The 1805 Lottery in Georgia

November 18, 2019

This is Part 3 of Joy Odom's series on the Georgia Land Lottery. Access the earlier columns by clicking the Historically Speaking icon on the Planet homepage. 


Probably because the whole thing was so exciting and everybody was so involved with the actual drawing that no one wanted to be bothered, we have no actual “at the time” account of how the first lottery took place. But we know where and when and by piecing together stuff from the paperwork at the time, we can pretty well figure it out. It certainly had to have been the most attention-grabbing thing that had ever happened in the state to that date.


First, state officials had to figure out how to find and register people who were eligible to participate in the lottery. This, of course, had to be done at the county level so the job was given to the justices of each county’s inferior court. They probably knew most of their local citizens--it was a very small world at that time--and who would probably be eligible, but I imagine a lot of these men had to travel around their counties on horseback talking to people at the more out-of-the-way homes to figure out whether there was anyone there who would get a shot at the new land. They had almost a year to make up the eligibility lists for their counties, from May 1803 to March 1804, and they also had to figure out how many draws each lucky person was eligible to make.


The matter of eligibility and draws or chances had been very carefully laid out by the Georgia legislature in the original bill and the pool of participants was large. In 1805, if you were a white male over the age of 21 and had resided in the state for one year prior to the Land Lottery Act (1802), you were entitled to one draw. If you were a white male who met the residency and citizenship requirements but who also had a wife and legitimate children under the age of 21, you were entitled to two draws.


A widow with legitimate children under 21 would also get two draws. Orphans whose parents were both deceased, or whose father was dead but their mother had remarried, also got one draw. As a reminder, we are talking about lots of 202-plus acres in Baldwin and Wilkinson County areas and the lots in the more southern Wayne County area were made up of 490 acres. That’s a lot of land to get for free--especially in those days!


Once the counties sent in their lists of participants to the state, the individual county lists were made into a huge, whopping list for the whole state. It filled four books and was compiled by two men who must have suffered from writer’s cramp for days afterward. These books are still housed today at the Georgia Department of Archives. They were completed on 19 July 1805, only three days before the drawing began.


According to the list books, about 24,000 people throughout Georgia participated in the lottery of 1805. Surprisingly, there were a few who were eligible but did not participate. Some were simply apathetic, others objected on religious grounds to the betting aspect of the lottery, and some, despite all efforts, apparently did not receive word about it. This meant that the 24,000 people who did sign up were eligible for more than 40,000 draws.


Each draw represented a slightly less than one-in-ten chance of winning a lot of land in the new areas. Of course, there were not 40,000 pieces of land to be awarded so to make it all come out even, the number of each available lot was written on a ticket and blank tickets were added to make up the 40,000 pieces of paper that would be drawn by participants.


A man named Jacob Schley was paid $40 to build a huge, drumlike container called a lottery wheel with a turning handle like an old roasting spit to hold the tickets and turn them constantly to ensure fairness. With this last preparation, everything was ready.


This 1805 lottery was held at Louisville in Jefferson County in southeast Georgia. Nowadays, Louisville is just another of many old, sleepy towns in southeast Georgia, but in 1805, it was the capitol and so it was the place where the lottery happened.


We think that the drawing took place in a large room in what was then the capitol building with a long table set against one wall for the lottery commissioners and their record books to be situated. The drum containing the prize slips and blanks stood in front of this table along with a young boy named Burke Chisholm who was designated to draw the tickets. No one seems to know how he was chosen for this task, but it wasn’t for fun. He pulled slips of paper out of the barrel for three days!


The five lottery commissioners who had been named by the legislature were all present, books in hand, to be sure everything went according to the law. At the kick-off, one of the big books of persons eligible to draw was opened and the names within were called one-by-one along with how many draws each of them were to receive. Each ticket was drawn and passed to a commissioner who marked a “B” for blank (no winner) or a “P” for prize beside the participant’s name in the big book. If he got more than one chance, the process was repeated. If a prize ticket was drawn, the recipient was called a “fortunate drawer” (kind of an amusing term) and his personal information, as well as the description and location of the land he had won, was noted by the official.


This process went on from Thursday through Saturday. On the next Tuesday, the state began accepting payments for participation by those who had won as the lottery wasn’t entirely free. The legislators apparently thought it would work better if winners had some skin in the game. To obtain their grants, fortunate drawers were required to pay four dollars per hundred acres or $8.10 in Baldwin County, where the lots were smaller, and $19.10 in the Wayne County section.


There were also some followup procedures that made sure the lottery did what is supposed to do: distribute the land and ensure that it was settled and under cultivation as soon as possible. By law, fortunate drawers were allowed one year to claim their land. To do this, they had to physically come to Louisville to make the claim.


It soon became obvious that this was the hardest part of the process due to the difficulties of transportation in those days, and the legislature extended this deadline yearly for a number of times to accommodate those who had trouble meeting this requirement.


Because this was a chance to attain a lot of land cheaply, a few people cheated to get their hands on it by swearing that they met one or more of the qualifications when it wasn’t true. But the lottery kings had thought of that, too. If an informant could prove that a fortunate drawer had lied about his qualifications for the land, it was condemned and sold and the informant received half the land. The state got the other half and sold it at auction. At least six land lots were condemned and redistributed due to this kind of fraud.


Names of fortunate drawers for the 1805 Georgia Land Lottery can easily be found via a computer search. If your family has been in Georgia for a long time, you might find that some of your ancestors were lottery winners long ago. Many of the winners never lived on the land themselves but sold it for a tidy profit or gave it to one or more of their children to settle.


I found two familiar names on the fortunate drawers list for 1805. One was Henry Crawford Tucker who lived from 1752 until 1832. He was born in Virginia, one of the younger sons of a large landowner who struck out to make his own way and wound up in Georgia. He was also my great-great-great-great grandfather. He won land in Wilkinson County in 1805 and passed it on to one of his sons who moved there and whose children branched out from there all over South Georgia.


The second winner’s name that rang a bell was that of James Nisbet who also won land in Wilkinson County just east of Macon. He was the ancestor of James Cooper Nisbet who built Cloverdale Plantation south of Rising Fawn and organized and led a group of men who went from Dade County to fight in the Civil War. While he and his family held a considerable amount of land in Dade County, the family’s primary

plantation was in the Macon area and may have begun with the land won by the first Georgia Nisbet in the first Georgia lottery.


Next time: The in-between lotteries and the 1832 Cherokee Lottery--the biggest of all.


--Joy Odom

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