By Dr. Kathleen Thompson
This article is the first in a series devoted to the history of the Black residents of Pickens County. Dr. Kathleen Thompson has completed extensive research including archives and library investigation, interviews of local residents, and searches of early newspapers. This project has and continues to be made possible by the Pickens Arts and Cultural Alliance, and grants from the Georgia Humanities Council, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Grant Committee members include; Robert McClure, Justin Davis, Portia Goss, Lawton Baggs, and Willie Mae Weaver.
Cherokee Owned Slaves and the 1860 Slave Schedule
The first Black residents of Pickens County were slaves. Today some Black people prefer not to use the term African-American. “I’m an American and I’ve never been to Africa,” a local resident told me. Yet the first slaves did have a sense of being African. Nelson resident Willie Mae Weaver explained that her great grandmother was taken at age seven from Africa to Dahlonega, Ga. and remembered aspects of village life which she shared with her children.
Using the ages of Black residents in later census records, their birthplace, and other records it appears that the area that is now Pickens County included slaves as far back as the 1830s. Early inhabitant James Daniels, who built an impressive home, tavern and farm in the 1830s, owned slaves and had several slave cabins. According to Steve Griffith in his book The Many Facets of Tate, Georgia, “Daniel was of mixed Cherokee and White heritage and was the head of a family that included twelve Cherokee. He owned and cultivated 300 acres of land with the help of 137 African-Americans.” It is a little known fact that wealthy Cherokee farmers owned slaves. In fact many of their slaves accompanied them on the Trail of Tears.” James Daniel‘s wife was a Cherokee, as was his mother. His father was a White trader.
Effectively this means there were slaves in what is now Pickens County before the Cherokee were forced on the Trail of Tears and before the arrival of the majority of White settlers. This may explain why all but three of the former slaves in 1860 were born in Georgia, not other states.
Luke Tate, in his book History of Pickens County, records that, “In 1839 a number of negro slaves were members of the Talking Rock Baptist Church and attended along with their owners.” Given the customs of the day, they would have attended church in a balcony separated from the White families.
By the mid eighteen hundreds the Cherokee were gone and many settlers had arrived. Pickens County was created from parts of Cherokee and Gilmer Counties in 1853. The 1860 census established that the county’s population was 4,951 residents including adults and children, but not slaves who were counted separately.
In 1860 Pickens County residents included a total of 241 slave individuals who were owned by thirty-six local landowners. They comprised a total of 4.6% of the county’s population. Of these 29 were recorded as “mulatto” or mixed race (27 female and 2 male). By comparison Richmond County (Augusta, Georgia) had 7,812 slaves and 344 whites. In 1860 the state of Georgia was 25% Negro.
Of the thirty-six slave holders the majority had 8 or less slaves. Those with more slave individuals included James Simmons (13), Andrew Blackwell (12), Thomas Murphy (14) and Hugh Briants (17). By far the largest groups of slaves worked for Samuel Tate (31), and William Tate (25). Each of the Tate’s had five slave houses where their workers lived. At this time, the marble industry had not developed so the slaves performed farm work.
Pickens, Slavery, and the Civil War
In 1860 the mountain counties of Georgia presented a special problem for Governor Brown and those who wanted to secede from the union. With few slaves mountain farmers did not have the same incentives toward secession as the large slave holding counties. Pickens citizens elected two representatives to the 1861 Georgia Secession Convention in Milledgeville. Each was elected on a platform pledge to vote against secession. One of these was James Simmons, owner of 13 slaves. Upon arriving at the convention delegates from thirteen mountain counties, including Pickens County, wanted the vote given directly to the people but the measure was defeated. They believed that if there was a direct vote succession would fail. Despite opposition from the mountain counties, Georgia seceded January 19th of 1861. While mountain representatives tried to prevent Georgia from withdrawing from the Union, in the end most, including Simmons, signed the final secession document.
Pickens County was divided with both Confederate and Union supporters. The last United States flag to be flown in Georgia after Georgia seceded from the United States flew in Jasper. For several weeks after secession the flag waved in defiance. Other county’s officials encouraged Governor Brown to order state troops to forcibly take the flag down, but he refused. Within a month the flag was removed by those who placed it aloft.
When Union troops entered the South many who had been opposed to seccession joined Confederate units. In all, 1,427 men from Pickens fought for the Confederacy and 253 fought in the Union Army. Before the war was over a few even fought for both armies. John Darnell was among those who flew the Union flag at the beginning of the war. In 1862, he was in the Pickens County Militia of the 107th Georgia Militia and later the 9th Georgia Cavalry, both Confederate units. But by 1864, he enlisted in the 5th Tennessee U.S. Mounted Infantry, fighting for the Union.
The 1870 and 1880 Census, Where have all the Former Slaves Gone?
In 1860 slaves were counted not in the census but in a separate “schedule,” reflecting their status as property. Five years after the Civil War under Reconstruction colored individuals were counted on the United States Census.
Between 1860 and 1870 forty-six percent (112) of the former slaves left Pickens County. Where they went and why is difficult to know. Those who stayed continued as farm workers, often for their former owners. Others worked as domestic help in homes of White residents. While they were no longer owned, their economic status showed little improvement. The Black population in Pickens did grow in the future, but at this time many free colored families chose to leave.
While many families moved away those who stayed were recorded on the 1870 census. Some kept the name of their slave owners. Samuel and Amanda Tate, ages 32 and 30, and their seven children, ages 1 to 12, farmed on land worth one hundred dollars. Hannah Tate, age 50 was listed as “farm labor.” Her daughter Nancy, age 25, resided with her as did Nancy’s three children. Hannah and Nancy owned no land
George Griffith was likely once owned by his neighbor Caleb Griffith. George and his wife Emeline, and their seven children lived and worked on a farm valued at one hundred dollars.
Other names of Black residents in 1870 included Webb, Nalley, Murphy, Jefferson, Freld, Thompson, Tomelley and Sandvalley. Because census records were written in sometimes illegible script the last two names are my best guess. Enumerators were often forced to list information in impossibly small spaces with a quill pen and a bottle of ink. Read today on microfilm one can see blots, water splotches, and dirt smudges. Riding on a horse or mule from farm to farm was not an easy task for those employed to record the countries population.
Occupations of former slaves included farming their own land, farm labor on the property of others, and domestic servant. Willie Webb, age 17, was a “farm laborer” as was James Field of the same age. Lowery Murphy looked after the children of farmer James Hollins. The children were ages 1, 5, and 8.
The decade after the Civil War was difficult even in areas not ravaged by large battles or Sherman’s March. There were shortages of materials, neglected roads, injured soldiers returning home, and families whose men did not return. But Black residents together with their White neighbors would rebuild a more equitable place, a good place to call home.
The Many Facets of Tate, Georgia, Stephen E. Griffeth, 1998
History of Pickens County, Luke Tate, 1935
Wolfscratch Wilderness, Charlene Terrell, 1994
Next installment: Black Workers in the Marble Industry