts called castra, which was Anglicized to chester. So, English cities whose names end in -chester, -caster and -cester were once were Roman settlements – places like Manchester, Cirencester and Worcester. And when the Anglo-Saxons arrived in England, they divided the land into shires, which is why so many English place names end in -shire. And finally, in 1066, the Normans invaded England from France, and they subdivided the land into counties, from which we get the title of “Count”. Of course, English settlers to North America brought the county system with them. And thus, every state in America is subdivided into counties, except for oddballs Louisiana (which is divided into parishes based on an old Spanish system) and Alaska (which is divided into boroughs).
Texas, being one of the largest states in the Union, has the most counties with 254. But Georgia, inexplicably, has the second-most counties with 159. Texas is huge, so one can easily understand the need for so many subdivisions. But why does Georgia need so many counties?
The short answer is that it doesn’t. But how the largest state east of the Mississippi River came to have 159 counties is pretty interesting. It involves philanthropy, corruption, war, genocide, urban legends and Progressivism.
Georgia’s history begins with an English politician named James Oglethorpe. Born on December 22, 1696 in Surrey, Oglethorpe attended Corpus Christi College at Oxford before leaving early to become aide-de-camp to Prince Eugene of Savoy during the Austro-Turkish War of 1716-1718. Afterwards, he returned to England, where he was elected to Parliament.
There Oglethorpe took an interest in the state of London’s prisons. What he found shocked him, but he became especially distressed at the plight of debtors. See, as hard as it might be to believe today, people who owed debts were often thrown in prison back then. While Oglethorpe understood how the threat of prison worked as a motivator for people to pay their debts, he also knew that bad debts often happened to good people. It was manifestly unfair, he thought, that a hardworking, yet down-on-his-luck family man should be equated with murderers and thieves.
This gave Oglethorpe an idea, the idea of a colony in North America where “worthy debtors” would be given farmland to grow silk or indigo. The colony’s trustees would then take the crops and sell them, paying down the colonist’s debt. Eventually, the debtor would be debt-free, and would have a productive farm to show for it.
It took Oglethorpe almost a decade to obtain funding for the venture, arrange a board of trustees, get enough volunteers to make it worthwhile, and receive the approval of King George II. His petition sat with the Privy Council for a time before it was punted to the Board of Trade, where it languished for a year.
But by this time the Spanish were making noises about attacking South Carolina, so Prime Minister Robert Walpole forced the Board of Trade to act. Suddenly, Georgia had a second, more important, purpose: to act as a buffer between Spanish Florida and the rich colony of South Carolina. George II, seeing more of a military than a philanthropic need, gave his assent to the plan on April 21, 1733.
A major sticking point with approval process involved the colony’s laws, which many asserted were contradictory and an affront to the rights of Englishmen. Religious freedom was enshrined in the proposed law, but specific exemptions were made for Catholics and Jews. Oglethorpe and company had also gone to great lengths to write laws that encouraged productivity from future residents. Alcohol was banned, not for religious reasons, but because the trustees thought it made people lazy. Slavery was banned as well, because the whole point of the endeavor was to get white people to work and not have those same white people sit around and watch Africans do the work for them.
Perhaps the most contentious point in the future colony’s laws was that no provision was made for local government of any kind. And local government was a pillar of English rights. It’s more than ironic that a state that ended up with 159 counties should begin with none. And, in retrospect, it’s perhaps amusing that despite all the meticulous attention to detail that Oglethorpe and the trustees had shown when writing the colony’s laws that not even the tiniest bit of attention was paid to subdividing the colony. When Oglethorpe arrived at the site of what would become Savannah on February 12, 1733, he had no plans for dividing up the colony into counties, shires or districts. Nor did any of the other trustees.
As it turned out, Georgia was something of a disaster. Few migrated there voluntarily, for the colony’s strict laws against slavery made farming unprofitable, and the lack of alcohol made it no fun. The ban on slavery also made Georgia a haven for escapees from South Carolina, a constant source of irritation for the colony’s northern neighbor. Very few debtors ever settled there, most choosing to stay in England. I’ve read many histories of early Georgia, and they claim the total number of debtor families who moved to Georgia at between zero and a dozen. Instead, Georgia became something of a temporary safe haven for Protestants from George II’s German domains. However, these Salzburgers and Moravians were pacifists in what amounted to a war zone, so they left for the Carolinas by 1740.
With the colony’s original purpose forgotten and her government in tatters, Georgia was converted to a Crown colony on January 7, 1755. And with the Crown came its official religion, the Church of England, who subdivided the colony into eight (later twelve) parishes: St. Mary, St. Thomas, St. Patrick, St. David, St. James, St. Andrew, St. John, St. Philip, St. Matthew, St. George, St. Paul, and Christ Church. In England, such parishes were only used for church functions, but in Georgia they became the first official subdivisions of the colony.
But then the American Revolution came. Georgia’s revolutionary government, having kicked out the Church of England, tinkered with the parish boundaries and renamed then after Georgia’s freedom fighters. Thus, the counties in southeastern Georgia read like a Who’s Who of the Revolutionary era of the state.
After the war, everything went to hell. This is because Georgia’s original borders went all the way to the Mississippi River:
Whereas Massachusetts and Virginia were mostly settled by this point, Georgia was not. In fact, there was more open land in Georgia than anywhere else in America. So people flocked to the state by the thousands, all in hopes of getting cheap land.
This caused two things to happen.
The first was almost constant war against the native Creek and Cherokee Indians. European settlers put enormous pressure on the Indians to sell their land, and would use flattery, silver, rum or rifles to get them to do so. And every time the Indians conceded, the Georgia legislature would rush to carve a new county out of the land. So Georgia wasn’t one big state that was conveniently divided up at once; counties were added one military victory or rum-soaked land swindle at a time.
Unfortunately, Georgia’s legislature didn’t move fast enough for some people. While the state government at least paid lip service to the notion of buying the land fair and square from the Indians, others didn’t care.
Those others included Elijah Clarke, a Revolutionary War hero from North Carolina who came to Georgia to lead guerrilla attacks on the British in the style of Francis Marion, the much more famous South Carolinian who was the inspiration for Mel Gibson’s character in The Patriot. After the war, Clarke served in the General Assembly and served as a commissioner for the state’s various treaties with Indian groups. He was also a general in the state militia. When, in 1794, Clarke became fed up with the slow pace of European settlement, he amassed his troops and created his very own country: the Trans-Oconee Republic.
A modern map reproduces 1794 Georgia. The counties that made up the Trans-Oconee Republic are shown in red. The areas in light blue show the extent of European settlement in 1794, with Chatham County (home of Savannah) shown in green. Fulton County (shown in dark blue), the eventual home of Atlanta, was still firmly in Indian hands at the time.
The Trans-Oconee Republic was a short-lived independent state with its own constitution, elected officials and six fortified settlements. But Clarke’s new republic drew the ire of President George Washington, who felt that its existence would damage relations with both the Indians and the Spanish. Washington put pressure on Georgia governor George Mathews to end the charade and threatened to send federal troops if necessary. Mathews considered it a state issue, but he didn’t exactly want to tell off Washington, either. So he did the least offensive thing he could think of: he issued a proclamation condemning Clarke.
Clarke, who was wildly popular with most Georgians, willfully surrendered to authorities in Wilkes County in July. It’s unclear whether the four judges who released Clarke were smitten by his celebrity, hated the Creek Indians, or just wanted to flip a finger at the federal government – or some combination of all three. But in the end it didn’t matter: Clarke smooth-talked his way to freedom, and returned to lead to the Republic. Governor Mathews didn’t know what to do. The existence of the republic was an affront to the authority of the Georgia government. But Clarke was so popular that acting against him might cause riots. And giving the land back to the hated Creeks was damn near unthinkable.
Luckily, all the hubbub had attracted the attention of George Walton, one of Georgia’s signers of the Declaration of Independence and the state’s most respected elder statesman. Walton was a staunch Federalist who felt that Clarke’s actions were way over the line. With Walton’s support, Mathews sent the militia to the republic, with offers of amnesty for everyone if they’d just surrender peacefully. Despite promises to “fight to the death”, Clarke and his troops simply agreed to the amnesty and went home. Clarke County, home of Athens and the “University” of Georgia, would be named in his honor.
The other thing that was happening at time was a series of shady land deals.
Shortly after the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, Governor Mathews (who served two non-consecutive terms from 1787-1788 and later from 1793-1796, in case you were wondering) signed the Bourbon County Act, which created a vast county around what is now Natchez, Mississippi. A secret group called the Combined Society formed to buy the land and sell it for a vast profit. But the public were outraged and the federal government put pressure on the Georgia government to stop the sale. The new county was dissolved in 1788 and the sale forgotten. To this day, I’m not sure anyone knows who, exactly, was in Combined Society, but subsequent events would lead anyone to believe that men in the Georgia government were involved.
That’s because the speculators came back. In 1789, three companies, the Virginia Yazoo Company (headed by Patrick “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!” Henry), the South Carolina Yazoo Company and the Tennessee Company struck a deal with Georgia governor Edward Telfair to buy 20 million acres of land for the ridiculously low sum of $207,000 (around $3 million in modern dollars). This is around a penny per acre, half the per acre cost of Alaska and a third of the per acre cost of the Louisiana Purchase. Comically, the deal fell through when the companies tried to pay the state using a worthless old paper currency.
But the speculators still weren’t done. In 1794 Governor Mathews signed the Yazoo Act, which authorized the Georgia Company, the Georgia-Mississippi Company, the Upper Mississippi Company, and the Tennessee Company (unrelated to the previous company of the same name) to purchase 40 million acres of land for $500,000. Of course, many senior Georgia lawmakers were major shareholders in the companies, and the public were outraged. Few incumbents kept their seats in the following election. Jared Irwin won the governorship on a reform platform, and signed a bill nullifying the Yazoo Act on February 13, 1796. The state then officially burnt all copies of the act, save for one that had been sent to George Washington.
But it didn’t end there. The state refunded (almost) all the money that people had invested in the various companies. But some folks didn’t want their money back: they wanted the land they were promised. Georgia told them to get lost, and the two sides went to court. The case was essentially rendered moot in 1803, when Georgia gave up its claim to what is now Alabama and Mississippi. But the case continued until 1810, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Fletcher v. Peck that a state couldn’t get out of a contract by simply passing a law nullifying a previous contract. It was one of the first times in American history that the Supreme Court declared a state law unconstitutional.
And guess what? While all this was going on, there was another, totally separate, land scandal going on involving Georgia’s governors. This one was called the “Pine Barrens Speculation”, and it involved Governors George Walton, Edward Telfair and George Mathews giving away 29,097,866 acres of land in counties that only totaled 8,717,960 acres. Of course, there were hundreds of overlapping claims to the land, and some bits of land had a dozen or more owners. I’ve looked online and can’t find out how the matter was finally resolved. But it happened, and so it was.
In 1800, there were 24 counties in Georgia. Within the next thirty years, enough land would be taken from the Indians to create 29 additional counties, for a total of 53. In 1831, Georgia went for it all and declared that all Indian lands now belonged to the state. In late 1832, the state created a single, massive “Cherokee County” out of all remaining Cherokee lands:
A modern map reproduces Cherokee County in 1832. All remaining Cherokee lands were combined into a single, massive county called “Cherokee County”, shown in red. It was later subdivided into ten counties. Modern Cherokee County is shown in orange.
Of course, this massive county would never work in reality, so the legislature subdivided it into ten counties. By 1835, Georgia had 89 counties. But it had no more new land: those 89 counties filled up the entirely of the modern state. So where did the remaining 70 come from?
From breaking up existing counties, of course. It was a simple process, one that required only a majority vote in the legislature. And while you might think that legislators wouldn’t be all that keen on reducing their power by splitting up their districts, there was so much localism and so many personality conflicts within the assembly that 39 new counties were formed by the 1850s. By the 1870s there were 137 counties in the state.
So how did a new county get carved out of one (or more) existing counties?
Pick any reason.
In some cases, influential legislators from a “lesser city” were able to divide their county in two, making their hometown a prestigious new county seat. New counties also meant a slew of new jobs, not just for sheriffs, deputies, judges and clerks, but jobs for constructing new government buildings, running telegraph stations and the like. County seats also attracted railroads, which meant hotels and taverns and shops. Since Georgia was largely rural at the time, a new county could also bring things like police protection and court services much closer to home.
Sometimes petty squabbles were involved: when the voters of Clarke County voted to move the county seat from Watkinsville to Athens, miffed Watkinsville residents created Oconee County so that their city would remain important.
In some cases, county lines were first drawn up without regard to natural boundaries; when settlers arrived in former Indian territory, they’d discover a previously unknown river or lake, and so the existing county would be split in two reflect that.
Later on, there was also a strong element of the Progressive Movement’s “local is better” mantra at play… which is also why, until recently, Georgia voters would waste time voting for such low-ranking officials as coroners and dog catchers.
And even though I’ve never found any actual evidence of counties being sized so that “residents could ride a horse to the county seat in a day”, a long-standing American myth, there was an element of that at play. After all, if one could choose to ride either 80 miles or 20 miles to the county seat on horseback, who wouldn’t choose 20?
It was all rapidly getting out of hand though, and Georgia’s post Civil War constitution of 1877 froze the number of counties at 137. It remained this way until 1904, when the public voted to allow a constitutional amendment increasing the number to 145. Only two years later, however, legislators wanted to create yet another county, Ben Hill. But instead of passing a constitutional amendment that would increase the number of allowed counties to 146 (and passing the legislation actually creating the county at a later date), supporters of Ben Hill proposed an amendment that said something along the lines of “Georgia has 145 counties… plus this new one created from [THIS] county and [THAT ] county as follows…” Thus began a line of 16 new counties created by constitutional amendment, for a total of 161 counties.
By 1945, legislators had had enough. The new Georgia constitution, ratified that year, fixed the counties at an absolute number of 159. Georgia’s 1976 and 1983 constitutions (the latter still in effect) kept that number at 159.
But the astute reader might notice that the last time I mentioned a specific number, Georgia had 161 counties. What happened between 1924 (when the state’s last new county, Peach County, was created) and the constitutional convention of 1945? How did the state lose two counties?
The Great Depression is what happened. Two poor rural counties that shared a border with Fulton County (and the fabulously rich Atlanta) voted to merge with Fulton. So, in 1931, Milton County (almost bankrupt) and Campbell County (already bankrupt) ceased to exist. And Fulton County, which originally looked like an upside down Vermont, greatly expanded in size:
But, just to show that the more things change the more they stay the same, many residents of modern day north Fulton County now want to secede from Fulton and bring Milton County back. North Fulton, once one of the poorest areas around Atlanta, is now one of the richest. And those residents no longer wish to support the benefactor that helped them out back in 1931.
They face an uphill battle. Because Georgia’s constitution sets a hard limit of 159 counties, the only way Milton can come back is for two existing counties to merge. And, as we’ve seen, Georgians just can’t say no to a county. It seems like every session of the state legislature has some sort of legislative jiggery-pokery going on to bring Milton back. But it never seems to get anywhere.