Clayton was barely a speck on the map. The few roads that existed were no more than old Cherokee trails. People caught vast numbers of jumping fish in baskets.
An encyclopedic work published in 1849 provides a detailed snapshot of life in a rugged, remote and sparsely populated Rabun County within 30 years of its founding in 1819.
Compiled by George White, an Episcopal preacher and amateur archeologist, the title of his almanac is a mouthful: “Statistics of the State of Georgia, Including an Account of its Natural, Civil and Ecclesiastical History; Together with a Particular Description of Each County, Notices of the Manners and Customs of its Aboriginal Tribes, and a Correct Map of the State.”
Sparsely Populated County
The population of Rabun County in 1845 totaled 1,825 whites and 93 blacks. This miniscule number of people was spread throughout a county estimated at 400 square miles. That comes to about five people per square mile.
In 1848, the county collected tax revenues of $409.90. Rabun had one representative in the state legislature.
Clayton, termed “the seat of justice,” had a grand total of 16 residents in 1845. The town had a courthouse, jail, post office, one church, a grocery and an academy. Clayton also had one lawyer. There are always people to sue.
White reported, “At the time this notice was prepared, there was no trade of any description carried on in Clayton.”
Rabun was described as a county of mountains. The description of the terrain reveals a poetic side of George White. “In whatever direction the eye is turned, it beholds ridges of mountains, one behind the other, like a dark blue sea of giant billows, instantly stricken solid by nature’s magic wand.”
Roads As Bad As Roads Can Be
Returning to more mundane matters, White said, “The roads are bad, bad as roads can be. The turnpike road extending from Habersham to North Carolina (roughly tracking present-day 441/23) is now in a very bad condition.” The roads, such as they were, followed old Cherokee trails.
Making matters worse, “There are no bridges or ferries. When the waters are too deep for fording, the people are compelled to wait until they subside.” Given the amount of rainfall Rabun County receives, travelers must have done a lot of waiting.
Later in the century, Rabun’s inferior court mandated drafting men to help improve and maintain the county’s roads. A man had the choice of either working with a pick and shovel or paying a road tax. This initiative ultimately resulted in county roads capable of handling heavy wagons, not just riders on horseback. However, significant improvements to roads had to wait until the Civilian Conservation Corps of the New Deal came to Rabun County in the 1930s.
Farming Along Rivers and Streams
White reported that Rabun County had some good farmland, principally in its river valleys and along streams. Corn was the principal crop, but apples were grown as a cash crop, enabling farmers to buy such necessities as sugar, coffee and salt.
According to White’s report, “Mockeson Court Ground (in eastern Rabun County along Warwoman Road) has superior land. This place is so hemmed in by impassable mountains that it cannot without difficulty be reached by a vehicle, without passing through a corner of South Carolina. Twenty-five or thirty families reside here, composed of the most substantial citizens in the county.” In 1885, some of these “substantial citizens” declared war on Highlands, N.C. to free two of their jailed moonshining brethren.
Mining for Gold
Granite, iron and alum were listed as the most prevalent minerals in the county. Gold also was found along Persimmon Creek and the Tallulah River. “Powell’s, Stonecypher’s and Smith’s mines have been tolerably productive. Morgan’s mines are thought to be rich.” In reality, little gold was ever extracted from Rabun County, and mining had largely ended by the time of the Civil War.
The county was home to vast numbers of deer as well as wolves and bears. Bison and elk were not mentioned, probably because they had been hunted to extinction in this part of Georgia by 1849. Fish abounded in the rivers and streams. “Here can be found to great perfection the delicious mountain trout,” White wrote.
Fishing with a Basket
Particularly noteworthy were the jumping mullet on “War Woman’s Creek.” White said,
“The fish in immense numbers come up to the foot of the shoal and attempt to jump over the obstacle; not being sufficiently active to reach the top, they necessarily fall back, and in their descent are caught in baskets by the fishermen.”
White also reported the average prices for grain and provisions. Corn and oats sold for 30 cents a bushel; sweet potatoes for 50 cents a bushel; pork for 3 ½ cents a pound; beef for 2 ½ cents a pound; chickens for $1.00 a dozen; and bread for $4-$8 per month. Prices were low, but they had to be since no one in Rabun County had much money.
Temperance Hailed as a Virtue
Most people were either Baptist or Methodist “with the former most numerous.” White added, “The temperance effort has been productive of good.” No mention is made of the folks distilling corn whiskey in Rabun’s mountain hollows.
Nearly every settlement was found to have a school. The number of school children totaled 435, and the county’s “educational fund” was reported to be $377.28.
The morals of Rabun County citizens were given a passing grade. “Based on court records, we are prepared to say that the character of the people is good as to morals and punctuality in personal matters, as there are not a dozen cases, including civil and criminal, returned to the court in a year.”
The portrait of Rabun County in 1849 as painted by Statistics of the State of Georgia was that of a remote, mountainous region, home to more deer, bear and wolves than people. Clayton was barely a speck on the map, and roads were impassable. But the fishing was good…with either a basket or a cane pole.
This article by Society member Richard Cinquina was originally published in the Georgia Mountain Laurel magazine in November 2020.