Rural Churches – Our Historical Treasures
The early settlers of Georgia belonged to various denominations but the primary ones were (in this order), Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Catholic, other. Our purpose here at Historic Rural Churches of Georgia is not to delve into the religious history but rather to tell the story of early Georgia history using the local, rural churches as the focal point. The churches were the community building blocks from which our state emerged. From these rural communities thus sprang the villages, towns, cities and counties that became the way Georgia was organized and governed. These early communities evolved into the current state of Georgia as we know it and strongly influence the way we live our lives today.
Georgia was unique among the thirteen original colonies in many ways. At the signing of the Declaration of
Independence, Georgia had very little land and only a handful of settlers located along the coast and the Savannah River. Virtually all land west of the Savannah River was Indian land (Cherokee to the North, Creek to the South), and unavailable for legal settlement. There were no towns, no counties, no roads and no state. In the time period from roughly 1733 (when Savannah was settled) to 1835 (when the final borders of Georgia had been defined) , Georgia as we know it today, began to take shape.
This was accomplished by a series of treaties with the Creeks and Cherokees. Much has been written about this period but it was marked with turmoil and bloodshed and, some would argue, very questionable ethics. The first of these treaties was negotiated in 1763 with the Creeks and the last was the final Cherokee treaty in 1835, allowing the settlement of Northwest Georgia. In less than 75 years, almost 38 million acres were “ceded” by the Creeks and Cherokees and became available for settlement.
To learn more about Georgia Indian treaties click here.
To learn more about how Georgia managed the transition from Indian Lands to private settlements click here.
Approximately three fourths of these lands were distributed via the “lottery system” over a period of 30 years. The land acquired on the frontier by the lotteries was originally used for tobacco cultivation, but with the introduction of cotton and the innovation of the cotton gin, agriculture shifted to large-scale cotton production. The need for labor to toil on these plantations across the state called for more and more slaves. Therefore, the land lottery not only increased the landholdings of common Georgians but also increased their ability to become slaveholders and enter the planter class. However, on average, Georgia planters held less land than their contemporaries in other southern states as a result of the lottery system, reflecting the power shift from large landholding aristocrats to yeoman farmers. The use of slaves in this agricultural system was widespread and by 1820, slaves made up 44 percent of Georgia’s population.
To learn more about the sequence of Indian Treaties in Georgia click here.
The early churches were established at the beginning of each new treaty and the resulting land settlement. As soon as the new community of pioneers moved in and began the process of clearing land and planting crops, the churches quickly appeared. Sometimes the congregation met with barely a roof over their head in “brush arbor” structures. But soon there emerged a communal place of fellowship and worship that usually involved a simple, one room building with various structural enhancements that were part of the accepted religious architecture of the time. These early churches ranged from primitive outbuildings to more elaborate structures and they were hand built with whatever local materials were at hand. Though simplistic in structure they projected hope, comfort and safety with an architectural dignity that was appropriate for the center piece of this rural lifestyle.
Our mission then is to begin to tell some of the stories of these early Georgia pioneers using the church, its architecture, its history and its cemeteries as the focus that it deserves. Much of this local history is still out there but it is located in various attics, old boxes and dusty places where it cannot be shared. With the passage of time, we lose more and more of it. Historic Rural Churches of Georgia will create a digital repository for these community stories, photos and documents where the history can be preserved and shared……….one that will give subsequent generations a sense of who these remarkable people were and how they lived and died.