The Georgia Lottery (Then and Now)

November 4, 2019

These days when we hear someone refer to the Georgia lottery, we think of the state-sponsored, scratch-and-win-type games of chance that are purchased at convenience stores with most of the receipts going to education (the Hope Scholarships) and other specified state projects. But this kind of Georgia lottery is a very new development. For the first hundred years of the history of our state, the term “lottery” meant something very different and much more critical.


The colony of Georgia was founded in 1733 by James Edward Oglethorpe, a British nobleman who enjoyed King George’s favor. (It probably didn’t hurt that Oglethorpe named his colony after King George). It appears that Oglethorpe truly wanted to do something good with the new colony and he spent a lot of time and effort getting it off the ground, but he didn’t mind making a little money for himself along the way.


In his defense, the fact that he came here, did all the planning and organizing to get things going, and actually lived here was highly unusual. Many of the folks to whom the king granted land never set foot here but considered their colonies a strictly commercial operation which they sent underlings to run and in which they took little interest except for the bottom line.


Oglethorpe must have been a very charming man as he captivated the king and, once in Georgia, soon became great friends with a man named Tomochichi, chief of the Yamacraw Indian tribe who owned much of the land around the Savannah settlement, which was about all there was to Georgia in the beginning. Oglethorpe thus managed to either buy or be given some added land by Tomochichi including a section called Yamacraw Bluff on which the original city of Savannah was built. Oglethorpe himself laid the city out in squares with sections regularly set aside for parks and public buildings. If you have been to Savannah or if you have seen the movie “Forest Gump,” you know that the central city layout remains to this day as Oglethorpe planned it. If he came back to Savannah today, he would have no trouble finding his way around--at least in the old city.

 An 1832 land lottery document from Donna Street's family collection.


As the years passed, more Georgia land was acquired by individual purchases and agreements with the local Indians but, after a while, the Indians figured out that this system wasn’t working to their advantage, to say the least, so they became less willing to part with their land on a friendly basis and the state began to look for other ways to acquire the land they needed to grow the colony. What happened in our neck of the woods, the cruel and probably illegal removal of the Cherokee via the Trail of Tears (the Supreme Court ruled for the Cherokee and against the removal but President Andrew Jackson defied the decision and did it anyway) was only the last and arguably the worst chapter in a long story.


According to information from the State Archives, seven times between 1805 and 1832 the state of Georgia used a land lottery system to distribute to settlers land which had been taken from either the Creek or the Cherokee tribes who had lived there for centuries. These lotteries were unique to Georgia; no other state used this system to any significant degree. It may seem a strange system when first examined, but it was way ahead of the previous setup. In the early years, Georgia used a concept called headrights to distribute land. It was complicated and, frankly, boring to read about. I couldn’t begin to explain it, but unfortunately, the system did exactly the opposite of what is was supposed to do, which resulted in some very angry settlers. So, in the early 1800s, the system was changed to the land lottery model.


A number of forces were pressuring the powers that be to make space in Georgia for more white settlers. As the 1800s rolled on, the best land had already been gobbled up in areas near the ports where immigrants arrived and new settlers were entering in great numbers and needing places to live. The mountains to the west of the original 13 colonies were a barrier to settlement for many more years and the Indians there were even less friendly, so that those newcomers who arrived at New York, Philadelphia or, most certainly, Charleston, tended to come in and, over a period of months and years, as they could gather supplies and money to do it, move south and southwest where land was becoming available. That meant Georgia, to a degree Tennessee, and the territory of Mississippi which then consisted of what is now the two states of Alabama and Mississippi.


There was in those days a “Great Wagon Road” south from Pennsylvania following mostly old Indian trails down which whole families came in oxcarts filled with what little they owned, to places they couldn’t even imagine, to settle and make a new life. It was rough, untamed and virgin land, full of wild animals and other dangers and homesteading it was killer work, but a lot of these immigrants were Scots-Irish folks who had arrived in the colonies after years of fighting (literally) against lousy treatment by their English overlords or starving from potato famines at home and they came with an attitude which they probably needed. They were tough enough and mean enough and gutsy enough to do what it took and they did--by the thousands.


In addition to new immigrants, there were longtime citizens who were also clamoring for new land, although many of them were not as needy or as desperate as the newcomers. There were many Southerners who fought against the British either during the American Revolution or the War of 1812 and they were notoriously poorly paid for their efforts at the time. They were promised rewards after the wars and they expected the governments, state and national, to produce them after some time had passed. The governments found that a way to make them happy was to take Indian lands and redistribute them to whites and, in Georgia, the land lotteries were the mechanism for getting this done.


Georgia had a much older and more established state government than its territorial neighbors to the west at the time of the first Georgia Land Lottery in 1805, so they handled things much differently. To their credit, however, the governors of the Mississippi Territory also found a fairly successful way to distribute the new lands--a way very different from the lotteries.

Next time: The actual land lotteries--where they were, how they happened and what they did.


--Joy Odom


Joy Odom is an officer of the Dade Historical Society and a former principal of Dade County High School.

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