Life in the Broad River Valley
PEOPLE FLOCKED into the Broad River Valley because land was cheap and they had heard how good it was. By the early 1800’s the Valley appeared to be about full when any effort was made to secure land there from the state. At this time if a person wanted land in the valley he would have to buy it from private owners and the price would vary greatly, from less than a dollar an acre for poor gravelly upland to $3.00 to $5.00 for first grade hickory land, being also much higher for the richest bottom lands. Their holdings generally ran from a hundred or fewer acres to three thousand or more.
The Virginians and others came in bringing their livestock, slaves, and wagons loaded down with children and household effects. They immediately set the slaves to work clearing land and preparing for the first crop. Tobacco had been their principal interest back in Virginia, and naturally their first main crop in Georgia would be tobacco. Some of the larger planters raised as much as 11,000 pounds a year and anyone who might modestly call himself a farmer would probably gather at least 1,000 pounds. Tobacco was sent down Broad River to Petersburg by boat or by wagon over the main road, or in large casks pulled by horses or oxen—called “rolling tobacco”—over the long ridge road to Augusta. This marketing of tobacco often resulted in warehouse receipts, called “tobacco notes,” which circulated as money in large purchases.1
Although tobacco was at first a principal crop, with the invention of an easily workable cotton gin in 1793 and improvements added in subsequent years, cotton soon came into prominence. But at no time was the Broad River economy severely controlled by any one crop. A great deal of corn was raised, along with wheat, flax, sweet potatoes, and the variety of products of kitchen gardens which enriched the lives of the people. Orchards, especially peaches, were soon being planted.
This diversified agricultural economy was closely interlocked with a widespread ownership of livestock and fowls. From the late 1780’s on down through the first quarter of the nineteenth century, typical livestock holdings were such as these: John McElroy in 1796 owned 6 horses, 30 head of cattle, 64 hogs, and 15 sheep; Zachariah Lawrence in 1811 owned besides his oxen and horses, 31 cows, 26 sheep, 54 hogs; at the same time Charles O’Kelley owned in addition to oxen and horses, 43 hogs, 24 sheep, 22 goats; Micajah McGhee also this same year owned in addition to other livestock 41 cows, 18 sheep, and 190 hogs; Jeffery Early in 1812, unlike most Broad River settlers, owned mules (four of them), also 100 hogs and other livestock. As for fowls practically all of the people owned chickens, some owned ducks; however, geese were a specialty. Geese were not only good for food, but their greatest contribution to the economy and comfort of their owners was their feathers. No house was complete without feather beds. The number of geese owned by any one family generally ran from a dozen to as many as 50 and sometimes even more.2
Slavery became entrenched in the Broad River Valley from the beginning. Most settlers brought along a few slaves, and as they prospered additions came from purchase and natural increase. The small farmers had from two or three to a dozen or more, while the planter class owned from 20 up to about 100. For instance, Martha Harvie (widow of John Harvie) in 1801 owned two boy slaves along with Letty and her two children, Milinda and Mintilda. John Billups in 1817 owned more than seventy slaves which were valued at almost $35,000.3 As early as 1800 there were 2,600 slaves in Oglethorpe County.4
Slavery was not a condition of living to be chosen by any sensible person, yet the life of a slave in Oglethorpe County was as likely as not to be no worse than that of anyone who had to work for his living—and in some respects better, for the cost of sickness and old age was the concern of the master, not the slave. And as for being held to the land, the common condition of the people of Oglethorpe County was no different, for either by necessity or choice few of them traveled far beyond their own neighborhoods. The patriarchal attitude toward slavery was evident in many families, as is shown in their wills. The widow Harvie left her slave Letty to her son William and at his death Letty might choose which of William’s children she would like to serve. The widow Harvie further directed that “in token of her mistresses Regard for her,” she should receive five dollars a year. If Gabriel should like to be sold, then William was to sell him “to whom he may choose to serve,” and he should receive a present of ten dollars.5
Moses Parks had an unusually keen conscience and a humble attitude to those who were less well off than he was. In 1797 he willed that his two slaves John and Bet “enjoy that freedom, the human species have a right to by nature,” and he directed that the legislature “Ratify this clause in my will.” He gave $150 “to school them,” and if they should die before it was used “then it shall go to the poor for ever.” If certain other bequests were not used he willed that these and the remainder of his estate go “to the help of the poor for ever Viz: the Real poor, the halt & maim’d lunitic &c &c to be appropriated to their use, according to the Judgment & good Conscience of my executors, & the glory of god to whom I give all.”6
In 1827 James Bradley wrote in his will that it was to be “expressly understood if any of my Negroes wish to go to the American Colony on the coast of Africa they are to be left out of the division [of his property] and their expenses paid out of my estate to the nearest port when a vessel is fiting out for the Colony.” He had about forty slaves, and most of them chose to go.7 The reference here was to Liberia.
The planter whose disposal of his slaves became a tradition to be passed around for a hundred years thereafter was Richard Huff (sometimes Hoff), a bachelor, who in 1850 owned 93 slaves, all “B” (black)— no “M” (mulattoes), according to the census. In addition he owned real estate worth $15,000. He lived in Oglethorpe County on Long Creek, which separated Oglethorpe and Wilkes counties, with practically all his property being in Oglethorpe. According to tradition he sent two ship loads of his slaves to Liberia, 100 on each ship. As the United States Census of 1850 reported that he owned only 93 slaves, it is evident that the tradition is greatly in exaggeration. Since in 1860 he owned 33 slaves it might well be assumed that he sent 60 of them to Liberia—he would hardly have sold any in the light of his offer to let those who so desired go to Liberia. Thus, he must have sent most of his slaves to Africa and they might well have been transported on two ships. As late as 1908 an old Negro working on the plantation of Colonel James Monroe Smith in Oglethrope County was receiving a letter now and then from his father, who was one of the last to go to Liberia where he had greatly prospered and was reputed to be worth $100,000.8
Slaves were used especially in the heavy farm work, but there were also lighter tasks for them to perform, such as looking after livestock and aiding in the distilling operations, which were carried out on almost every plantation and farm. Brandy was a favorite drink, used on almost every occasion, from the celebration of births and weddings to the last rites for the dead. In the first quarter of the nineteenth century, drinking was not frowned upon, even by the preachers, some of whom were referred to as “brandy Baptists.” No sale could be held without the cryer putting in a charge for brandy or whiskey, and it extended even to the executors and appraisers of estates. For a sale in settling the estate of Benjamin Knox in 1805, these items of expenses were listed: “for crying sale $15” and “for brandy at sale $11.62½.” The size of the brandy charge evidently indicated that the crowd attending the sale had been treated. The price of brandy was generally a dollar a gallon.9 In the case of appraisers the charge for brandy was much less, since only three or four people were necessary for this work. “Spirits on the day of appraisement,” 75 cents, would indicate that the appraisers had consumed about three-fourths of a gallon.
The household industries included especially spinning and weaving, both of cotton and wool. Necessary for these operations were cotton cards, spinning wheels, and looms. Mrs. Micajah McGehee bore the reputation of being one of the most clever weavers throughout the Broad River Valley. George R. Gilmer, who apparently knew all the people on Broad River and all the characteristics and foibles that they had, wrote of her, “She spun, wove, cut out, and made up a petticoat in one day, and wore it the next.”10 Making butter and curing hams and bacon filled up many a larder and smokehouse and provided articles for exportation to Petersburg and Augusta. In the early days beavers were common on Broad River and its tributaries; hence there was trapping; but this activity soon played out.11 Grist mills run by water power were common on the streams, and at least one cotton factory was built on Broad River. It was located at the Anthony Shoals and consisted of a four-story brick building, containing 1,500 spindles, 20 looms, “an extra number of Cards,” and all things necessary for making yarn, osnaburg, sheeting, and shirting.12
Many of these proud Virginians never got out of their log houses; and when they needed more room they would add another log house connected by a “breeze way” or “dog trot.” Sometimes they would build other log cabins in the yard nearby. Frame houses, which were one-and-a-half or two stories, were unusual, and the white-columned houses, long associated with ante-bellum planter aristocracy, never found lodgment in the Broad River Valley during its first half century of settlement. Moving from a log house into a frame one called for a frolick of dancing lasting late into the night, as was the case when the Thomas Meriwether Gilmers moved into theirs.13 A few settlers built frame houses in the beginning, as did Benjamin Taliaferro, Micajah McGehee, and Abraham Hill.14
Life, indeed, had its lighter moments. There were amusements of all sorts, eating and drinking (but generally neither to excess), dancing, card-playing, horse-racing, cock-fighting, hunting, gander-pulling, foot-racing, rifle-shooting, wrestling, quoit-pitching and “pitching into one another,”15 and on rare occasions, bull-baiting. Militia musters, though by law considered to be serious business, soon became so detested that they were made into horse-play. The person most likely to be elected captain was the one who promised that he would not hold another muster.16
In addition to what has already been said about what was owned by the Thomas Meriwether Gilmer family, a look into the houses of these Broad River people and out into their yards shows much of how they lived. Besides kitchen and dining room utensils there were many other items less well known a hundred years later, such as candle moulds, piggins and churns, brass skillets, pot racks, funnels, jugs, pewter and earthenware, steelyards, smoothing irons (sadirons), coffee mills, and mouse traps. In the sitting room and bed rooms, besides such expected furnishing as window curtains, carpets, and feather beds, there were trundle beds, candle snuffers, folding tables, at least one of a variety of clocks (wooden for $30, brass for $80, and in a few homes, musical clocks rated at $125), and some of four styles of chairs classified as “sitting chairs,” “easy chairs,” “common chairs,” and “windsor chairs.”
Among personal adornments and accessories were “gold repeater” watches, silk handkerchiefs, gloves, “umbrillas,” “black velvet breeches,” great coats, and knee and stock buckles.
On the outside premises there might be found in the great house besides the ordinary accouterments for riding and driving, such items as saddle bags, side saddles, “hunting saddles,” compass and rifle guns, curry combs, and bells probably to use on sheep and cattle. Then at their proper places could be found “riding chairs,” sulkys, bee gums, Dutch ovens, sun dials, hogsheads and barrels, flax hackles and wheels, spinning wheels and looms, grindstones, grubbing and weeding hoes, clevises, swingletrees (singletrees, whippletrees) and doubletrees, foot-adzes, files, chisels, drawer-knives, hatchets, steel-traps, log-chains, axes, shovels, crowbar, crosscut and whip saws, augurs, wedges, frows, pinchers and nippers, and broad axes.
More so in the Broad River Valley than perhaps in any other part of the Georgia frontier, books had their place in the homes. Histories, biographies, and religious works predominated—Martha Harvie’s collection ran from “Clarendon’s History 6 vols., $8” through “Foster’s Sermons” and “the life of God in the Soul of Man” appraised at 25 cents each. Appraisers had little sense of the value of books and generally listed them at almost nothing, as: “1 writing disk [desk] & a parcel of old books, $4”; “lot of books, $6”; 1 bible, hymn book & other old books, $5”; but some times a surprisingly large value was put upon a lot of books or, most probably, the price was still small but the collection was large, as $43.50 for “1 Lot Books,” owned by Josiah Jordan. Very frequently books were thrown in as a make-weight in placing a value on various items, which added a ludicrous incongruity to intellectuality, as: “1 flat Iron, knife & book, 75 cents”; “2 pr Sizors 7 books 1 looking Glass, $2.62½”; “1 lot of old tools & books, $3.37½”; “chist hinges & old books, $1.50”; “chairs, books, gimblets, $4.50”; “Books flax & cotton wheel, $7”; “1 Lot old Books & 1 small Bell, 87½¢”; “1 pail 1 churn 1 box of 3 books & brush, $2.50”; and “Books, looking glass, cloth Brush, sizors, etc., $2.50.”17
There was no state organization of schools beyond the fact that a state university was chartered in 1785 and set going in 1801. It was the head of a system which included an academy in each county, endowed with land and later aided by the income from a secondary school fund. Parents too poor to pay tuition charges for elementary education might send their children to neighborhood schools and the state would take care of the charges from a “poor school fund.” For the Broad River people there were two well-known academies, the Meson Academy (previously mentioned) and the Academy of Wilkes County. The other counties in the Valley had academies, but they were not so well conducted. The elementary schools, over which the state exercised no control, were often called “poor schools” because the schoolmaster was aided by the poor school fund. They grew up haphazardly.18
Anyone who had the inspiration to teach a school set about collecting enough pupils to make it worthwhile, although he might have little learning himself. Pedagogues wandered over the country seeking schools. When one ingratiated himself in a neighborhood sufficiently to secure as many as twenty pupils he started his school in some empty building near the edge of an old field (a one-room structure, probably built for a school, but also possibly built for some other purpose and then abandoned). He lodged with any family which would have him in return for educating their children. In the neighborhood of the Thomas Meriwether Gilmers in the Goose Pond district the school was taught at one time by a deserter from the British navy, who established navy discipline and whipped accordingly. In cold weather when the schoolhouse might not be heated he would line his pupils up in a circle and make them dance around the room to keep warm, applying the switch now and then. Sometimes he set the boys to wrestling to speed up the circulation of their blood.
Another teacher who appeared in this neighborhood was a respectable man from North Carolina; however, he found someone he loved more than teaching schools so he married her and quit. He was followed by a “wandering, drunken Irishman” who “knocked, kicked, cuffed, and whipped at a great rate.” Some of the boys he whipped as many as ten times a day. This Irishman gave way to a Virginia gentleman, whose love for brandy was so great that on some days he would slip away to a brandy still, and then school would be out for those days. The next Goose Pond schoolmaster on week-ends incapacitated himself with drink whenever he could afford it; and after his tenure the Broad River people were done with these ne’er-do-wells and began hiring their home-grown schoolmasters.19
These Broad River people were ambitious, industrious, and intellectual within bounds, but they were rather indifferent to religion. Lorenzo Dow, “the crazy preacher,” wandered up the Valley in the early years of the nineteenth century and set the people to wondering what their future life might be like; but the most persistent seeker to save the souls of the people was Francis Asbury. He was the first to introduce Methodism into the Broad River Valley. One of the early Methodist preachers in this region was John Andrew, up from the Puritans of Liberty County. He preached a little, ran a store, and did some school-teaching. He was no success in any of them; but in another respect he was a success in that he was the father of James Andrew, who became a great preacher of Methodism and was elected a bishop in the 1840’s. Because he owned slaves a controversy arose which split the Methodist Church into a Northern and a Southern division. He grew up in the Broad River Valley where he “worked hard in the field during the day, collected light-wood knots on his return home, and toiled by their light after knowledge during the night.”20 A great Methodist revival which hit Broad River in 1809 produced lasting effects for the good of the church.21
The Baptists had already made their entry into Georgia before the Methodists came. These Baptists appeared first in the Kiokee River valley to the southward, and from there their contagion spread into the Broad River country. The Presbyterians made their first permanent lodgment in this region when John Newton brought the message to the people in 1785. He settled where Lexington would later flourish and died near that town in 1797, leaving an estate of $1,717.38, of which $41.50 was the estimated worth of his books. There was a note due him “on the members of new hope Church $198.77” and an amount of $15.50 owed him by “Bethsalem church for the year 1796.”22
Broad River played a conspicuous part in the beginnings of the two state political parties which were later to bear the names of Troup and Clark. The Yazoo sales was the principal issue that started the process, and also at stake was the reputation of George Mathews, the governor who signed the bill. Logic played little part in the way the coalescing of different groups worked itself out. The Yazooists were associated nationally with the Federalists, despite the fact that they were the democratic frontiersmen; while the pretentious aristocratic Virginians were the supporters of the Democrats (Democrat-Republicans or Jeffersonian Republicans). The North Carolinian Clarke family (Elijah who spelled it Clarke and his son John—later governor—who spelled it Clark) were Yazooists, while Virginian William H. Crawford was a Democrat (the later Troup Party in Georgia) and Virginian Mathews was a Yazooist and a Federalist. Broad River Virginians, in general, were Troupites, while the North Carolinans were Clarkites. So excited were the Broad River people in the national election of 1800 that a first-class scramble took place among the younger people when someone brought up the subject of politics at the house-warming of Thomas Meriwether Gilmer’s. According to one who was present, dancing and whist games were stopped, and “every one present became agitated, and most talked as fast as they would have fought.”23
In addition to Broad River being infested with politicians, there were doctors, midwives, merchants, and pedlars. Diseases and births called for both doctors and midwives. Families were too prolific for the few doctors who were called in to attend to those who might be suffering with “bilious fever and other diseases created by extensive clearings, a warm climate, Broad River, and its low grounds.”24 Therefore, skilled midwifery became a lucrative frontier profession.
No society was ever perfect enough not to sprout a few crimes. Broad River was no exception, though the crimes found here were neither numerous nor heinous. The whipping post and stocks were still used in the early eighteen hundreds as the method for punishing petty crimes. In 1800 Rowley Lunsford was found guilty of “malicious mischief,” and the judge read the sentence that he was to be taken “forthwith from this Bar to the Public whipping Post in the Town of Elberton and there receive thirty nine lashes on your bare Back with a Cow Skin & be discharged.”25 The next year in the same town, “John Albriton being brought into court for disorderly Behaviour in the court yard, and he continuing refactory, Ordered that the Said Albriton be confined in Stocks for the Space of Thirty Minutes.”26 On any frontier a crime considered equal to murder was horse-stealing. In Oglethorpe County during the late 1790’s three criminals convicted of this crime were hanged.27
The Broad River, itself, was kind to its settlers. Its waters provided fish for their tables and sport in catching them. Since much of its watershed was never denuded of its timber and vegetation, the rains seldom ran off in such quantities as to produce devastating floods—only one impressed itself sufficiently on the memories of those who saw it and of succeeding generations who heard about it, to be used as a point from which to reckon time. That was the great flood of 1796, known as the Yazoo Freshet because it came the year the Yazoo Act was passed. Broad River’s bottom lands were as fertile as any to be found anywhere, and much of its uplands were almost as good for tobacco and cotton as the bottoms were for corn. In fact, the Broad River Valley was a good place for those who chose to come and to stay.