Georgia Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The last of the original thirteen English colonies to be founded, and the largest state east of the Mississippi River, Georgia has twice led its region in being the forerunner of the “New South,” first following the Civil War and then during the second half of the twentieth century.

History of Georgia

The last of the original thirteen English colonies to be founded, and the largest state east of the Mississippi River, Georgia has twice led its region in being the forerunner of the “New South,” first following the Civil War and then during the second half of the twentieth century. A state of immense geographical variation, changing in height from one mile to sea level, it transformed itself from a primarily agricultural state to one that embraced modern manufacturing and technology. Its capital, Atlanta, is one of the largest and fastest-growing cities in the South and a metropolis of truly international distinction.

Early History

In approximately 12,000 b.c.e. the first inhabitants lived along the rivers and coasts of what would become Georgia with a diet of fish and shellfish. They were followed first by nomadic hunters and then by more settled residents who developed agriculture. When Europeans arrived during the mid-1500’s, the Native American Cherokee and Creek tribes were dominant in the eastern and coastal areas. Along the coast the Yamacraw, a group of the Creek, were well established. The Chickasaw and Choctaw inhabited the western portion of the territory.

A Native American chief named Guale was the first to make lasting contact with the Europeans, meeting the Spanish soldier Pedro Menéndez de Avilés in 1566. As a result, for a time the entire coastal region was called Guale. British, French, and Spanish competed to make the Native American tribes their allies, with hopes of using them to defend their own colonies and eliminate those of their competitors. After the Yamasee War (1715-1728) nearly destroyed the British colony of Carolina, the British were determined to settle a buffer colony between themselves and the Spanish in Florida. That colony would become Georgia.

Exploration and Settlement

Spain, with strongholds established throughout the Caribbean and in Florida, sent the first European explorers into the area of Georgia. In 1540 Hernando de Soto passed through Georgia on his lengthy and difficult expedition in search of the fabled Seven Cities of Gold, which were rumored to possess wealth in excess of anything yet found in the New World. French Huguenots under Jean Ribaut landed along the coast in 1562, the same year Ribaut sought to colonize the Port Royal region to the north, in what is now South Carolina. Both attempts were failures. In order to strengthen its position and defend its Florida possessions, Spain established a string of missions and forts running along the coast from northern Florida to the sea islands.

The English responded by thrusting south, forcing the Spanish back to St. Augustine. To create a barrier between the Spanish and the rapidly growing colonies to the north, King George II granted a charter for a colony in 1732. General James Edward Oglethorpe, who wished to open the colony for debtors to give them a fresh start on life, was placed in command of the venture. In 1733, with just over one hundred colonists, Oglethorpe arrived at the bluffs of the Savannah River and struck a deal with Yamacraw chief Tomochichi for land along the river. Oglethorpe laid out the city of Savannah with a gridlike pattern of squares, which would remain.

The Spanish threat was effectively ended in 1742 with Oglethorpe’s victory at the Battle of Bloody Marsh on Saint Simons Island. Georgia grew rapidly with an economy based on rice, indigo, and cotton. Slavery had been banned in the colony in 1735, but crops were grown best under the plantation system, and in 1749 the slave trade was legalized. The territory up the Savannah River was explored and settled; in 1753 the city of Augusta was founded. In 1754 Georgia became a royal colony.

Revolution and the New Nation

As the colonies moved toward independence, Georgia convened a Provincial Congress in 1775, and its Council of Safety sent delegates to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. The year following the declaration of American independence, Georgia ratified its first state constitution. In 1778, as the British pursued a southern strategy to pacify the rebellion, their troops seized Savannah. American and French troops were repulsed in a bloody attempt to retake the city, which the British continued to hold until the end of the Revolution.

Georgia became the fourth state to ratify the Constitution, and it joined the Union in 1788, with Augusta, on the Savannah River, as its capital. Its western lands were rapidly developed, and this growth led to the Yazoo fraud, during which members of the state legislature sold 50 million acres to phantom land companies (most of which were owned by the legislators themselves), which resold them to the public. In the end, the federal government had to pay more than $4 million to settle claims from the incident.

The western movement also prompted the removal of the Cherokee and Creek Indians from Georgia. The Creek sold their lands in 1827 and moved to Arkansas. Although the Cherokee had tried to fashion a compromise with the European settlers, the discovery of gold on their territory doomed those efforts. Georgia ordered the removal of the Native Americans in 1832, and six years later the tribe began its Trail of Tears to Indian Territory, now the state of Oklahoma.

One of the most important developments in American history occurred near Savannah in 1793, when Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin. This device automatically separated cotton seed from cotton fiber, a time-consuming task which before had been done only by hand. The cotton gin made possible the booming growth of cotton farming in the South, including Georgia, where the rich soil in central part of the state made the crop highly profitable.

Civil War and Reconstruction

In 1861 Georgia joined with seven other southern states and seceded from the Union. Later that year, in the temporary capital of Montgomery, Alabama, Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia was elected vice president of the Confederacy. While Georgia soldiers were fighting along the front lines in Tennessee and Virginia, Union forces bombarded and captured Fort Pulaski at the mouth of the Savannah River and clamped a tight blockade on the Georgia coastline. In 1863, after capturing Chattanooga, Tennessee, a Union army advancing into Georgia was surprised and overcome at the Battle of Chickamauga. The following year, the Federals returned under General William Tecumseh Sherman to strike at the strategic railroad center of Atlanta. After months of siege, Atlanta fell and was burned. Sherman then embarked on his March to the Sea, leaving a swath of destruction through Georgia sixty miles wide and capturing Savannah in December.

Following the war, Georgia, like the rest of the defeated South, entered a period of Reconstruction. The state attempted to rejoin the Union in 1868 but was refused reentry in 1869 because state leaders would not ratify the Fifteenth Amendment, which prohibits denying voting rights because of race. When Georgia complied with this amendment it was readmitted to the Union, in 1870.

During Reconstruction, Georgia began to rebuild its economy, repairing and expanding its railroad system, which had been largely destroyed during the Civil War, and diversifying its agricultural base to include corn, fruit–especially peaches–tobacco, and livestock. However, cotton, which had been a major crop before the Civil War, remained an essential part of the state’s economy, and when a boll weevil infestation struck in the 1920’s, it was a severe blow to Georgia’s farmers and the entire state.

The state was making strides in other areas. In 1879, Henry Grady had become one of the owners of the Atlanta Constitution, the state’s largest newspaper. As an unofficial spokesperson for Georgia, Grady prophesied the “New South,” which would embrace progress, introduce industry and manufacturing, and move away from the wounds of the Civil War. Atlanta took as its symbol the phoenix, since the city had literally risen anew from the ashes of destruction. It became the headquarters of large regional companies, an economic powerhouse in the Southeast, and a literal symbol of Grady’s New South. Among the local success stories was the rise of Coca-Cola, invented by pharmacist John Styth Pemberton in 1886 and, after a few years, the most popular soft drink in the nation.

The Modern Age

During the 1940’s and 1950’s, manufacturing in Georgia passed agriculture, forestry, and fishing as the major source of income. Textile mills, in particular, became a major force in the state’s economy. Georgia became one of the world’s largest sources of kaolin and fullers earth–the first used in producing paper and dishware, the second used for cat litter. High-quality granite was also mined in the upper portion of the state. Meanwhile, the growth of banking and financial institutions continued to the point that Atlanta became known as the “Wall Street of the South,” while businesses involved with modern technology also contributed to the growth of the state.

Georgia’s passage through the civil rights era was aided by a tradition of moderation among its political leadership. From 1877 on, the state had only Democratic governors. Although Democrat Lester Maddox was elected governor in 1966 with an openly segregationist agenda, broad-minded Atlanta mayor Ivan Allen and progressive governors such as Ellis Arnall, Carl Sanders, and Jimmy Carter were more representative and helped bring the state through a potentially difficult period. Carter in 1976 was elected president of the United States. In 1972 Maynard Jackson was elected mayor of Atlanta, the first African American chosen to lead a large southern city. Also that year, Andrew Young became the first African American elected to Congress from Georgia since the end of Reconstruction. This period of Georgia’s history is regarded as marking the birth of the second “New South,” which combined economic development with racial progress.

Georgia’s economy is strong, with its deep-water port of Savannah one of the most active on the East Coast. Atlanta’s Hartsville International Airport is one of the largest and best equipped in the world. Natural resources contribute to the state’s revenues.

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