West of the Oconee River, Milledgeville is the oldest white settlement in Georgia–land ceded by the Creeks through legitimate and bogus treaties such as the Shoulder Bone Creek Treaty, which was named for a former boundary creek northeast of Milledgeville near Sparta. Shoulder Bone was a 1786 attempt to acquire the lands east of the Oconee.
From the Atlantic coastline and up from the Gulf, whites moved inward introducing European economics into an indigenous culture that had no concept of the new way. Compound interest and/or microeconomics might be understood and/or misunderstood the same these days; however, many would just call it math. Besides genocide, incurred debt won the West. The land of The United States was acquired through as simple of means as annual percentage rates on student loans, home loans, a bottle of rum for a hundred acres, or car loans such as the 1941 Chevrolet bought and financed by Marion Wesley Stembridge then bargained to the Cooper family at an inflated rate with the deal sweetened with a spurious insurance policy.
Debt has been around since at least the Middle Ages, spanning Europe’s feudal serfdom to America’s sharecropping then its credit cards. It’s not a stretch of the imagination that a supposed free American is also his/her credit score.
The way to control is through being owed, and it didn’t take European culture long to deduce that Indians liked things and had little concept that land could be owned or lost. Later, it won’t take the haves long to deduce that the have nots want and need things with little concept that a debtor, in may ways, is owned by the grantor of a debt. Of course, it didn’t take long for Marion Wesley Stembridge to do the same in the former capital of Georgia of the former Confederate States of America as progressiveism turned a blind eye to early twentieth and mid-twentieth century Milledgeville.
Whites didn’t stop at the Oconee River. Twenty years after 1803 the goal became the Ocmulgee River at Macon then the Chattahoochee River at Columbus and then the Alabama River at Montgomery. Then into Mississippi, and then the West. The Southeast was a game of chess that the Creeks lost river by river.
18 June 1799
In a 1799 letter from, then, Georgia Governor James Jackson to Brigade-General D. Blackshear who was stationed somewhere along the Oconee River near what will be Milledgeville while Governor Jackson wrote from the capital of Georgia in Louisville in nearby Jefferson County.
Should other Indians come into your settlement, and behave so as to require noticing, if you can procure any information, they are liable to be sent to gaol equally with whites for any crime they may be guilty of; and if, after being required to go over the river to their own side, they obstinately remain, they are liable to be apprehended by a warrant, under the hand of the magistrate, as vagabonds, under the act to amend the act for punishment of vagabonds, passed the 1st of February, 1788.
But I would much prefer the punishment of our own people, who are, in fact, the sole authors of those mischiefs by enticing [the Indians] on this side of the river. Should the worst of your fears, however, take place, you shall be supported. I only advise moderation and prudence on our side, to convince the Union that it is not the wish of the citizens of Georgia to commence hostility, or to precipitate the United States into an Indian war when they have every expectation of an European one, and which conduct, were to commence, might so anger the Union as to prevent our obtaining the Oconee lands, which, I have reason to believe, is in a fair train.
The extract of law, as I before mentioned, will point out your powers and duty with those who draw the Indians for interested purposes to this side of the river. (Miller 406)
Expansion into the Trans-Oconee Region 1790-1807
The war had not prevented thousands of Virginians and Carolinians from settling in Georgia’s newly opened lands in the upcountry of Wilkes County, where they became staunch supporters of the Whig’s struggle against the Crown. With Savannah having fallen under control of the King’s troops early in the war and the coastal area becoming strongly affected by Toryism, Augusta was made the new capital in 1786. Later, in 1795, upcountry members of the constitutional convention obtained the removal of the seat of government to Louisville, which at that time was near the outer perimeter of white settlements. Before the capital could be moved father into the interior, additional land had to be ceded by the Creek Indians.
Land policy had become the most important single issue to be decided and would determine the future of the state’s development. Public land claimed by Georgia at this time amounted to almost 100 million acres, but because of Indian ownership not more than 10 percent of this was subject to immediate acquisition by private owners. No other state at this time could boast so large a public domain.
In 1783 a group of Creek chiefs reluctantly ceded nearly 3 million acres between the Ogeechee and Oconee rivers, stretching for nearly 170 miles across the length of the state. In the following year this area was organized as Washington County and opened for immediate settlement by whites. One of the largest ever settled in Georgia, this county began a few miles south of the future site of Athens and ran southward to a point several miles below what was to become Reidsville. The total effect was to move Georgia’s Indian boundary westward from the Ogeechee to the Oconee. (Bonner 1)
1790: Treaty of New York
The Creeks ceded all their remaining lands east of the Oconee River and relinquished their claims to the lands ceded by the Cherokees in 1783, thus making official the Cherokee cession of that year. The northern boundary of this cession begins at the Tugaloo River where the Stephens-Habersham line intersects with the northern boundary of Banks, thence to the head of the Apalachee River six miles west of Auburn (in Barrow County).
1802: Treaty of Fort Wilkinson
The Creeks ceded a narrow strip west of the Oconee-Apalachee rivers beginning at High Shoals on the Apalachee and running south to where the boundaries of Morgan, Putnam and Jasper counties meet near Godfrey, thence southeastward in a direct line through Stevens Pottery in Baldwin County to Turkey Creek at a point one mile east of Dudley in Laurens County. The line then follows Turkey Creek eastward to the Oconee River about twelve miles below Dublin.
Georgians remained unrelenting in their efforts to obtain additional cessions from the Creeks. None of these was successful until 1802, when the treaty made at New York in 1790 was abrogated and a new basis laid for the transfer of additional Creek territory. This treaty, which will be discussed below, was made at Fort Wilkinson near the future site of Milledgeville. (Bonner 7)
The upstream traffic in supplies apparently exceeded that going downstream. This was largely because the Indians bought more goods than the value of their credit in skins and furs, a fact which did not discourage them. Actually, the Indians’ great desire for the basic accoutrements of the white man’s civilization, combined with their willingness to go into debt to acquire them, were important factors in their undoing. In the end the Indians were required to pay their debts with cessions of lands, the only other commodity they possessed which the white man coveted. Debts owed by the Creeks to the factory at Fort Wilkinson in November 1801 amounted to $23,874. In a treaty made there the following year, the United States agreed to cancel almost half this amount in return for a new cession west of the Oconee. (Bonner 10)
Forgiving the cliche, taverns and activities and goods near the forts drew the Indians like moths to flames. From my experience with humans, excesses often lure humans whether it’s super sized cheeseburgers, shopping, sex, liquor or anything that softens the harsh blades of reality and offers a temporary escape from pain or even boredom. People also buy what they need even if they don’t even need it. It’s often difficult to discern the difference between a want and a need, and I’m most definitely as guilty as anyone. We people buy what we don’t need on a daily basis. Now there’s Etsy and Ebay, but there was a time when Fort Wilkinson on the Oconee just a mile downriver from Milledgeville was as good as anything online or as good as T.J. Maxx.
Along the banks of the Oconee near Milledgeville, Fort Wilkinson preceded Fort Hawkins at Macon on the Ocmulgee. Both forts were established deep into the Georgia wilderness. In the darkness, their tallow and oil lamps lit up the night. At the forts, a person of any color could find liquor to set the night on fire, a blanket to keep warm or a new thing like a cast iron pot that was better than one made of clay.
Today, The Georgia Lottery is at almost every convenience store, and I have never seen anything like the liquor stores in Georgia. They’re everywhere; it seems. Lottery and liquor are particularly prominent in the more rural and lower-income areas of the small towns and cities like Milledgevile.
Bonner, James C. Milledgeville: Georgia’s Antebellum Capital. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1978.
Georgia and Alabama. Map. By Henry Schneck Tanner. Philadelphia, 1823. University of Alabama Department of Geography. Historical Maps of Alabama Collection.
Mattison, Ray H. “The Creek Trading House–From Colerain to Fort Hawkins.” Georgia Historical Quarterly, XXX (Sept. 1946)
Miller, Stephen F. Bench and Bar of Georgia: Memoirs and Sketches, Vol. 1. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1858.