[Note: Tignall, Georgia, is about 125 miles east of Atlanta, in Wilkes County, only a few miles from the Savannah River. In 2002, when I arrived there to deliver a lecture, “downtown” Tignall consisted of a couple of gas stations; a combination police station and city hall; a café open daily from 6:00 am to 2:00 pm; some nondescript shops; an auto repair place; and the site of my lecture, the North Wilkes Library, a converted bank building at the far end of town.
That Tignall still existed was due primarily to the efforts of Dr. Sophia Bamford, an 88 year-old retired physician and the organizer of the lecture series of which my talk was a part. A Tignall native, Dr. Bamford had returned to her hometown after a distinguished medical career in Boston. Determined to keep Tignall on the map, Dr. Bamford stirred up interest in the region’s history, and her strategy apparently worked. The 2002 lecture series was the seventh she had put together since returning from Boston—and, so she told me—her last.
When I agreed to talk about the Yazoo Land Fraud and its impact on the politics of the Georgia upcountry, I hoped to do something that I had not been able to accomplish thus far: to examine for an audience, in some detail, how Yazoo affected political developments in Georgia on a local or regional level. I hoped I could create a picture that would transcend the sorts of broad generalizations that had characterized my previous efforts to discuss Yazoo. Surely I would be able to trot out examples from my ample stock of anecdotes (AKA, “hairy dog stories”) that would reveal something of the human aspect of the great land fraud.
If the “Yazoo Land Fraud” is not ringing any bells in your historical memory at this point, I suggest that you visit (or revisit) my attempt to summarize the origins of the Yazoo sale in 1795 through 1802, when Georgia ceded her western lands to the federal government in exchange for money and, more importantly, a promise from the national government that it would, when it could be done peacefully, remove the Creek and Cherokee Indians from the state. This compact would prove significant to the further development of political parties in Georgia, and it would also affect the development of national political parties and the course of the United States over the next six decades, through the Civil War.]
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Georgia in 1790
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Let’s look more closely at how the Yazoo Fraud affected politics in upcountry Georgia, around Augusta and environs. First, it is important to understand that land hunger was endemic there. In fact, one of the four successful Yazoo purchasers in 1795, the Georgia Mississippi Company, was made up of Augusta residents, including veteran Richmond County legislator and militia leader General Thomas Glascock. Moreover, virtually all upcountry legislators who voted for the Yazoo Act had accepted either sub-shares in the purchase or money from the organizers.
Judge William Stith of Warren County figured prominently in passing out money and other favors to legislators in return for their votes. Upcountry Congressman Thomas P. Carnes, who had received land from at least two of the purchasing companies, and Richmond County legislator Robert Watkins, the only member of the lower house to vote for Yazoo without accepting either money or land (though several of his relatives did), were staunch defenders of the sale throughout the late 1790s. George Walton of Richmond County, one of Georgia’s signers of the Declaration of Independence, former governor, and veteran jurist, joined Carnes and Watkins in penning newspaper essays defending Yazoo and attacking the motives of those who voted to rescind the sale.
In order to ensure the support of influential Georgians who were not in the General Assembly, the prospective purchasers distributed sub-shares in the purchase to prominent men throughout the state. Among the upcountry recipients were militia leaders Elijah and John Clark, and Alexander M’Millan, proprietor of the Southern Centinel, one of Augusta’s two newspapers. The involvement of these prominent upcountry men in the Yazoo sale and its defense apparently did not weaken their political influence in the region. Watkins and Glascock continued to represent Richmond in the General Assembly, and both men were elected to the 1798 constitutional convention. George Walton was returned to the bench by the legislature. According to James Jackson, who had led the ultimately successful campaign to repeal the Yazoo Act, the political strength of Thomas P. Carnes and William Stith remained formidable in the piedmont; it was all he and his supporters could do to keep those Yazooists out of the U.S. Senate, the national House of Representatives, and the governor’s chair between 1798 and 1801.
The legislature even appointed Robert Watkins and his brother George to compile a new digest of Georgia laws. When the brothers included the Yazoo Act in their compilation, however, Governor James Jackson refused to pay them and saw to it that William Harris Crawford and Horatio Marbury were put in charge of the project. The resulting Marbury and Crawford digest did not include the Yazoo Act; the defiant Watkins brothers had their volume, Yazoo Act and all, printed out of state.
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Even most of the upcountry men who joined James Jackson in opposing the Yazoo sale were not averse to land speculation. Either they opposed on principle the corruption that had lubricated the sale, or, if one believes their Yazoo critics, they were motivated by disappointment at their inability to force themselves into the companies organized by the successful purchasers. William Few of Columbia County and General John Twiggs of Richmond County, who allegedly organized a raucous demonstration in the streets of Louisville, the state capital, in an unsuccessful effort to convince Governor George Mathews to veto the Yazoo sale, had also been members of the Georgia Union Company, a late-blooming organization whose bid for the western territory had been rejected by the legislature because it offered too little, too late. Another opponent of Yazoo, Richmond County legislator James McNeil, had dabbled unsuccessfully in land speculation in the early 1790s. Among Jackson’s upcountry allies, the one who showed the least interest in land speculation was probably Congressman Abraham Baldwin, a native of Connecticut who resided in Wilkes County.
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Surely the most determined supporter of Yazoo and, thus, the most vigorous opponent of James Jackson in Georgia, was Richmond County’s Robert Watkins. The ink had hardly dried on the Yazoo Act before Watkins leaped to its defense in the pages of Alexander M’Millan’s Southern Centinel, and he later used the columns of Augusta’s other newspaper, the Chronicle, to attack the arguments in Jackson’s pamphlet, The Letters of Sicilius, which served as the Bible of the anti-Yazooists in the campaign to overturn the sale.
The pugnacious Watkins was one of only three representatives to vote against the Rescinding Act in 1796. In February 1797, the Richmond representative introduced in the state House a bill that would have ceded the state’s western territory (and, of course, the Yazoo claims) to the federal government; the measure was defeated overwhelmingly.
As a member of the 1798 state constitutional convention, Robert Watkins signed the revised frame of government under protest, arguing that adding the Rescinding Act to the state constitution amounted to an ex post facto law that impaired the obligation of contract. Convention delegates Thomas Glascock and James Gunn, who had been leading lights among the Yazoo purchasers, flatly refused to sign the revised constitution. Because Watkins, Glascock, and Gunn also were high-ranking militia officers and, thus, required to defend Georgia and its constitution, an angry Governor James Jackson convinced the legislature to require all militiamen to sign an oath promising to support the revised state constitution. The ensuing “loyalty oath controversy” kept the state’s military arm in turmoil for several years.
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Robert Watkins did not confine his opposition to James Jackson to the halls of the legislature or the convention. After the adjournment of the General Assembly in February 1796, he accosted Jackson in the streets of Louisville and asked him “how he could reconcile it to his own feelings to have headed a vile party during the [legislative] session to the general injury of the whole state, and in unfounded attacks upon the reputation of a number of good men.” That kind of question, Jackson later recalled, “flesh & blood of such texture as mine would not bear.” In the ensuing scuffle, the two men fought with whips, pistols, bayonets, and fists before they were separated.
Jackson and Watkins clashed again several months later, this time in the streets of Savannah. Most of the lawyers gathered there to attend the federal court session reportedly snubbed Jackson, but Jackson considered Watkins’ conduct particularly galling, for when he accosted the Augusta attorney near the bay, Watkins merely laughed in his face. Jackson brooded over this insult for an hour or so, complaining to his friends and vowing his “determination of caning Watkins the first place he should meet him.” He then set out to find his antagonist. When the two finally met, they took up where they had left off in Louisville, pummeling each other with fists and sword canes. According to an eyewitness account by a Watkins partisan, Watkins was “drubbing [Jackson] pretty soundly when they were parted by the magistracy.”
End of Part 1
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject:
Rancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities: Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)
In Pursuit of Dead Georgians: One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)
Love reading your posts. I’m fascinated with the era of Georgia’s earliest days and read your posts often.
Thanks for the comment, John! I’m glad you’re enjoying the posts about all those “Dead Georgians.” Over my career, they’ve become among my favorite people, dead or alive. . . .
Would love to hear your take on the Greene / Miller family and Georgia. Have read your piece on James Gunn’s challenging General Greene to a duel. Interesting read! From what I’ve read, the Greene / Miller family was heavily in debt due to using Greene’s Estate to invest in Yazoo during the Whitney / Miller (Greene) partnership. I’m interested to know more about the details surrounding General Greene’s acquiring lands on Cumberland in the first place in exchange for Charleston merchants supplying his desperate troops or facing mutiny. There’s a great story to be told there and how that transaction may have been significant in winning the Revolutionary War and putting General Greene deep in to debt. This story is hard to find information on and most historical authors assume he acquired that land as a gift from the state of Georgia which is not accurate.
John, I’m one of those who assume that Greene received the Cumberland Island land as a gift from the state of Georgia. I’d be interested to hear why you think that’s not accurate. (Note: I’ve got no dog in this fight!)
Read the Cumberland Island’s historical researcher Mary Bullard’s Uneasy Legacy: The Lynch-Greene Partition on Cumberland Island, 1798-1802 in the Georgia Historical Quarterly’s publication. She touches on how Gen. Greene became involved with Charleston merchant John Banks and Ichabod Burnet and may have been a controversial silent partner which there was a Congressional committee that investigated before reimbursing Gen. Greene’s estate after his death. I have found a few scant sources on this information but there is much more to learn from this important transaction to go much further in to detail. Mulberry Grove Plantation where Gen. Greene died was the only property the state of Georgia gifted to Gen. Greene. It was confiscated from John Graham then the Royal Lieutenant Governor of Georgia. On April 13, 1782, the State Legislature passed an act appropriating five thousand guineas to be used in purchasing the estate for General Nathanael Greene in recognition of his contributions to the war. The Greene heirs sold Mulberry Grove to pay a tax debt and then moved to Dungeness afterward.
Thanks, John. I know of Ms. Bullard’s work. My comment in reply to yours had to do with Mulberry Grove, which did, as you acknowledge, come to Greene “in recognition of his contributions to the war.” Whatever else Greene might have been engaged in off the battlefield has not been something I’ve studied in the course of my own research into the Revolution in Georgia. I hope you’ll enjoy the concluding part of the post next month!
George, thanks for keeping me on your email list. These are interesting stories and just show how graft, corruption, bribery, and greed are nothing new in our country. It was interesting how the fights included many weapons, including fists, but they did not just shoot or kill each other.
Looking forward to Part 2.
I hope you and Faith are well. I keep meaning to call, but life just keeps getting in the way, along with the inability to focus as I should.
Thanks for the comment, Liz. The Willowy Bride and I are fine, and yes, indeed, “life” does get in the way of other things we want to do!
I’m glad you enjoyed the first part of the Yazoo story. Next month’s conclusion will carry it forward another four decades or so, and I think you’ll be surprised to see how Yazoo continued to shape (warp?) the history of Georgia, the South, and the nation over that period.
Love how you are illustrating that the tentacles of the Yazoo fraud reached so far into the history of the Old Southwest and points north.
Thanks, Rick! It’s true, believe it or not, that before I began researching the sequel to “Politics on the Periphery,” I simply assumed that Yazoo ended with the “Compact of 1802.” But, it turned out, this was far from the truth, at least by my reckoning!