The 1805 Lottery—A Very Big Deal

November 11, 2019

It must have been exciting to live in Georgia in early 1805--even if you lived in the hindmost of hinterlands, and there were a lot of those. Savannah was the only city of any real size. The great majority of citizens lived either way out in the country or in or near small towns or villages where there might be one store, a blacksmith shop, a doctor, if you were lucky, and maybe a school although probably not. There was no regular system of public education throughout the whole state of Georgia for many more years.


There were very few means of communication available to folks except word-of-mouth, but they learned to use that means very well. When family members in one town went to visit relatives in another, they took their local news with them. When folks went into town to buy supplies, they exchanged news and, no doubt, opinions about the news of the day with the neighbors they encountered.


Probably the biggest factor in taking news over long distances were the hordes of traveling salesmen and fixers who traveled the roads during this period providing any service that was hard for residents to take care of on their own. There were peddlers who sold liniments and tonics for various ailments (most of them of the snake-oil variety, no doubt); there were cobblers who traveled around making shoes; “tinkers” who mended pots and pans and other metal items and fixed other stuff, as well; tomb-stone carvers, coffin-makers and many more.


All of these folks picked up information as they plied their trades and they were in great demand as they came to each new place and could share it. There were no hotels except in the larger towns, but it was no problem for the travelers to find places to stay along their routes. People were happy to feed them and put them up for a night to get the latest word from them on what was happening elsewhere.


And in 1805, a lot was about to happen. It had been in the works for a couple of years and, despite the rural nature of the state, I suspect that only the most dedicated of hermits had not heard about it.


In 1802, at Fort Wilkinson, probably in what is now Wilkinson County, just east of Macon, the Creek Indians had given up two tracts of land to the space-hungry government of the state. This was during the early days when the Creeks still thought they could hold on to most of their land by parting with some of it. They soon figured out that this system didn’t work.


People were pouring into Georgia, from overseas through the port of Savannah, and by land from the states to the north, and they needed land to homestead. Some of these folks traveled amazing distances to get here and all by wagon pulled by oxen at three miles a day if they were lucky. One of my paternal ancestors, my great-great-great-great-great grandfather, came to South Georgia with his large family by road from Connecticut! They stopped and lived for a while in South Carolina, but when new land opened up in Georgia, they came on down.


When the Georgia government got the land ceded by the Creeks, the officials took some time to decide how to distribute it fairly to the state’s citizens. As I mentioned in my previous article, they had had problems with rampant dishonesty and scandals with the previous system and wanted to do better this time, probably to avoid years of getting sued as had happened before. The legislative Act of 11 May 1803 established a new process by which a land lottery would operate to fairly apportion the new land. It was the first time such a system had been put into place and Georgia was the only state which used the system over many years. To the surprise of many, it worked with great success for the government and the people who participated. 

First, the law outlined the new counties (three) which would be created within the ceded land and the districts into which the land would be divided. There would be five districts in Baldwin County (site of present-day Milledgeville), three districts in Wayne County (on the Savannah River just across from the South Carolina border) and five districts in Wilkinson County (see above description). Each district was to be surveyed into lots. In the smaller counties, each lot would contain 202.5 acres; in the larger areas, they would include 490 acres. In the end, 4, 580 land lots were surveyed.


For the average dirt farmer who was probably confined to only a few acres of ground with which to feed his family and earn an income, this must have sounded like an enormous amount of land and the possibility of getting his hands on some of it was almost too good to be true. Needless to say, news of all this went through the state like wildfire in the latter half of 1803.


As an aside, the state government took good care of itself in this undertaking, as well. Naturally, there were a few pieces of land that weren’t big enough to be included in the lottery, sort of left-over scraps smaller than the 202.5 or 490 acres required by the law in the separate areas, so they were held out and sold at public auction with the state receiving the returns from these sales.


One surveyor was hired to map each district at a pay rate of $2.75 per mile surveyed. From the initial surveys, the state created maps, plats and field notebooks for state use. This system of preparing for the 1805 lottery worked so well that it was still in use when our part of the state was surveyed after the Cherokee Removal in the 1820’s.


We ( the Dade Historical Society) have a copy in our collection at the library of what we think is the work of one of the surveyors who did this job in Dade County as the state was preparing to distribute the former Cherokee holdings in our part of the state. It is old, faded, and hard to read but fascinating to look at as we have noted landmarks and local oddities we can sometimes recognize. The actual work of the surveyors of 1805 was forwarded to the Georgia Surveyor General when they were complete and still reside in the Georgia State Archives.


We are still using throughout Georgia the system of districts and land lots laid out by these surveyors, so that, if you know these numbers for your land, you can follow the ownership of your holdings back to the beginning of established government where you live. This is called a chain of title and, in a place like Dade County where the population is small and the same families have lived here for generations, these land records make for quite accurate family histories to follow through the years.


Next time: How the lotteries worked - an amazing achievement for that day.


--Joy Odom



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