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The largest of the U.S. states east of the Mississippi River and the youngest of the 13 former English colonies, Georgia was founded in 1732 and included much of present-day Alabama and Mississippi.

By the mid-19th century, Georgia had more plantations than any other state in the South and epitomized plantation culture and economic dependence on slavery. In 1864, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman invaded Georgia, captured Atlanta and began his infamous March to the Sea, cutting a 200-mile-wide swath of fire and destruction reaching all the way to Savannah. Georgia’s landscape varies as it sweeps from the Appalachian Mountains in the north to the marshes of the Atlantic coast on the southeast to the Okefenokee Swamp on the south.

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Georgia Native American History

The first people arrived in Georgia at least 13,000 years ago, forming various tribes across the state. After the Spanish brought diseases, such as smallpox, that decimated much of the Indigenous population in the 1600s, Georgia's Indigenous people reorganized into the Muskogee and the Cherokee.

The Muskogee people were an alliance of several tribes based around river valleys, with shared culture and individual political systems. These tribes—collectively called the “Creeks” by colonists—established a robust trading relationship with the first British settlers to arrive in Georgia in the 1700s; some married and had children. Throughout the 18th century, the Muskogee welcomed escaped African American slaves, who influenced their culture. The Muskogee were driven to cede their land to American colonists seeking to set up plantations after the American Revolutionary War. By 1826, a series of treaties forced the Muskogee to give up the rest of their land in Georgia.

The Cherokee people were among the largest tribes in the southeastern United States. During the Yamasee War (1715-1717), the Cherokee backed the British against the Creek in the Carolinas. This led to decades of battles between the Creek and the Cherokee in Georgia. The relationship between the Cherokees and the British fell apart during the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763). The resulting periodic warfare, along with a smallpox outbreak, destroyed much of the Cherokee land in Georgia and decimated its population.

During the Revolutionary War, the Cherokee were divided in supporting the British and patriots. Over a series of treaties in the 1790s and 1800s, the Cherokee were forced to cede much of their land in the southeastern United States. Some Cherokee integrated with settlers and formed the Cherokee Nation, with its own constitutional government based in Georgia. Nevertheless, Georgia attempted to remove all Cherokee from the state, especially after the discovery of gold in 1829.

Indian Removal Act and the Trail of Tears

In 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act. The U.S. government took Native American lands in Georgia and several other eastern states, and Indigenous people were forced to move west of the Mississippi into “Indian Territory” (modern-day Oklahoma). Some Creeks and Muskogee moved voluntarily, while others refused to leave.

In 1836 and 1837, American troops and militia forced many of the remaining Muskogee to move. The voyage from Alabama and Georgia to Oklahoma resulted in the loss of an estimated 8,000 Creek lives. Some Creeks managed to remain in southern Georgia, where they were joined by Creek refugees from Alabama and Florida.

From 1838 to 1839, full-blooded Cherokee were forced out of Georgia and surrounding states, and 4,000 died on what became known as the Trail of Tears. Cherokee families with a white head of household were allowed to remain in the state, and many maintained and celebrated their Cherokee cultural heritage.

Today, there are three federally-recognized Native American tribes in Georgia: the Cherokee of Georgia, the Georgia Tribe of Eastern Cherokee and the Lower Muskogee Creek Tribe.

Georgia Colonial History

Spanish conquistadors were the first Europeans to arrive in modern-day Georgia, most famously Hernando de Soto, in 1540. In the 1600s, the Spanish sent missionaries to Georgia to establish trading and settlements, and they compelled Indigenous people to adopt Christianity and Spanish culture.

After the Spanish and British, settlers arrived in Georgia from Scotland, Ireland, Salzburg, Portugal, France and the neighboring Carolinas. Europeans began vying for control of Georgia in the early 1700s, Spain claiming it was part of its Florida territory and England part of its Carolina territory. In 1733, British military leader James Oglethorpe established the last of the 13 original British colonies, Georgia, named after King George II.

Oglethorpe was one of 21 Trustees who otherwise governed Georgia from London for two decades until royally-appointed governors were installed. He developed relationships with Indigenous people that were critical for the colony’s survival and induced the Spanish to depart. Initially conceived by Oglethorpe as a refuge for London’s indebted prisoners, Georgia became a buffer for England against Spanish Florida. In 1742, the Spanish invaded Georgia and lost what would be their last attack on East Coast British colonies.

Revolutionary War

At the start of the American Revolution in 1775, the American colonists established a Provincial Congress in Georgia to counter the British Royal government. A Council of Safety managed the military and directed the colony’s entry into war in 1776, with important battles occurring in Savannah and Augusta.

Many colonists in Georgia, however, were recent British immigrants who remained loyal to England and Georgia’s popular British Royal Governor, Sir James Wright. Savannah remained a British stronghold from 1778 until 1781. In 1782, the British were driven out of Georgia, and the state elected its first post-colonial government. On January 2, 1788, Georgia became the fourth U.S. state when it ratified the U.S. Constitution.

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Slavery

Georgia was the only colony to prohibit slavery from its inception—along with lawyers, rum and Roman Catholics. Slavery was initially seen as a threat to the military security of Georgia, as nearby Spain offered freedom to slaves who joined its army. The ban was lifted in 1751, and the colonists quickly established a plantation economy dependent on slaves to raise cotton, furthered by the 1793 creation of the cotton gin by Georgian Eli Whitney.

Around the time of the American Revolution through the eve of the Civil War, enslaved Africans made up almost half of Georgia’s population. Although slaveholders accounted for less than a third of the white male population, they controlled much of Georgia’s land and political system.

Civil War and Sherman’s March

On January 18, 1861, fearing abolitionists would liberate their slaves and newly-elected President Abraham Lincoln would abolish slavery, Georgia voted to succeed from the Union. Over the course of the Civil War, Georgia provided 120,000 soldiers to the Confederacy, while 3,500 Black Georgians and several hundred white citizens fought for the Union.

Georgia stayed out of military conflict until the Battle of Chickamauga in 1863. The Confederate army won its most important battle after its loss at Gettysburg, but it lost 20 percent of its forces in the second bloodiest battle of the war.

Beginning in September 1864, Union General Sherman waged the Atlanta Campaign. This series of battles in northern Georgia culminated when Sherman captured Atlanta. After destroying the city’s business district and cutting off vital Confederate supply lines, Sherman terrorized civilians across Georgia on his March to the Sea. Troops cut off Confederate food supplies and destroyed buildings in areas of resistance. When Union troops arrived outside Savannah, the mayor surrendered, and Sherman’s troops spared the city. Sherman’s psychological warfare led to increasing desertion of Confederate forces. In 1865, Sherman took his same successful tactics into South Carolina, and the Confederacy surrendered.

Reconstruction, Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement

After the end of the Civil War, more than 460,000 enslaved people were freed in Georgia and aided by the Freedmen’s Bureau. The state was readmitted to the Union in 1868 upon ratifying the 14th Amendment but ousted within months after Georgia’s General Assembly expelled 28 Black Republican legislators, and more than a dozen people protesting the decision were killed. Georgia became the last former Confederate state readmitted to the Union on July 15, 1870, when legislators agreed to allow some Black members in the state legislature.

The state was subsequently run for nearly two decades by a corrupt group of former Confederate leaders known as the “Bourbon Triumvirate.” The majority of agriculture society suffered financially due to a decline in cotton production and demand. In the early 20th century, Jim Crow laws effectively banned many Black citizens from voting and segregated public spaces. The Ku Klux Klan was revived in Georgia in 1915, and more lynchings occurred in Georgia between 1889 and 1918 than in any other state.

After the civil rights movement began, Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights advocates formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in Atlanta in 1957. Dedicating themselves to the nonviolent attainment of equal rights for African Americans, the group continues to be active on social justice issues.

Heart of the Sunbelt

In the second half of the 20th century, Georgia became the center of the economic resurgence of southeastern U.S. states known as the Sunbelt. Major international corporations established their headquarters in Atlanta, including Delta airlines and United Parcel Service (UPS). Numerous prominent companies were founded in the city, including Coca Cola, The Home Depot and Turner Broadcasting System.

Date of Statehood: January 2, 1788

Capital: Atlanta

Population: 10,771,908 (2020)

Size: 59,425 square miles

Nickname(s): Peach State; Empire State of the South

Motto: Wisdom, Justice and Moderation

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Tree: Live Oak

Flower: Cherokee Rose

Bird: Brown Thrasher

Interesting Facts

  • In September of 1906, a massacre broke out in Atlanta after newspaper reports of Black men allegedly assaulting white women. Although the attacks were never confirmed, thousands of angry white men gathered downtown, killing dozens of Black people and causing extensive damage to many Black-owned businesses. The massacre made both national and international headlines and influenced the subsequent statewide passage of prohibition in 1908.
  • Georgia was the first of 10 states to vote against ratification of the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote. Even after it became federal law on August 26, 1920, Georgia women were prevented from voting until 1922. The state legislature did not officially ratify the amendment until 1970.
  • Georgia is the country’s number-one producer of peanuts and pecans, and Vidalia onions, known as the sweetest onions in the world, can only be grown in the fields around Vidalia and Glennville. 
  • Coca-Cola was invented by a pharmacist in Atlanta in 1886.
  • Jimmy Carter was born in Georgia. He served twice as a state senator and once as Georgia’s governor before being elected as the 39th president in 1976.

Sources

Georgia, kids.nationalgeographic.com

The history of early Georgia is largely the history of the Creek Indians, georgiaencyclopedia.org

Cherokee Indians, georgiaencyclopedia.org

The Muscogee Creek - 1600 - 1840, nps.org

Indian Removal Act: Primary Documents in American History, loc.gov

Muscogee (Creek) Removal, nps.gov

A Brief History of the Georgia Cherokees, subsequently State recognized as the Georgia Tribe of Eastern Cherokee, georgiatribeofeasterncherokee.com 

Early Georgia Encounters, georgiahistory.com

Georgia in the American Revolution, americanrevolutioninstitute.org

Georgia History, georgiaencyclopedia.org 

Establishing the Georgia Colony, 1732-1750, loc.gov

James Oglethorpe, georgiaencyclopedia.org

Georgia and the American Revolution, georgiaencyclopedia.org

Revolutionary War Sites in Georgia, exploregeorgia.org

Georgia Statehood, stu.westga.edu

Slavery in Colonial Georgia, georgiaencyclopedia.org

Slavery in Antebellum Georgia, georgiaencyclopedia.org

Civil War in Georgia, georgiaencyclopedia.org

The Civil War in Georgia: A New Georgia Encyclopedia Companion, jstor.org

Chickamauga, battlefields.org

The Atlanta Campaign, battlefields.org

Sherman Spares Savannah, loc.gov

Sherman’s March to the Sea, georgiaencyclopedia.org

Camilla Massacre, georgiaencyclopedia.org

Georgia readmitted to Union, July 15, 1870, politico.com

Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), nps.gov

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