Editor's note: This is a new installment in Joy Odom's ongoing series on the Georgia Land Lottery. For preceding installments, click the history icon on the home page, or "columns," then "history," in the navigator above.
Often as I drive through some of the less populated and wilder portions of our county, I try to imagine what it must have been like to arrive here in the 1840s and ‘50s just after Dade became a county unto itself. For most of the new arrivals there was little or nothing to help them settle in and they would have had to be totally responsible for clearing fields, building houses and shelters for their animals, and taking care of illnesses and injuries as they occurred. For such reasons, people did not come pouring into the new Dade County as they did into some of the other counties whose geography was less challenging. In the 1840 census, which gives us little information except numbers, there were only 1,364 people in the entire county!
Only a few of the folks who first settled here were actual “fortunate drawers” who drew lots in Dade in the Cherokee Lottery and came here themselves. Most of the first citizens of Dade purchased their land from these drawers who had no intention and/or perhaps no means of moving to Dade County. Remember that among the categories of eligible drawers were widows, orphans and the mentally challenged. Most of these people were probably dependent on a support system where they lived and could not relocate, but at least they reaped some money from the sale of the lots they had drawn, which had to make life easier for them and their relatives wherever they lived. I will repeat again an earlier and really amazing point: The lotteries were among the few things the state of Georgia has ever done whose major intent was to give a hand up to the less fortunate and which returned no significant benefit to the state or its officials.
Most of those who came here bought only one or two land lots as that was all they could afford, and AS they were only interested in small farming to support a family. A few others, however, bought a large number of lots from the original drawers with the idea of farming on a much larger scale--plantation-style. One of these was a man named Benjamin Easley who brought slaves with him when he came, as did a few others. At the time of the 1840 census, there were some 14 owners in Dade and they owned a total of 54 slaves. In the 1840 census, Mr. Easley is shown as the owner of 14 enslaved people; five of them were under 10 years of age. The Easley plantation thrived for a number of years until the Civil War brought it and most other such enterprises to an end.
This is an early 20th-Century view of the Easley house. Mr. Easley was long gone by then and the house had been purchased by the Allison family. Many of the Allison descendants still live in Dade. According to his granddaughter, Rose Smith Powell, it was purchased next by William Henry Smith Sr. It is thought that he is the person responsible for either removing the second story or tearing the house down and building his home on the original foundation. Fred Thomas currently lives on the homesite and has made many changes since he and his late wife, Carol West Thomas purchased the property a couple of decades ago.
A few of the first settlers were lucky enough to purchase land which had been cleared and cultivated by the Cherokee during their hundreds of years of occupation and which likely already encompassed prepared fields and usable buildings, but most new arrivals were not so fortunate and had to pitch in immediately in order to survive. They did have some assistance from the state, however.
As soon as Dade was declared a county in late 1837, efforts began to organize at least the germs of a county government. It appears that what happened in most of the old Cherokee counties and in Dade was that an Inferior Court judge was appointed to come in and begin to get things moving in the most needed areas as he had the legal clout to do so.
The first consideration was security as there was still a “wild West” atmosphere in the new areas, with a lot of roving bands of criminals as well as disputes between residents that had to be settled. Fights over land boundary lines were epidemic. The judge was empowered to establish a grand jury which then set about getting a sheriff electe; determining how to set up a tax structure to build a courthouse, a jail, and other necessary public buildings; and generally getting things moving toward an operative county government structure. But again, this was very basic--no schools, health departments, et cetera, just the bare necessities.
The new settlers also took on considerable responsibility for their own safety and security. To provide a quicker and nearer response in case of trouble, the new county (and most new counties in Georgia as they were settled) was divided into what were called “militia districts,” and in each of those districts an effort was made to find a man with some military experience who could teach his neighbors the basics of military preparation and use of weapons in organized units. All the backwoodsmen-slash-farmers could use weapons effectively to scare off wolves and shoot game, but most had no idea how to work in coordination with others to face a common enemy.
These militia districts were numbered but, in these early days, they tended to be called by the name of the man who was the unit leader. Therefore, a settler was listed in county records and in the census as living in “Captain Anderson’s district.” rather than in district 10, for example. This initial organization and the need for it shine a light on a part of our Constitution that we often overlook. At the time Dade was being organized, the U. S. Constitution was only 60 years old and the American Revolution, as well as the War of 1812 with Great Britain, was still pretty fresh in people’s minds.
In both wars, a lot of fighting was done in the South and many settlers, particularly those who came here from North and South Carolina and Tennessee, as most of the earliest Dade Countians did, would have had fathers and grandfathers who fought in these battles and skirmishes. The militia districts are a direct result of a timely reading of the second amendment to the Constitution as it would have been understood in
those days: “A well-regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed”.
Next time: Who was here in 1850?