Georgia: Why so many counties?

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 Roman settlements, places like Manchester, Cirencester and Worcester.

When the Anglo-Saxons arrived in England, they divided the land into shires, which is why so many English place names end in -shire.

Finally, the Normans invaded England in 1066, 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 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 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. As hard as it might be to believe, people who owed debts were often thrown in prison back then. Oglethorpe understood how the threat of prison worked as a motivator for people to pay their debts, but 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 locked up 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:

GA 1796 map
(Georgia in 1796)

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.

Trans-Oconee Republic
(click to enlarge)

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 (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:

(click to enlarge)

A modern map reproduces Cherokee County in 1832. All remaining Cherokee lands were combined into a 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:

Milton-Campbell County

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.

23 Replies to “Georgia: Why so many counties?”

  1. Always wondered the same thing about Kentucky. Comparatively way smaller than Georgia than Georgia is to Texas and there are 120 counties. Gotta be politics as well!

  2. Growing up in Georgia, I always loved the “fun fact” that Georgia had more counties than any other state but Texas. I didn’t realize the reason why was so interesting! Thanks for a very readable, enjoyable explanation. However, what’s up with putting “University” in quotes for UGA? As a UGA alumna, may I say, OUCH! (And, yes, I realize this post was written a few years ago…)

  3. Great history! I’m a Pacific Northwesterner with Georgian ancestry (mostly 18th century). It seems it would make sense for y’all to merge the Atlanta counties and put in some light rail. Or at least fund a stronger metro regional transit authority.

  4. how much taxpayer money would be saved by reducing the number of counties to 50 max and be done with it? In 2015 there should be no one who thinks more than 50 are needed unless they are stupid. I say billions would be saved. That is with a B.

  5. I am a Georgian.

    @Julian Yes, I agree more light rail to over the Atlanta metropolitan area would be very good. Merging counties is resited for many reasons, I suspect, one of them being that people expect to lose their voice and/or dollars with a merge. I am not sure that these concerns are well founded, but they’re enough to keep citizens from wanting to consolidate.

    @MSamples I don’t know about 50 counties, but I do think you’re very right that a lot of taxes could be saved and/or redirected if counties consolidated. I don’t think citizens are under enough local tax pressure though now to want to vote for a consolidation and suspect that anti-consolidation parties would simply argue it’ll be more taxes, fewer services, and you’ll be less represented… that may not be true, but it’s a hard political hurdle to overcome.

    I really enjoyed reading this post. Thanks!

  6. This was a great read. I too have lived in Georgia for the past 18 years in both rural south Georgia, and the Atlanta area. County lines and city lines effortlessly blend into each other, and can be an extremely confusing ordeal for newcomers or the ill-informed.
    I do agree with @Kevin and @Julian in the fact that we should merge more counties in the Atlanta area.

    Albany, Ga. is the county seat for Dougherty County in Southwest Georgia. Albany for the most part is a city stricken by poverty, failing education systems, and the majority of its citizens are African American. Just north of Dougherty County is Lee County. Lee County is really nice, the largest mall in the area is there, the only Walmart in the area is there, and so on. Yet Lee County gets all of the awards of Dougherty County since Dougherty residences must spend money within Lee County lines. Its ugly to see things like this happen with both “Fulton/Milton” and “Dougherty/Lee”.

  7. Very interesting reading. I enjoyed it! As a native Californian and current Georgia resident, I have often wondered why Georgia had so many counties. Thanks.

  8. That was a fun and interesting read. It satisfied many of my curiosities since moving to Georgia 30 years ago. Thanks.

  9. Local governmental control has many advantages and also sounds good in principle. The intentions were clearly good. But as the old Proverb says “The roads to hell are paved with good intentions”. The 159 counties of Georgia derive their powers from the Constitution rather than Statutes. This is their dark side as anyone knows who has sought to seriously dispute some of the draconian and patently illegal laws and actions of many of these counties in Georgia. While the federal laws and regulations today have superseded virtually all state laws and regulations, and which form a whole wall in any library, the “supreme” law at the Georgia State level is the Georgia Constitution. The so called “Equal Protection Clause” of that document, right up there at the very beginning, basically states, paraphrased, “No person shall be denied the equal protection of the laws in Georgia” This is a nice flowery sounding statement, which, however, is routinely ignored and gang raped by virtually every one of the 159 county governments not to mention all the many city governments and the State Government as well and other quasi political subdivisions and even utilities. Here is one single example of many I could provide which would take a long book to document: Electricity today would be considered just as basic as water for living and life. It is absolutely essential to living and life anywhere in our country. However do to draconian and illegal but un adjudicated conflicting laws between two adjacent counties of Georgia, Jackson and Clarke, the quasi government utility Jackson Electric Membership Corporation will set an electric meter at a mobile home in Clarke County, which has been sitting vacant for a period of time, without any red tape or draconian unjustified requirements, while if the home is placed in neighboring Jackson County, only about 1,000 feet away, an inspection, to be paid for by the owner, is required to be passed and approved by the County, before they will “authorize” the officials of JEMC to set the power meter. Yet there is no, zero justification, a priori, that there is any probable cause that there is any problem with the wiring of this mobile home just because the power has been off for a period of time, none. If Jackson County had to go before a judge and obtain a search warrant to enter the home, they could provide no, zero, probable cause to do so based on their unsupported speculations and no “honest” judge would issue such a warrant. The illegal law requiring a permit is a ruse, and abuse of their law making powers, to make an end run around the 4th and 5th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and basically rape citizens out of their most fundamental Constitutional rights. It has nothing to do with public safety, zero. The expensive, slow, and usually totally unfair system of suing, and expensive lawyers, beginning in the lower courts, where one is destined to almost always lose and fail first, is totally impotent to deal with these fundamental issues of “gang rape” of both the hi falutin words of the Georgia Constitution and the Federal Constitution as well and the basic human rights of ordinary citizens and taxpayers to have electricity. Extortion is a crime if ordinary citizens do it; why shouldn’t it be a crime if local county officials in Georgia do it as well? They are effectively pointing a gun to the heads of citizens that if they don’t’ pay money for a totally illegal and unjustified and meaningless “inspection” they don’t get electric power because the power company won’t install the meter because it, JEMC in this instance, is aiding and abetting the illegal crime of extortion by the Jackson County government only about 1000 feet away from another country where this fundamental gang rape of the civilized law would not happen. This is a patent and clear violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Georgia Constitution above. And to add insult to injury, neither the County nor the Utility have one iota of risk or legal responsibility in the unlikely case that there turns out to be a problem with the wiring after all which could even exist in a brand new home just inspected by the top expert in electricity and magnetism in the world anyway! Obviously the county government system in Georgia is broken. We desperately need a viable practical oversight board like the State Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to rein in these outlaw governments of Georgia who gang rape the very law they purport to implement and create. This board must have supervisory powers over them to compel them to comply with the Constitution which they purport to follow but routinely give their middle finger to every minute of every day of the year today in Georgia. Any and all citizens would have input to the decisions of this board as they do with the current Georgia PUC. The ultimate effect of all this criminal conduct by government is to engage in the other criminal conduct of prejudice against mobile homes and those who would occupy them in patent violation of the Federal Fair Housing Law and the Federal Civil Rights Laws of 1963. This, then, reaches the issue of why such meaningless “inspections” are required in the first instance by this outlaw Jackson County government, aided and abetted by Jackson Electric Membership Corporation a public Utility: They hate mobile homes and they hate those who live in them. THIS IS THE BOTTOM LINE. This is the practical effect of all this illegal and unconscionable nonsense. One does not need to be a fancy New York Lawyer to figure all this out. This unconscionable action is a ruse to basically run both mobile homes and those who occupy them out of town on the “rail of current criminal government conduct” with no “policeman” to arrest those criminals engaged in all this criminal conduct. This is all a shameful disgrace in America today, February 12, 2016 only a few days from “President’s Day”! This is only one example, of thousands, which could be provided. “ When the government becomes the lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for the law”. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. In outlaw government of Georgia, the crime of extortion is just another day at the plant for government, but this same crime will put an ordinary citizen quickly behind those massive steel prison bars. Why not the same rules for government criminals as well?
    Winfield J. Abbe, Ph.D., Physics, Citizen of Athens, Georgia for 50 years.
    From: Winfield J. Abbe, Ph.D., Physics, Citizen and Taxpayer of Georgia 50 years; born Cleveland, Ohio, 1939, raised Sierra Madre, California 1943-1966, Citizen of Athens, Georgia, 1966 present, United States Citizen in good standing for almost 77 years. I graduated from and/or worked at the following institutions:
    Pasadena High School, Pasadena California, 1956, A.A. Pasadena City College, 1958, A.B., Physics, UC Berkeley, 1961, M.S. Physics, California State University at Lost Angeles, 1962, Ph.D., Physics, UC Riverside, 1966, Institute of Science and Technology Fellow, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 1966-1967, Assistant-Associate Professor of Physics with lifetime tenure, University of Georgia, Athens, 1966-1978; voluntarily resigned a position of lifetime tenure for, among other things, lying and cheating by two deans and three department heads to the tenured faculty for over 5 years about 40 years ago. Awards for superior or outstanding achievement in mathematics, physics and chemistry. Highest score on 18 hour written comprehensive qualifying examination at the doctoral level, given over a week in 6 three hour parts. Research areas: Experimental low temperature solid state physics and theoretical elementary particle physics among other areas. Last 15 years studying the failed war on cancer. One of the six parts of the 18 hour examination was on the subject of electricity and magnetism. Moreover I have taught this subject at various levels at UGa at a much higher level than anything we are talking about here. I have taken over 300 semester hours of classes at four public colleges and universities in California over about a ten year period from 1956-1966. Many of these were at an advanced doctoral level.

  10. This is really an excellent piece of writing! Well done; interesting and informative. Thank you for doing this and giving me the chance to learn a lot about GA history.

  11. Dear Georgia,
    We are… where we are.

    Well, I live is S.C., so I should say: You are…. where you are.

    Now, someone, sit down, study all the counties budgets. Follow the money. Follow the money. Follow the money. You’re still a Red state for crying out loud! Maybe that’ll change at 2016 election. You want to be Blue?

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