No county in the state of Georgia is richer in natural resources and in the achievements of her citizens than Wilkes. Her contributions of material wealth and of distinguished men and women in the upbuilding of the state is remarkable. She has furnished eleven Governors of Georgia, who were either born in Wilkes, or who were at some times residents of that county, and seventeen counties in the state have been named in honor of her eminent sons.

Wilkes county originally embraced a very large territory, including Lincoln, Elbert, Oglethorpe, and in part Hart, Warren, McDuffie, Talliaferro, Madison and Greene counties. This territory was acquired from the Indians in payment of debts due the early traders, and in 1773 it was opened to settlement. In 1777 it was created into a county by the State Constitution of that year. It was named in honor of John Wilkes, a distinguished member of the British Parliament, who strenuously opposed those harsh and unjust measures towards America which finally led to the Revolution.


The earliest settlers of Wilkes county were from North Carolina, but these were soon followed by a large number of Virginia families of greater wealth, education and influence. The differences of feeling and social status between these two groups gave rise to political antagonisms which were at times state-wide. The political strife between Crawford and Clark is an instance. William H. Crawford was a Virginian, while John Clark was a North Carolinian, and for many years Georgia politics was divided into two great factions, whose members espoused the cause of one or the other of these two great leaders.

It is worthy of note that the early settlers of Wilkes county were a totally different group from that which was planted in Savannah by Oglethorpe in 1733. The Wilkes county settlers came in a steady migratory stream from Virginia, North Carolina, and Maryland, and they were of the best English and Scotch-Irish stock. Behind these people in ancestral lines lay habits of thrift and industry, hardihood and courage, and honor and high purpose. It is therefore not strange that from such ancestral stock so many men of mark should be produced. Among these early settlers were the following:
Gen. Elijah Clarke and his son John Clark, who afterwards became Governor,
Colonel John Dooly, Colonel Thomas Dooly,
Stephen Heard, Barnard Heard, Jesse Heard, John Heard,
George Mathews (Governor),
Colonel Benjamin Taliaferro,
Francis Meriwether, Thomas Meriwether, David Meriwether,
Benjamin Wilkinson,
John Talbot and his son Matthew Talbot (Governor),
Colonel Micah Williamson,
William Barnett,
John Gilmer, Thomas M. Gilmer, the father of Governor George R. Gilmer,
John Marks,
John Callaway,
Nathaniel Edge,
Wiley Hill,
John Myrick,
Colonel John Freeman, Colonel Holman Freeman,
Dr. W. W. Bibb,
General Samuel Blackburn,
Nathaniel Barnett,
Micajah McGehee,
Daniel Harvie,
Reuben Jordan,
John Davenport,
John Bradley, James Bradley,
George Lumpkin,
John Rutherford,
John Hill,
Thomas Ansley,
Nathaniel Howell,
Thomas Wooten,
Burwell Pope,
John Lindsey,
Frederick Sims,
William Pollard,
Benjamin Jackson, Walter Jackson,
William Morgan,
Thomas Branham,
John Wingfield,
John Nall,
Nathaniel Christmas,
Job Callaway,
Jacob Early,
Henry Mounger,
William Glenn,
Walker Richardson,
Benjamin Joyney,
Reuben Saffold,
James Findley,
Curtace Wellborn,
Samuel Cresswell,
James Anthony,
William Terrell, Joel Terrell,
Daniel Grant, Thomas Grant,
William Bowen,
John Armstrong,
Sanders Walker,
Colonel Nicholas Long,
Thomas Wellborn,
Thomas Carter,
Spencer Crane,
Mr. Pharr,
James Jack,
Garland Wingfield, Thomas Wingfield,
Mr. Cuthbert,
Thomas Napier,
William Moss,
Captain Lipham,
Horatio Marbury,
John Barksdale,
Henry Pope, John Pope,
Charles Tate,
Henry Gibson,
David Lowery,
William Stokes,
William Gilbert,
Daniel Mills,
Edward Butler,
David Hillhouse,
Micajah Anthony,
John Candler,
John Cain,
Elijah Darden,
Gabriel Toombs, William Toombs,
John Stephens,
Williamson Bird,
George Willis,
Humphrey Burdett,
Joel Hurt,
Pressly Rucker,
William Sanson, James Sanson,
William Head,
Alexander Cummins,
John Collier,
Joseph Wilson,
Sampson Harris,
Anthony Poullain,
John Colley,
Philip Combs,
Jacob Shorter,
William Ogletree,
Joseph Callaway,
William Rabun,
Henry Colquitt,
James Shepard,
Colonel John Graves,
Captain Abram Simons,
Rev. Silas Mercer,
Rev. T. J. Beck,
Henry Jossey,
Matthew Sikes.

In 1773 Stephen Heard of Virginia planted a colony upon the present site of the town of Washington, and there he built a stockade fort. His two brothers, Barnard and Jesse, and probably his father John Heard, came with him. During the Revolution Heard's Fort became the temporary seat of the state government after Augusta fell into the hands of the British, and Stephen Heard acted as Governor. The traditional site of the old fort is that upon which the new court house now stands, where also stood the old Heard House in which the last meeting of the Confederate Cabinet was held.

The first court held north of Augusta was at Heard's Fort on April 25, 1779, where Absalom Bedell, Benjamin Catchings, and William Down were the Justices. Zachariah Lamar and James Gorman were added later. Colonel John Dooly was the attorney for the state. At this court nine persons were sentenced to be hanged, principally for treason, "under indictments," says Judge Andrews in the Bench and Bar of Georgia, "about as long as your finger."

The name of Heard's Fort was changed in 1780 to Washington in honor of "The Father of his Country," it being the first town in the United States so named.

During the Revolution, Wilkes county, which then included Lincoln and the other parts cut off since, was called by the Tories "the Hornet's Nest," on account of the patriotic activity and bravery of her people. About eight miles west of Washington was fought on February 14, 1779, the battle of Kettle Creek, where the American forces under Pickens, Clarke and Dooly almost annihilated the British troops under Colonel Boyd. The British leader with about eight hundred men had crossed the Savannah near its junction with Broad River, and was shaping his course westward to a point on Little River, where he had agreed upon a union with the notorious McGirth. The Americans with about four hundred men closely followed them, and on the morning of the 14th of February they came upon the enemy who had halted for breakfast upon the north side of Kettle Creek. The British had taken no precaution against a surprise attack, and the Americans suddenly fell upon them in a desperate battle which lasted one hour and forty-five minutes. The result was a complete victory for the patriots. The British loss was seventy killed, and seventy-five wounded and captured. The American loss was nine killed and twenty-three wounded. The brave Colonel Boyd fell mortally wounded, three musket balls having pierced his body. Colonel Pickens waited upon him and tendered him every relief in his power. The British leader fully realized his hopeless condition, and he gave Colonel Pickens certain articles of value to be forwarded to his wife with a letter explaining the manner of his death. This request was faithfully complied with. Two men were detailed to wait upon him and to bury his body after death. He died the following night.

Those of the enemy who escaped scattered in every direction. This battle was a decisive one, for it completely foiled the British plans of invasion, and it greatly heartened the patriots throughout the state. A partial list of names of the American patriots who took part in this memorable struggle has been recently prepared after much investigation and research by Mrs. T. M. Green of Washington. This list, taken from Knight's Landmarks, Memorials, and Legends of Georgia is as follows:

Absalom Bedell Austin Dabney William Downs
Andrew Pickens Barnard Heard Henry Manadne
Benjamin Catchings James Williams Scott Redden
Charles Beddingfield Jesse Heard Joseph Scott Redden
Coldrop Freeman John Heard George Redden
Daniel Coleman Ambrose Beasley Jacob McLendon
Daniel Freeman Arnold George Walton
Dionysius Oliver Benjamin Hart Jesse Walton
Elijah Clarke Benjamin Wilkinson John Walton
Francis Triplett Bridges Nathaniel Walton
George Dooly Burwell Pope Robert Walton
Hugh McCall Cade Daniel Burnett
Jacob Ferrington Captain Anderson Ichabod Burnett
James Little Combs John Burnett
James McLean Cosby Richard Aycock
Joe Phillips Elisha Wilkinson Robert Day
John Coleman Finley Joseph Day
John Crutchfield Foster John Gorham
John Dooly Henry Pope Zachariah Lamar
John Freeman Holman Freeman Basil Lamar
John Glass James Alexander L. Williamson
Micajah Williamson James Freeman Joseph Pickens
R. Sutton James Lamar Marbury
Robert Harper James White Montgomery
Samuel Whatley Jeter Stubblefield Morgan Hart
Staples John Candler Nancy Darker
Thomas Dooly William Freeman Nancy Hart
Thomas Glass John Clark Nathan Smith
Thomas Stroud John Colley Owen Fluker
Wiley Pope John Evans Richard Tyner
William Bailey John Hill Saffold
William Harper John Lamar Snow
William Pope John Lindsey Stephen Evans
Zachariah Phillips John Nelson Stephen Heard
Truitt Will Fluker William Morgan
Walker William Evans William Terrell


It is an interesting fact that one of the first, if not the very first, cotton gins ever operated in Georgia, or in the world, was the one operated by Eli Whitney, the famous inventor, in Wilkes county near Smyrna church. The original building, though removed a short distance from the site upon which it was erected, is still standing on the Burdett place near Smyrna. One of the first cotton gins constructed by Whitney was for many years in the possession of Judge Garnett Andrews of Washington, to whom it was given by Governor Matthew Talbot, on whose plantation the first gin house was located. This old relic was lost many years ago at an agricultural fair in Augusta. Much credit is due to Miss Fannie Andrews, a daughter of Judge Garnett Andrews, and one of Georgia's most accomplished women, for preserving the history of the first cotton gin and its operations.

Wilkes county has produced a large number of distinguished men and women who have greatly strengthened and adorned the life of the state. Eleven Governors of Georgia were either born in Wilkes, or were for some time residents of this county. These were Heard, Mathews, Clark, Talbot, Early, Lumpkin, Rabun, Towns, Gilmer, Forsyth, and Stephens. Seventeen counties of Georgia have been named in honor of her distinguished sons.

STEPHEN HEARD moved from Westmoreland County, Virginia, in 1773, and built a stockade fort upon the present site of the town of Washington. He was a prominent figure in the councils of the state, and for a time during the Revolution he acted as governor with his capital at his fort.

GEORGE MATHEWS was twice governor of the state, and a member of the first United States Congress. He was born in Virginia in 1739, and in 1785 he removed to Georgia and settled at Goose Pond, now in Oglethorpe county, together with the Meriwethers, the Freemans, the Gilmers, the Talliaferros, Barnetts and others. While Governor he signed the notorious Yazoo Act, but he himself was free from any guilt in this great state scandal. He died in Augusta August 12, 1812, while on his way to Washington City to inflict punishment on the President of the United States for a fancied wrong, and was buried in old St. Paul's churchyard.

JOHN CLARK, the son of General Elijah Clarke, was a forceful figure in Georgia politics in the stormy period succeeding the Revolution. He was born in North Carolina February 28, 1766, and at the age of sixteen he entered the Continental Army as Lieutenant. He was elected Governor in 1819, and again two years later. He challenged William H. Crawford to a duel, and a shot from Clark's pistol broke Crawford's wrist. His home was situated eleven miles from Washington on the south side of the road to Danielsville. It was here that the American troops encamped the night before the battle of Kettle Creek. General Clark died of yellow fever at St. Andrew's Bay, Florida, October 12, 1832.

MATTHEW TALBOT was born in Virginia July 24, 1795. He became ex-officio Governor after the death of Governor Rabun in 1819. He died March 14, 1855, and was buried at Smyrna church near his home.

PETER EARLY was also born in Virginia. After being graduated from Princeton he moved to Wilkes county and began the practice of law. His marked ability and forceful character successfully advanced him to the positions of Congressman, Superior Court Judge, and, in 1813, to Governor. He died in Greene county August 15, 1817, and his remains still lie there in an unmarked grave.

WILSON LUMPKIN was born in Virginia January 14, 1783, and while very young he moved with his father to that part of Wilkes county which is now included in Oglethorpe, He served in the State Legislature and in Congress, and in 1823 he was one of the Commission to fix the line between Georgia and Florida. In 1831 he was elected Governor. He died in Athens December 28, 1870.

WILLIAM RABUN was born in North Carolina April 8, 1771. He moved to Wilkes county at the age of fourteen, and later to Hancock county where he died October 24, 1819, while Governor of the State.

GEORGE W. TOWNS, Governor, Legislator, and Congressman, was born in Wilkes county May 4, 1802. He died in Macon July 15, 1854. Miller, in the Bench and Bar of Georgia, pays him high tribute for his skill and address, to his polished manners, and to his power to move the human feelings by his persuasive eloquence.

GEORGE R. GILMER was born April 11, 1790, in that part of Wilkes county which is now Oglethorpe. His father moved to Wilkes from Virginia in 1784. He served in the War with the Creeks, and in the War of 1812. He was Legislator, Congressman, and twice Governor. In 1855, he published Sketches of Some of the First Settlers of Upper Georgia, of the Cherokees, and the Author. The publication, while sensational at the time, was a valuable contribution to the history of the state, and especially of Wilkes county. He died at Lexington, November 15, 1859.

JOHN FORSYTH and ALEXANDER H. STEPHENS, both Governors of the state, while not born in Wilkes, received much of their education and their inspiration in this county, and they owed much of their success in life to this circumstance.

Among the other prominent men of Wilkes was Colonel Micajah Williamson, one of the most prominent patriots of the Revolution. He and General Elijah Clarke were great friends. He had five sons and six daughters. All of the daughters married prominent men, as follows:
Nancy married John Clark, afterwards Governor of Georgia.
Sarah married, first Judge Griffin, and afterwards Judge Tait, who served for ten years in the United States Senate.
Susan married Dr. Thomas Bird, and her daughter Sarah became the wife of L. Q. C. Lamar, Sr., and the mother of the great jurist and statesman of the same name, who served on the Supreme Bench of the United States, in the national Senate, and in the Cabinet of President Cleveland.
Mary married Duncan G. Campbell, for whom Campbell county was named, and who signed the famous treaty at Indian Springs. He was the champion of female education in Georgia. His son, John A. Campbell, was a judge of the United States Supreme Court, and a commissioner in the celebrated conference at Hampton Roads.
Martha married a Fitch, and Elizabeth a Thweat, both men of prominence. It would be difficult in one family to match this remarkable record.

Another prominent family of Wilkes is the Alexander family.

Adam L. Alexander was born in Sunbury, Georgia, in 1803, and was graduated at Yale in 1819. He met at New Haven, Sarah Hillhouse Gilbert, daughter of William Gilbert and granddaughter of David R. Hillhouse and Sarah Porter Hillhouse, who was a remarkable woman. They were married in the celebrated old Hillhouse mansion at New Haven, and settled upon the wife's plantation on the edge of Washington. There were ten children of this marriage.
The most distinguished of the sons was Gen. Edward Porter Alexander, Brigadier General of the Confederate Army, President of the Georgia Railroad and Banking Company, President of the Central Railroad and Banking Company, etc.
The six daughters, all women of remarkable force and intellect, married men of mark.
Louisa married J. F. Gilmer, Chief of Engineers and Major General of the Confederate States Army;
Sarah married Alexander R. Lawton, Brigadier General, commanding a division in Stonewall Jackson's Corps, Quartermaster General of the Confederacy, United States Minister to Austria, legislator and lawyer;
Harriet married Wallace Gumming, a leading citizen and a successful banker of Savannah;
Mary Clifford married George Gilmer Hull, a pioneer in railroad operation and construction in Georgia;
Marion married Rev. William E. Boggs, D. D., a distinguished Presbyterian Clergyman and Chancellor of the University of Georgia;
Alice married Col. Alexander C. Haskell, leader of the Democrats in the political revolution which restored South Carolina to its own people in 1876-77, and judge of the Supreme Court of South Carolina.

Adam L. Alexander was one of the citizens of Wilkes county who gave to Alexander H. Stephens his education, and Mr. Stephens lived for some time in the Alexander home. Mr. Stephens' dedication of his Reviewers Reviewed to Mr. Alexander is the best index of his character and attainments.

Out on the Mallorysville road four miles from Washington at Walnut Hill was located the famous school of Rev. John Springer. He was a gigantic man, weighing over four hundred pounds. He was the first Presbyterian minister ordained in Georgia. The ceremony took place in Washington out of doors under a large poplar tree which is still standing in the rear of the home of Mr. C. A. Alexander. To this school many boys and young men were sent from Augusta and the surrounding country. Among those who attended this famous school were Jesse Mercer, John Forsyth, and Nicholas Ware. Alexander Stephens was prepared for college at the High School in Washington, and for some years lived here. Maj. General W. H. T. Walker, who lost his life in the battle of Atlanta, and Madam Octavia Walton LeVert, one of the South's most brilliant women, were descendants of Thomas Talbot of Wilkes county.

Rev. Hope Hull, the founder of the first Methodist school in Georgia, lived, taught, and preached in Wilkes. His school was known as Succoth Academy, and was located near Coke's Chapel. The first Methodist Church in Georgia was built in Wilkes county by Daniel Grant.

Rev. Jesse Mercer, for whom Mercer University was named, lived in Wilkes. He has done more for the Baptist church than any other man in the state. He was, indeed a remarkable man. He was baptized in a barrel of water, and as a minister he had a remarkable career. He organized the first Baptist church in Washington, and became the editor of the Christian Index. His second wife was Nancy Simons, the widow of Captain Abram Simons, a wealthy Jew and a Revolutionary soldier, who lived about seven miles from Washington on the Augusta road. It is a curious circumstance that much of the money contributed by Jesse Mercer to establish Mercer University, a Baptist institution, should have been derived from the estate of this broad minded Jewish financier. Jesse Mercer had set his heart on Washington as the seat of this University, but the gift of $2,500 from Josiah Penfield of Savannah, together with other influences, carried it to Penfield on Greene county, where it remained till 1871 when it was removed to Macon.

It would be impossible in the limitations of this sketch to mention all of the distinguished men and women of Wilkes who have honored the state in their lives. Here lived the lordly Toombs, the leonine leader of the Confederacy, about whose brilliant career a volume could be written. Here, too, lived Judge William M. Reese and Judge Garnett Andrews, both distinguished jurists in their day. The genial General Dudley M. DuBose, the son-in-law of Robert Toombs, was a resident of Washington. Here also should be mentioned Miss Eliza A. Bowen, and Miss E. F. Andrews, two of Georgia's most gifted women educators. Miss Bowen wrote a text-book on "Astronomy by Observation" and an incomplete History of Wilkes county. Miss Andrews has written several popular works on fiction, a work on botany, and an interesting book entitled "The War-Time Journal of a Georgia Girl," besides numerous magazine articles of great value.

It is not generally known that the father of Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy, was a native of Wilkes County, and that the remains of his grandfather sleep in an unmarked grave near the present town of Washington.

In this county also lived that "tall, muscular, fearless, red-headed, cross-eyed, and cross-grained" heroine of the Revolution, Nancy Hart, for whom Hart county was named. Her home was in what is now Elbert county near Beaverdam Ford on Broad River. Her maiden name was Morgan, and both she and her husband, Benjamin Hart, were from Kentucky. Benjamin Hart was a brother of Colonel Thomas Hart, and an uncle of Thomas Hart Benton. Here also lived the Hills, Popes, Wootens, Callaways, McGehees, Barnetts, Colleys, Simpsons, Lanes, Bookers, Wynns, and many others.

It will be seen from this limited sketch that Wilkes county is unusually rich in historic material. Her people have great reason to be proud of their past, and it is worthy of preservation. Miss Bowen, Miss Andrews, Miss Lane, Mrs. Green and others have done much to rescue the fading records, but her citizens should encourage every effort to preserve in imperishable form the splendid history of their county before time's effacing fingers have swept into oblivion the unrecorded deeds of men.

Source: The Georgia Historical Quarterly, Volume 1, Issue 1, March 1, 1917

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