AHS Events

How Athens Came to Be

 

by Mary Bondurant Warren

In 1785, when the Georgia Legislature decided that the new state needed an institution of higher learning, Cherokee and Creek Indians resisted white settlement in the area that is now Athens and Clarke County. This is the story, told in part by the very people who founded Athens, of how the city grew up around the fledgling University of Georgia, and how young scholars who had previously been sent to the College  of  William  and  Mary  in  Virginia,  one  of  the  northern institutions, or even overseas for their training, came to have a college in their own home state.

Two large counties, Franklin and Greene, were created from the land ceded by the Indians. Twenty thousand acres, laid out in five-thousand- acre tracts, were set aside in each new county in trust for the new university,  the  sale  of  which  would  endow  this  endeavor.  The legislature then adjourned, after naming a prominent member, Abraham Baldwin, as president.

Competition for the site of the new college was intense - every county in the state wanted it. This debate delayed its siting nearly fifteen years which meant that Baldwin was president of a non-existent university. After so many years of waiting, he gave up, ran for the U.S. Senate, and was elected in 1798. He had been a congressman nearly ten years before being elected to the Senate.1

A proclamation announced that the legislature had decided against locating the school in Greene County and that Jackson County had been chosen.2   Members of the Senatus Academicus, the committee created by the legislature to select the site, were called to meet at Louisville (then the capital of Georgia) in June between terms of the Superior Courts.  Professor Josiah Meigs,  Esq.,  of  Yale  “College”  of Connecticut, was named as “Presiding Professor of the University of the State of Georgia.” Meigs accepted and “had arrived with his family among us.”

The 20 June 1801 Augusta Chronicle continued the story. The Senatus Academicus gathered at Louisville on June 15th, and, except for choosing the site of the college, “did proceed to carry the charter more fully into effect; and the citizens of Georgia are now informed, that the institution is in progress, and in a fair way to answer speedily the great and desirable purposes for which it was created....”

Among other things, the honorable Mr. Baldwin, who had been at first appointed president of the University, having refused, Professor Meigs was appointed in his stead, with a salary of $1500 per annum.

Instead of the county of Greene, where the former Senatus Academicus had appointed the site of the University to be, that appointment was reconsidered, and the site directed to be selected in the county of Jackson, and a building to be erected as soon as possible, to accommodate at least 100 scholars.

For both these purposes a  committee was  appointed, consisting of the Hon. Mr. Baldwin, the Hon. Mr. Milledge, Major  General Twiggs, Col. Lawson, and his Honor Judge Walton, who are to meet at Billups’ Tavern, the lower end of Jackson county, on the 29th instant [June], to select the site of the university; and immediately thereafter to contract for the building.

This was certainly a blue-ribbon committee, for its members were the future Georgia governor John Milledge, Abraham Baldwin (who signed the U.S. Constitution), Judge George Walton (who signed the Declaration of Independence), Maj. Gen. John Twiggs (a leader during the Revolutionary War), and Hugh Lawson (later Surveyor General).

Wending their way toward Jefferson, the men stopped at Billups’ Tavern, probably the only hotel for miles around. It was located on the Lexington Road just southeast of where the intersection with Whit Davis Road is now. An adjoining racetrack drew contestants for well- publicized horse races.

Independence Day was celebrated throughout the land with speeches and celebrations. In Jackson County the festivities were held on “the upper tract of the lands belonging to that Trust”  [University endowment].  The committee had spent part of the day inspecting possible sites, when “they were conducted to a grove, along side of which was an excellent spring, about the centre of the 6000 acre tract. Here were collected the neighboring inhabitants, the tenantry of the soil; having a suitable collation [party] for the entertainment of the committee, and to celebrate the day.” The meal was followed by numerous toasts, including one to Josiah Meigs, president of the University of Georgia: “May lights arise in the west to meet the progress of Empire; and hither may she have her happiest and most lasting abode.”  And  to  Judge  George  Walton,  chairman  of  the committee: “May his hand be as successful in durably laying the corner stone of the University, as in laying the corner of our Republic, when he signed, for us, the Declaration of Independence.”

The Augusta Chronicle story continued, “We understand that the Committee have made choice of a site in Jackson county for the University - a description of  it  will be  given in  our  next.” The Chronicle of 25 July 1801 gave notice that the site was obtained:

... The committee having completed their views, and estimated their respective advantages, proceeded by ballot to make the choice [of the site]; when the vote was unanimous in favour of a place belonging to Mr. Daniel Easley, at the Cedar Shoals, upon the north fork of the Oconee river; and the same was resolved  to  be  selected  and  chosen  for  the  seat  of  the University of Georgia, accordingly.

For this purpose the tract, containing 633 acres, was purchased of Mr. Easley by Mr.  Milledge, one of the committee, and made a donation to the trustees; and it was called Athens.

It lies, of course, in the county of Jackson, and is distant from Augusta, a west course, and by the Post Road, 90 miles; and is adjacent to a tract of 5,000 acres belonging to the trust.

The river at Athens is about 150 feet broad; its waters rapid in their descent; and has no low grounds.

The site of the University is on the south side, and half a mile from the river. On one side the land is cleared; the other is wood land. On the cleared side are two ample orchards of apple and peach trees; forming artificial copses between the site and the river, preferable to the common undergrowth of nature.

What little vapour rises at any time from the river is always attracted by the opposite hills, towards the rising sun.

About 200 yards from the site, and at least 300 feet above the level of the river, in the midst of an extensive bed of rock, issues  a  copious  spring  of  excellent  water;  and  in  its meanderings to the river, several others are discovered.

On the place is a new well-built framed dwelling house, entirely equal to the accommodation of the President and his family. There is also another new house, equal to a temporary school room.

The square [campus] of the University, containing 36-1/2 acres, is laid off so as to comprehend the site, the houses, the orchards and the spring, together with a due proportion of the woodland.

A street is also laid off upon the northern line of the square, adjoining a village of lots in that direction. Besides the spring in the square, which is convenient to the village, there is one in the street, and another back of the lots.

Another street is also laid off on the western line of the square, and bounded upon more lots in that direction; and which  will  be  supplied with  water from springs forming another branch on the woodland side. A large avenue is also laid off in front of the site; and bearing a southerly direction.

The situation has an extended horizon on three sides. up the river, northerly, the site is bounded by ascending hills.

The sky, in general, is clear and azure; the air dry, elastic and vivifying; and a fact in our natural history not before known, is that the air in that elevated region of our state, during the warm months, is felt from the westward and not from the southward; and when it comes from the latter, it is considered a certain symptom of approaching rain.

The description continued in the 1 August 1801 issue of the Augusta Chronicle under the title “The University.”

The soil in  the  neighborhood of  Athens,  and  thence generally to the upper end of the county, between the north and middle forks of the [Oconee] river, is of the grey kind; very fit for farming,  and the raising of stock. The small grain it produces is not excelled by that of any other country, the wheat often weighing from 64 to 74 pounds; and it is here that the people, in general, are  every where seen using the finest wheaten bread. No county in the state is equally supplied with ample and bold streams for driving mills to convert the grain into flour, and to cut lumber for convenient dwellings and other buildings.

Near Athens, Mr. Easley has an excellent merchant-flour mill, a saw and common grist mill; with intention to add a cotton machine [cotton gin]. To drive these, the rapids opposite Athens are slightly dammed; so as the ordinary supply of the river neither increases or diminishes the size of the pond.

A sheet, which tumbles over the width of the dam, with the operation of the mills, carry off in common more than is received above. When the river is below its ordinary supply, and the water not high enough to form the tumbling sheet, the discharge, by the working of the mills, has still the same effect; and  it  is  at  these  times  that  much  of  the  grain  of  the neighbouring counties is there ground.

There being no low grounds on either side, but in general abrupt declivities, there can be no water forced out of its banks upon flat or rich lands, or to enswamp trees of any sort; so that no inconvenience has been experiences or apprehended from the erection of these mills.

On the contrary, not only good health has been uniformly enjoyed at the place; but the mills have been found to be extensively useful.

In erecting the buildings of the University, and particularly the one the committee are directed now to contract for, they will be essentially convenient, and promotive of dispatch, but of this more hereafter.

Besides the common lesser fish of fresh water, the shad in their season ascend as high as Athens, in great perfection; yielding a comfortable supply of this bounty of nature, the delicious and healthful change in the food of man.

The ordinary supply of provisions is abundant in the county. Beef, pork and mutton are of the best kind; and the Augusta market is getting better supplied from thence with the former, than from any other quarter.

Col. William Few, one of Georgia’s signers of the United States Constitution, held the original land grant of 1120 acres, most of the Athens area. Before moving from Georgia to New York in 1799, Few sold 693 acres, the easternmost section of his grant, to Daniel W. Easley. The land grant originally lay in Franklin County, was cut into Jackson County, then became Clarke County with its creation in 1801. The sale from Few to Easley was recorded 19 March 1800 in a Jackson County deed book.

Easley came to Georgia from Halifax County, Virginia, after the Revolution and was a Justice of the Inferior Court in Jackson County as early as 1796. He built a dam, race, and saw and grist mill at a shoal of  the  Oconee  River,  where  the  settlement  called  Cedar  Shoals developed. A tiny settlement, it would make a pleasant location for young scholars and their teachers – far from the sinful diversions of established towns! The road from the town of Lexington to Jefferson crossed the Oconee River (near the Oconee Street bridge) at the Cedar Shoals.

Knowing that the Senatus Academicus had little money with which to purchase land, John Milledge personally bought 633 acres for $1000 from Daniel W. Easley. This tract lay on the southwest side of the North Fork of the Oconee River. It was a win-win situation for Easley! Aware that his land might not be chosen, Easley had included a proviso in the deed that if the acreage were not used for the university, the land Milledge purchased would   revert to Easley, or his heirs and Easley would keep the money!3

John Milledge then transferred the land to the Senatus Academicus to be used as the campus of the proposed university.4 At this time, the Senatus  Academicus  was  composed  of  Abraham  Baldwin,  Hugh Lawson, Benjamin Tallifero [sic], John Twiggs, James Jackson, John Clark,  Joseph  Clay,  the  Younger,  Robert  M.  Cunningham, John Milledge, Josiah Tatnall, Ferdinand O’Neal, John Stuart, and James McNiel, who were considered the Trustees of  the  University of Georgia.

Daniel W. Easley was wise enough to retain a 30-acre strip along the main road (now Oconee Street) and the river frontage. In the deed records this is called “Easley’s reserve,” and on it stood his house and mills. Easley’s home stood on the southwest side of Oconee Street and is  now  a  commuter  parking lot  across from the  present gate  of Armstrong and Dobbs. Sometimes called Easley’s Tavern because he took in boarders, his house served for years as the meeting place of the Jackson County Court until the court house was erected.

When Easley decided to leave the area, his house was purchased by the Reverend Hope Hull, Methodist minister and member of the Senatus Academicus. It is shown on the 1805 map of Athens as Rev. Hull's. This house was later owned by the Hodgson family.

A general purpose building was begun in 1801 to house classes, teachers, and students. Patterned after Yale’s Connecticut Hall, Old College was erected with  brick  made  of  Athens  clay.  Because “undertakers” [contractors] and building materials were hard to obtain, the edifice took four years to complete.

The committee having resolved that the building they were directed to contract for erecting should be 120 feet long, and 45 feet broad, and three stories high, they received proposals for contracting for supplying the stone to lay the foundation, and to make the walls of the cellar, as well as for making and delivering a sufficient quantity of brick for carrying up the walls of the house.

These  proposals  were  acceded  to  on  the  part  of  the committee, and carried into contract, and 1/6th of the brick is already made on the spot, and the cellar nearly prepared to receive the corner stone, and commence the work so interesting to the community.

For these purposes contracts with masons and carpenters are yet to be made.5

Abraham Baldwin had been named as the first president of the non- existent University. When he resigned this post to become U.S. Senator, he suggested that his replacement be Josiah Meigs, who had been Baldwin’s student at Yale University. The Legislature and Senatus Academicus agreed and Meigs was invited to take the post and to create a college for 100 students in the wilderness of upcountry Georgia.

At a salary of $1500, Josiah Meigs became the first active president of the University. He and his family moved from Connecticut, taking rooms  temporarily  at  Easley’s  home;  then  they  moved  into  the President’s  House, a simple residence   on the campus near where Lustrat House now stands.

While Old College was being built, young men handpicked from the state’s academies by President Meigs began their studies in a simple log building nearby. They would be among the University’s first graduates in 1804 - 1806. Ironically, the first tutor hired at Franklin College was a graduate of the University of North Carolina, which was chartered after UGA.

Because many young men wanting to attend the University were scholastically unprepared, a grammar school was erected by 1805 in the vicinity of Brooks Hall. Here remedial courses were taught; the young men boarded with nearby families or lived in Old College with the college students.

The college’s land-grant endowment included a 5,000-acre tract in Greene County. The town of Greensboro was laid out and the lots sold to fund the erection of Old College. The Senatus Academicus decided to keep 36½ acres of the property purchased from Daniel Easley for the Franklin College “yard,” today’s north campus. The remaining acreage was subdivided and sold to individuals to finance other buildings on the college campus. This became the town of Athens.

Rev. Hope Hull and President Josiah Meigs laid out twenty-two lots in what is now downtown Athens, and the town’s first streets came into being. Front Street later became Broad Street and Market Street became Washington Street.6

President Josiah Meigs had high hopes for the new institution, as he wrote an Augusta friend:

Athens, August 29, 1801

In descending the eastern banks of the Oconee river, we discover through the trees Capt. Easley’s house, in which I now reside, which appears to be on the top of a mountain –

After passing the ford, which is about 120 or 130 feet wide, through a rapid stream which has just tumbled over the rocks below Easley’s dam, about 150 yards above the ford, we ascend the promontory about 750 yards along the winding path, and arrive at the brow.

A little northward of this is the place marked out for a future collegiate building –

By a water level I have found the surface of that place to be 161 feet perpendicular above the level of the waters of the Oconee at the ford. This promontory runs nearly level a north-westerly course, through the tract, as far as I have examined from the site of the building the land falls off gently and beautifully to the east and southwest. On the east the land is cleared, and has now on it a flourishing crop of corn, cotton and potatoes – a young orchard of apple trees – and one of peach trees – westerly is woodland.

 

The banks of the Oconee are bold, steep and abrupt – the rocks appearing in many parts. It is obvious that no fears can be entertained of unwholesome vapours from a river of this description, even though there is a small mill pond in it, for the water is confined by steep banks, and there is a constant discharge over the dam in such quantity, that the whole mass of the water in the pond is in motion at all times – it cannot therefore be supposed capable or generating poisonous miasmata. It is a fact that if the pond were empty, on shutting the gates it would fill and fall over the top in an hour and a half in the dryest season.

At 130 yards from this house is a spring emerging from arock, which yields 3600 gallons of good water in 24 hours, as I found by experiment a few days ago – there are about 10 other  springs within a quarter of a mile of the Collegiate building – the water of these springs is perfectly pure, clear, and as cool as it ought to be for health.

I have frequently amused myself in some of the fine mornings in observing the vapours rising swiftly in various forms from the river and tending away towards the rising sun, sweeping over the thick woods which cover the steep eastern banks of the Oconee.

After duly considering this description, which is true and exact, you will be ready to believe that the Committee have made a judicious choice, so far as health was an object. I should have added to the above account, that we are open to every wind of heaven. A calm is seldom known here – and the breezes, particularly from the western semicircle  of  the horizon, are extremely pleasant.

We have generally a pure deep blue sky, and the clouds are more distinct and consolidated than they appear to be in the low country. In a clear evening the stars and other celestial bodies appear in such numbers  and  brilliance  as  in  our intensely cold and clear evenings to the northward, or as they did to Brydone from the top of Mount Aetna.  If there is a healthy and beautiful spot in Georgia this is one.

Provisions are cheap and abundant. Board may be had at about $60 a year; and if 50 or 100 young gentlemen should be admitted into the University, a Steward could board them all at one table at a much smaller price.

If the citizens of the middle and lower counties wish their children to  be educated within their native state, and to be secure of health and good spirits and good wholesome food, and  decent  society,  they  will,  on  a  thorough  view  and consideration of these and other facts which might be adduced, highly approve the judgment and foresight of the gentlemen of the committee who have placed the seat of the University at Athens....” 7

Prophetic and true.

 

1 Dictionary of Georgia Biography.

2 Augusta Herald, 15 April 1801.

3 Clarke County Deed Book B, pages 83-86.

4 Clarke County Deed Book B, pages 87-89.

5 Augusta Chronicle, 8 Aug. 1801.

6 A plan recorded in Minutes of the Trustees of the University of Georgia and dated May 31, 1805 was reproduced in Papers of the Athens Historical Society, vol. 1, page 6. The streets were unnamed on the plan.

7 Augusta Chronicle, 5 Sept. 1801.

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