The Basement of Time: Oconee River, 1790

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters. (Maclean 104)

Marion Wesley Stembridge drove northeast along the Oconee River banks the morning of 2 May 1953, making his way to Shep Baldwin’s home located on Furman Shoals Road. Marion is said to have aimed to kill Baldwin, first thing. Although Shep was inside the Furman Shoals home watching television, Marion didn’t see Shep’s car. His wife had driven the car to town before the Sesquicentennial crowd hit the streets. Maybe Shep’s wife went to town for groceries, perhaps at the Piggly Wiggly. I doubt anyone will ever know, but she likely saved her husband’s life. I tend to think she went grocery shopping at the Piggly Wiggly that was once across the street from the Baldwin County courthouse. Marion will park at Piggly Wiggly when he finally returns to downtown Milledgeville that morning.

Since Marion didn’t see Shep’s car, Marion turned around in Shep’s driveway, leaving county solicitor Carter “Shep” Baldwin, one of the primary targets on Marion’s alleged hit list, enjoying whatever television program Shep tuned to the morning of 2 May 1853. Shep had prosecuted Marion for the 1949 murder of a court-reported 18-year-old black female named Emma.

Little is known about Emma besides testimonies of the steps Emma walked on 7 March 1949, and descriptions of her wounds an hour or so after Marion and Sam Terry drove to the home of Richard Lee Cooper in Oconee Heights as the community was situated along the northwestern side of the Oconee as the river runs south from Milledgeville toward Dublin. Emma and others were there, at Cooper’s, when Marion and Sam Terry came calling in 1949. The two white men drove to Cooper’s to collect on a loan, which will leave 44 year old Mary Jane Harrison on the edge of death and Emma dead by next morning. For the death of Emma, the Baldwin County Superior Court’s decision will rule Voluntary Manslaughter during the July Term of 1949, but the appeal to Involuntary Manslaughter will release Marion on a $5,000 bond. 

1903, November From “Historical Notes of Milledgeville, GA.” by Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, PH.D., Instructor in History in the University of Wisconsin:

Milledgeville owed its existence to a state enactment of 1803, which ordered its survey as a town and gave it its cumbrous name, when its site was still a wilderness but recently surrendered by the Indians. It owed such commercial importance as it came to have its location at the head of navigation upon the Oconee river. It was a collecting point for cotton bound for the sea, and a distributing point for manufacturers from Europe and the North. But the Savannah and the Ocmulgee were greater streams, with better navigation, and the merchants of Augusta and later Macon* were more enterprising. The commerce of Milledgeville, when once developed, remained purely local and almost stationary.

 *Macon was founded in 1822, forty miles west of Milledgeville, and quickly asserted a successful claim to a share of the commerce of the intervening territory. (Phillips 1)

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Traveler’s Road (aka: Federal/Military Road through the Creek Nation, showing Postal Horse Path through Georgia: Milledgeville (7)

Although the Oconee isn’t as deep or wide as the Ocmulgee or as majestic as the Savannah, pole boats and even paddleboats could approach Milledgeville, travelling upstream from Dublin from the south until the marks and twains scratched and stuck the heavier boats on the Fall Line rocks such as Furman Shoals. Milledgeville is situated just above the geographical point where the sands of South Georgia pool with ancient bedrock, which makes the Oconee tough to navigate past the old pontoon bridge location to Furman Shoals

The term Creek could be an affront if enough Creeks remained alive to take offense and rise, but they’re mostly dead. In Georgia, like other places, creeks are smaller rivers. After creeks come streams then branches then trickles, and water flows vanish into the ground. The southeastern portion of the continent of North America is rich with rivers, and, as they haunt Norman Maclean, waters, particularly rivers,haunt me. Rivers haunt history.

A people of the Southeast once lived along its rivers. The Oconee River is just one of many, and the people were Muskogee Indians; however, by the time President Andrew Jackson signs into Federal law The Indian Removal Act on 28 May 1830, not many Creeks were left to walk to the Oklahoma Territory along with the Cherokee. In the northern reaches of Georgia and Alabama, history books often state how the Cherokee lived more peacefully with the white man than the Creeks did. Into the central and southern regions of the states, the Creeks fought and fought the cessions of their lands. In the end (1830), though, it didn’t matter that the Cherokee might’ve been more benevolent because the Trails of Tears didn’t differentiate.     

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Forts and Cities along The Military Road, roughly following the Rocky Mountain Plateau/ Coastal Plain geographical line. Milledgeville (4) along the Oconee River
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Georgia Passport through the Creek Indian Nation 1811 May 4

References:

Maclean, Norman. A River Runs Through It and Other Stories. University of Chicago Press, 1976.

Potter, Dorothy Williams. Passports of Southeastern Pioneers. Gateway Press, 1982.

Phillips, Ulrich Bonnell. “Historical Notes of Milledgeville, Ga.” The Gulf States Historical Magazine, Nov. 1903, p. 1.

Southerland, Jr., Henry DeLeon and Jerry Elijah Brown. The Federal Road though Georgia, the Creek Nation, and Alabama, 1806-1836. The University of Alabama Press, 1989.

THE STATE v. Marion W. Stembridge. No. 3839, Criminal Docket F. Baldwin Superior Court. July Term, 1949. Transcript.

Wright, Patti. Marion Stembridge and the Stembridge Murders. HIS 445, Georgia College, 1994.

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