From One, Many: The Making of the Cherokee Counties in North Georgia

December 23, 2019

In 1832, after the forced departure of the Cherokee Indians from what had been their lands for hundreds of years, the state of Georgia began carving the area into new counties and opening these to “fortunate drawers” from the lottery and other new settlers to the area. They really had no right to do so as there was, as yet, no legal settlement/treaty with the Cherokee ceding the lands, but such was the fever to get into these new areas, especially the gold areas, that proprieties like this didn’t matter much to anyone, it seems.


There is a further and terribly sad story about how the treaty was finally signed by the Cherokees that “officially” gave over the land to the state, but that is for another time. It did not happen until 1835, so all the settlement and activity in this area until then was actually illegal. Again, it seems that nobody, official or un-, really cared.


The new counties were created in what might be described as waves--the first batch in 1832 while the Indians were still being shipped out. I will list both the names of the counties and county seats here as you may be more familiar with towns than counties. Remember that Cherokee, the original giant county created from all the Indian lands in 1830 was still in existence and was cut up in succeeding years to make the counties we know today beginning with the following: in 1832, came Cass (Cartersville), Cobb (Marietta), Floyd (Rome), Forsyth (Cumming), Gilmer (Ellijay), Lumpkin (Dahlonega), Murray (Chatsworth), Paulding (Dallas) and Union (Blairsville).


 It’s interesting to note that the county boundaries set at this time turned out to be pretty flexible, as the succeeding histories make clear. The prevailing thinking in mid-1800s in Georgia was that no one should live more than a day’s wagon ride from his county seat where he would have to transact all the business of his citizenship such as voting, marriage, paying taxes, serving as a juror, et cetera. If you’ve ever wondered why we have so many counties (159) in Georgia, there it is and we cling to it to this day. (Our next door neighbor, Alabama, a state of similar size, has 67, but it was set up very differently from the get-go.)


Initially, the state laid out the new “Cherokee” counties based on the surveys that had been done and using logical geographic features such as rivers, mountains, distances, et cetera, as dividing lines. But it was soon discovered that a man looking at a survey map of a county from half a state away might not be able to see the realities of life there.


What is now Dade County was included in the original Walker County in 1832 and, on paper, that looks perfectly sensible. But it didn’t look sensible at all to the resident of Trenton in 1834 who needed to go to the county seat in Lafayette to take care of business. Although the distance wasn’t terrible, the terrain was. So we were special in 1837, as we have so often been for the same reason, and we were given a new county created out of Walker County in 1837 named Dade. Now the fellow in Trenton was all fixed up, but the folks on Sand and Lookout Mountains still had a bit of a challenge getting their government business done. Still, it was a lot better than having to drive a wagon to LaFayette!


A number more new counties were formed from the old Cherokee in the 1850s after people began moving in in large numbers and they, like us, needed closer access to government. These counties included: Gordon (Calhoun) in 1850; Polk (Cedartown) and Whitfield (Dalton) in 1851; Catoosa (Ringgold) and Pickens (Jasper), which also had mountains to deal with, in 1853; Fannin (Blue Ridge) in 1854; Towns (Hiawassee) in 1856 and Milton (Milton) and Dawson (Dawsonville) in 1857.


If a couple of the county names mentioned above sound a little strange to you, there’s a good reason. Two of these names no longer exist and the reason is politics of very different types. Cass County was originally named for Senator Lewis Cass of Michigan who had worked with Georgian and other Southern legislators in Congress to do some beneficial things for the South in the early 1800s, but he was also very much an opponent of slavery. By the 1830s, our great national agony leading to the Civil War had begun and the nation became terribly divided, so it was unacceptable to have a Northern senator’s name on anything in the South. So Cass County became Bartow.


Milton County, which was just northeast of Atlanta, lasted longer but still went out of existence. Like Campbell County, where many of my ancestors lived on the south side of Atlanta, it was the home of a lot of poor folks: road crew members, streetcar

drivers, textile mill employees who, when the Depression came in the 1930s could not afford to pay their taxes. These two counties went belly-up and folded into Fulton County, of which Atlanta is the county seat.


Next time: How do you start up a county?


--Joy Odom

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