Saturday, January 7, 2012

How Douglas County Lost an 'S'

Back some time ago I saw an online discussion regarding the history of Douglas County and how the name was derived. A participant in the conversation was adamant the county had been named for famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass.


This was news to me. Why didn't I know this? I should know this. What a gem of historical content for me - someone who has taught students about Reconstruction more times than I care to admit.

A county in the hotbed of the ex-Confederacy has been named for negro!

Now, don't get me wrong. As someone born in the context of the end of the 20th century, I see nothing wrong with this. It would be wonderful! However, as historian I understand the implications of this being done in GEORGIA during the 1870s. Was this something foisted on Georgians against their will, since they were not in full control of their government at the time, or was there really an enclave of Georgians west of Atlanta who thought it was time to name a county after a very important black American?

I was already thinking about the lesson plan I could form around the irony of the situation and how wonderful the premise could be.

But wait -- I'm going to take the word of some random person online? Before I got too carried away, I did a quick online search. I understand that such claims must be verified with primary and secondary sources -- the more scholarly the better.

The Carl Vinson Institute of Government at UGA is one of the most reliable sites available regarding the formation of Georgia counties and county government. Its information regarding Douglas County states: "Georgia's 133rd county was named for Illinois U.S. Senator Stephen Douglas (1847-1861). Douglas ran unsuccessfully as the Democratic Party's presidential nominee in 1860 with Georgia's Herschel Johnson as his running mate."

The Douglas County historical marker can be seen here, and it agrees with the above.

I wondered what the Douglas County website said.

Celebrate Douglas states: "Douglas County was created on October 17, 1870, during the Reconstruction period after the Civil War, and was first named for Fredrick Douglass, the African-American abolitionist, due to the Republican/military control of the Georgia General Assembly, and later changed to honor Stephen A. Douglas, the Illinois Senator who opposed Abraham Lincoln for the Presidency, when local control of the General Assembly was re-established when Reconstruction ended."

Okay, if you read this without actually comprehending it, you might be led to believe that Georgia had an enclave of strong Unionist west of Atlanta who chose to stand up and do the right thing and make a stance by renaming a Reconstruction-era county after Frederick Douglass.

This is hardly the case.

Notice it says, "Due to the Republican/military control of the Georgia General Assembly."

The Wikipedia page for Douglas County states:

Formed soon after the end of the US Civil War, Douglas County was originally named by the reconstruction legislature after Frederick Douglass, the Civil War-era abolitionist, however, the official honoree was later changed to Stephen A. Douglas, an Illinois senator and the Democratic opponent of Abraham Lincoln in the presidential election of 1860.

Isn't something missing here, like the why?

The information at Celebrate Douglas and the blurb at Wikipedia give no reference data and no real reason for the change. Wikipedia is always suspect since anyone can enter the system and change the articles. As a history buff and educator, I must have a source to substantiate information. Otherwise, I'm just relying on hearsay and assumption, which can lead to a rewritten history that is not factual.

My quest to locate a scholarly source or a letter written from someone at the time then carried me to the Douglas County Library, where I sat for two hours pouring over every history of the county I could pull from the shelves. I found a fascinating story that is much more interesting that the simplistic view the Celebrate Douglas site advised.

Non-Native American types had been living in the environs of today's Douglas County since the 1830s. Several lived around an area known to the local natives as Skint Chestnut, because they scraped the bark from the tree to mark it as a meeting place. The original skint chestnut tree is long gone, but its location can be found underneath the buildings at the corner of Broad and Pray streets. Today Pray Street is the west side of Courthouse Square.

Today's Douglasville is yesteryear's Skint Chestnut. Most of the land falling within today's county borders prior to 1870 was part of Campbell County, with the city of Fairburn serving as its county seat. For those plantation owners along the Chattahoochee River and for those settlers who lived farther north above the Chattahoochee, this meant they had to ride horseback or in wagon for 20 miles or more to conduct any town business. By 1870, people had had enough.

A group of men including Ephraim Pray, John C. Bowden, John A. Wilson and several others decided that Campbell County was too large. They wanted to form another county using the land on the northern side of the Chattahoochee River. They managed to get Dr. W.S. Zellars, the representative from Campbell County to prepare a bill regarding its  organization. The plan was to name the new county after Stephen A. Douglas.

What you have to realize at this point is the Georgia General Assembly was not exactly controlled by folks who acted or thought like a large majority of Georgians at the time. Merton Coulter, author of Georgia: A Short History (1947), advises much of the General Assembly during Reconstruction was composed of Northern adventurers better known as carpetbaggers, a group known as scalawags (Georgian with pro-Union sentiments), illiterate blacks (the majority of whom were merely manipulated yes-men to the carpetbaggers), and a few conservative Georgians.

The New Georgia Encyclopedia article regarding Reconstruction in Georgia states, "In January, 1870, Alfred H. Terry, the third and final commanding general of the District of Georgia, conducted 'Terry's Purge.' He removed the General Assembly's ex-Confederates, replaced them with the Republican runners-up, and then reinstated the expelled black legislators, thus creating a heavy Republican majority in the legislature. Naturally, this didn't sit very well with the majority of the citizens living in the state at the time."

The General Assembly was in full control of the Republicans under Gov. Rufus Bullock, and as far as most Georgians were concerned their State House was in the hands of the enemy. Bullock was thoroughly detested, and his election was suspect.

Under this type of climate the men from Skint Chestnut attended several General Assembly sessions as Dr. Zeller's bill was introduced. They could tell immediately things didn't look good for their side. In her book, From Indian Trail to I-20, Fannie Mae Davis relates that one of the men in the delegation came up with a plan to make sure the bill passed. Everyone in the delegation bought in, and they let the rumor get out that if the new county was approved, it would be named for Frederick Douglass.

Of course, this turned the tide as the Republican-controlled Assembly warmed considerably to having a Georgia county named for Douglass rather than Douglas. What the members of the General Assembly did not know is the men from Skint Chestnut had also agreed that once the lawmaking body of Georgia returned to Democratic hands, the county would again be designated as being named for Stephen A. Douglas.

The bill passed, Douglas County was formed, and the original act did note that the county would be known as Douglass County. Mrs. Davis recounts in her book, "Whether the political scheme made a difference in the outcome the men from Skint Chestnut never knew for sure, but it was said they like to think they had outwitted Rufus Bullock."

In 1871, Bullock was on the run, forced out of office by cries of corruption and a federal investigation. The carpetbaggers were on the run as well. A new round of elections took place, and Georgia returned to rule by the Democrats. By 1875, the General Assembly had approved the act that changed Skint Chestnut to Douglasville.

In her book, Davis continues, "From old accounts of the period, one does not get a message of ill will in regard to the early name of the county, nevertheless, after the government became operative, two officials clipped the final 's' from the office stampers; other than that, all government documents and the U.S. mail bore the Douglass spelling until 1873 when the General Assembly amended the spelling and recorded the name for Douglas County to honor Stephen A. Douglas."

Ill will? There's no way to know for sure, however, we do need to remember that the delegation from Skint Chestnut wanted their county, and apparently they were willing to do anything (even something very drastic considering the political climate of the times) to get it.

The story regarding the scheme is very interesting and certainly answers the question regarding those that merely want to say Douglas County was named for Frederick Douglass and leave it at that, but that's the wrong tactic to take. The back story is necessary. I think it is interesting that even in the constant turmoil Reconstruction in Georgia created, folks were just trying to get a county seat a little closer to them.

One of the sources Fannie Mae Davis used for her book was a letter written by Moses McKoy Smith in 1930 which she publishes in full. Smith had served as mayor of Douglasville in 1882, state representative form 1884-1885, and had practiced law in the community for over 30 years. His letter testified to the events regarding the scheme that convinced the General Assembly to approve Douglas County. Smith's father was one of the men in the delegation.

A version of this post first appeared at my website, Georgia on My Mind, in 2008.

This article has also appeared at Douglasville Patch.

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