The History of the Flint River is Intertwined with the History of Georgia and America

flint river history
Franklin Roosevelt's experience on and around the Flint River helped shape his New Deal policies

Flint River history is tightly intertwined with the history of Georgia and America. Within this region sprang events with national scope. What was occurring in America was reflected in what was happening in the region, and events that occurred in the region greatly effected the policies of an emerging nation.

Some of the first European explorers to come to America made their way up the Flint River and found a society of people who had been inhabiting this land for thousands of years—cutting paths through the forests, canoeing the rivers and planting the fields. George Washington sent Benjamin Hawkins to serve as Indian Agent when the clash of the two cultures seemed imminent, but Hawkins could not ward off the inevitable. In Flint River history, this part of the country was necessary to the manifest destiny of Thomas Jefferson, and was the proving ground for the fierce nationalism of Andrew Jackson.

The stories of Flint River history are woven into an intricate tapestry: a story of the American frontier and a general, Jackson, who brutally and methodically moved a nation out so that another nation might survive. A story of the antebellum South where cotton was king. Here was one of the largest slave-holding regions of the country, and the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement. A story of rivers, and water power and of mills and industry. And here is the story of three Presidents—Jackson, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Jimmy Carter. As president Jackson would deliver the final blow to Southeast Indians with his Indian Removal Act, which appropriated funds for negotiating treaties and relocating Indians to the West—thus securing Georgia lands for white settlement. Witnessing the struggle of this area during the 1920s and ‘30s, Roosevelt was inspired to formulate his New Deal policies that brought the country out of its greatest depression. Carter, who grew up loving this land, was enlightened enough to see the harm in harnessing the wild river that ran through it.  

The Native Americans in Flint River History

Prehistoric Indians

It is estimated that at the time of first European contact, more than 90 million people inhabited North America and South America. Anthropologists have grouped these Native American societies, or American Indians as they are known, into several culture areas. The Indian societies occupying land from the Atlantic coast west to central Texas were dubbed the Southeastern culture and included the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole and Creek people—the Creeks in Flint River history, being the Indians who lived in the valleys and river bottoms of the Flint and Chattahoochee rivers.

The Creeks, like all other Native Americans, appear to have descended from Asian peoples who migrated across the Bering Strait, a 50-mile long land bridge between Asia and Alaska, created during the Ice Age about 30,000 to 50,000 years ago. Those who made the crossing were not explorers or settlers or adventurers. They were simply hungry men and women following the game on which their livelihood depended. Over the centuries, their descendants spread out over the two continents, from Alaska to the tip of South America from the Arctic Circle to the subtropics. People had to learn to live in frozen tundra, in forests, on grassy plains and in arid deserts, in high mountains and in deep canyons, along rugged coastlines and lakeshores and in fertile river valleys.

Flint River history illustrates that some of them ended up in the fertile valleys of the Flint and Chattahoochee rivers about 10,000 years ago. Known as the Paleo Indians, they were nomadic hunters of large mammals who roamed the region looking for food in a time when ice still covered much of the earth. Their daily routine centered around hunting. They traveled in small bands, or families, searching for the large animals of their day—mastodon, the giant bison, the mammoth. These animals provided them with meat and fat for food, skins for clothing and bones for tools. The Indians stayed in one place for only a few days, eating the animals and plants in the area and moving on. They built shelters only if they found enough food in an area to last a few weeks or months.

By the Archaic Period of Flint River history, from 8000 B.C. to 1000 B.C., the ice had retreated, the climate had gradually warmed and the large animals roaming the region had disappeared. White-tailed deer, boars, black bear and many small animals, which can still be found today, appeared. These Indians were hunters and gatherers who utilized the new foods as well as shellfish and seasonal plants. Rivers and their rich food sources became available. Nut-bearing trees, extending from the Fall Line to the upper Coastal Plain, were probably of great importance to these people, providing them with needed protein and fatty acids. The large stands of hickory and oak trees growing in the region were probably as important in bringing these Indians into the area as the large amounts of game.

The first steps to farming were taken when hunters began to understand more and more about the plants and animals they used for food. They possibly noticed that a plant would grow where seeds had fallen on the ground, or learned how to raise animals by taking care of young animals whose mothers they had killed. In the region, it is known that during the Woodland period of Flint River history, 1000 B.C. to A.D. 900, people planted sunflower, marsh elder and goosefeet—plants considered weeds today. Eventually, squash and gourds and later corn and beans were cultivated. The Indians also learned to make pottery, which was a monumental step, as it was used to cook and store food and transport water. People began to live in villages at least part of the year. After thousands of years of Flint River history as hunters, these Woodland people no longer had to roam to obtain food. Farmers settled in one area for several years at a time and built villages near their cropland, living there as long as the crops grew well and the firewood lasted. Once the land became unproductive, the Indians moved to a new area.

During the Mississippian Period of Flint River history, A.D. 900 to European contact in the mid-1500s, the Indians built large villages, usually on rivers or streams, using the rich bottomlands for farming and the rivers and streams for transportation. Village areas surrounded huge, flat-topped temple mounds where social and religious ceremonies took place. The Mississippian Indians still hunted and gathered, but this culture discovered that the bottomland soils produced better crops and the periodic flooding that occurred restored the nutrients in the soil. They cultivated seed plants, pumpkins, beans and squash, probably tobacco and especially corn. So important was the staple corn that the Mississippians gave it religious significance, connecting it to the king-gods who led them. The great mounds they built, full of burial plots and artifacts, still stand, some protected as public property.

There are two big Mississippian sites just south of the Fall Line. Rood Creek Indiana Mounds on the Chattahoochee River in Stewart County was one of the largest in prehistoric Georgia. At its peak, the population of Rood’s Landing was an estimated 3,500 people. Another important mound site in Flint River history from where great corn cultures sprang is the Kolomoki Mounds State Historic Site near Blakely.

The decade of Flint River history that followed their contact with Europeans brought cultural devastation to the native people of the southeast. The earliest known meeting between southeastern Indians and Europeans occurred in 1513 when a Spaniard named Juan Ponce de Leon landed with his ship on the coast of Florida. Other Europeans followed. Hernando de Soto and his band of Spanish explorers first stepped foot into the Flint River Valley in 1540. These explorers were surprised to find an established culture of people. But with these explorers came measles, tuberculosis, typhus, smallpox and other old world diseases, far exceeding anything that could have been inflicted upon the Indians with mere weapons or military force. Despite the tragic consequences of disease, the survivors persevered and so began a 300-year-era of Indian, black and white interactions in the region.

The Creeks

In Flint River history, the Creek people are believed to be the Southeastern descendants of the Moundbuilders of the Mississippian Period. These indigenous people of composite origin spoke a family of related languages referred to as Muskogean. They called themselves the Muskogee Nation—Muskogees or Muscogulges (The word Muskogee, or Muscogee, signifies land that is wet or prone to flooding; “ulge” designates a nation or people). But English-speaking white men called them Creeks because they lived and roamed the many rivers, streams and swamps that ran through their territory—a territory that extended from the Atlantic to the Tombigbee River, through parts of Georgia, Florida, Alabama and Mississippi.

By the 18th century in Flint River history the Creeks were the dominant tribe in a confederacy with a membership of about 30,000. The confederacy occupied most of what are now the states of Georgia and Alabama. After the Cherokee, the Creeks were the most powerful grouping of Native Americans south of New York.

The Creek Nation included approximately 60 towns and was divided into two geopolitical divisions, which the Europeans called the Upper and Lower towns. Forty Upper Towns lay along the Tallapoosa-Coosa-Alabama River System and twenty Lower Towns were scattered on the Ocmulgee, Flint and Chattahoochee rivers of Georgia. This division predated trading relations between the Creeks and the British Colonies, but originated with the relative position of the two main trading paths that linked the Creeks with South Carolina: the Upper Creek Trading path and the Lower Creek Trading Path. These two divisions differed not only geographically, but also politically. They respected their kinship with each other but held separate councils, claimed separate territories and very often pursued different foreign policy—a difference that would ultimately affect their survival. Besides that, Creeks also divided their towns into two types—red, or war towns, and white, or peace towns.

The Creek town, or tulwa, was the center of political, social and economic life in Flint River history. Each town contained a public square, which was its governmental and ceremonial center, and 25 to 100 log houses. Creek temples were impressive dome-shaped structures made of thatch. The town was governed by a mico, or town king, who was so associated with his town that his given name was forsaken and he became known as Coweta Mico or Cussita Mico. The Creek were an agricultural tribe: Creek women cultivated corn, squash, beans, and other crops. The men hunted and fished.

Long before the Europeans disrupted Native American life in Flint River history, trade took place amongst the different tribes. Well-traveled trading paths linked villages. Furs, flint, copper, silver, clay pipes, salt, conch shells, feathers—all were common goods for trade. But once the first Carolina traders entered the Indian town of Coweta in 1685, carrying glass beads, bells and brightly colored cloth, as well as steel knives and muskets, the focus changed. The Creeks soon established strong trading links with Charles Town (Charleston) in the Colony of Carolina: Indian deerskins and other produce for flintlock muskets, metal tools and European textiles. This trade was certainly a lucrative proposition for the Carolina colony as hides and furs from the interior Indian tribes became its major export.

After the American Revolution (1775-1783), the Creeks, who had supported the British, were faced with land-hungry American settlers eager to push into Creek territory and an American government somewhat intent on manifest destiny. In 1796, President George Washington appointed Colonel Benjamin Hawkins as Indian Agent on the Flint River. Hawkins was an important character in Flint River history. Hawkins’s philosophy to integrate the Indians into the white culture by teaching them the skills of modern farming and industry was noble but difficult to implement. Some Creeks, mostly in the Lower Towns, realized the advantages of cooperating with the Americans, but other, younger Creeks, mostly living in the Upper Towns, rejected contact with whites and the consequent abandonment of their own Indian culture.

All Creeks resented the relentless encroachment on their land. Encouraged by the Spanish in Florida and the British in Canada, who promised to provide arms and supplies, many Creeks prepared for war against the United States, which was now building roads from Georgia into the Alabama settlements. Tecumseh, a Shawnee Indian chieftain from the northern tribes, conceived a plan to organize all tribes from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico and force out the white man. In 1811, he visited the Creeks, including Red Eagle, leader of the militant Red Sticks (named as such because they painted their war sticks a bright red) to recruit warriors and gain support for his campaign. As Tecumseh stirred their fears and hatreds, the Creek Nation became more and more divided and the threat of Civil War loomed between the Upper and Lower tribes.

Desultory raids on white settlements along the American border by the Upper tribes widened the split within the Creek Nation. Finally, on August 30, 1813, Red Eagle and 1,000 Creek followers of Tecumseh descended upon Fort Mims, a white stronghold located about 40 miles from Mobile, butchering about 500 men, women and children.  

So began the Creek War of 1813-1814. In the long history of Indians in North America, the Creek War was the turning point in their ultimate destruction. The irreversible step toward obliterating tribes as sovereign entities within the United States now commenced. The Creek Nation would be irreparably shattered. All other tribes would soon experience the same melancholy fate.

Georgia

Great Britain’s 13th colony became one of the first 13 states after the Revolution, and for several decades was part of America’s vast Indian territory and frontier. As Georgia’s boundaries were pushed further and further west with the Indian land cessions and removal from their land, the Georgia frontier quickly became settled with people moving from Virginia, the Carolinas and the Georgia coast looking for fertile farmlands. Three Indian land cessions, created by three different treaties in Flint River history and Chattahoochee River history, opened up land for white settlement in the Flint and Chattahoochee River Valley: the 1814 Treaty of Fort Jackson ceded land for the 1820 Land Lottery; the 1821 Treaty of Indian Springs ceded land for the 1821 Land Lottery; and the 1825 Treaty of Indian Springs ceded land for the 1827 Land Lottery. The only state in the country to use a lottery to distribute public domain, Georgia rushed in settlers in order to push out Indians and secure the land. The lottery was a logical system that gave every qualified Georgian equal chance to obtain new land, with surveyors marking off a rectangular plot before actual distribution. Between 1820 and the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, numerous counties were carved out of the “Land between the Rivers.” After the war, counties continued to be created until the last new county in Georgia, Peach County, was formed in 1924.  

Transportation in Flint River History

Indian Trails

When de Soto came to explore the interior of America, there was already a vast network of trails. Indian Trails sprawled across the region just as they did throughout America. Some trails connected vast stretches of county, just as interstates do today. Other trails went to the nearest village or cut through the woods to the best river crossing. Many of these trails, especially the ones that went to the shallow fords across rivers and streams, were first trod by the mastodon and other prehistoric animals on their relentless search for water and food. The paths, which connected longer distances, were part of a great trading system where many items were traded from one area to another.  

Paths began to evolve into roads as more Europeans and later Americans entered the Indian Territory. By nature, the paths were narrow, allowing only single-file traveling by the Indians or traders; but as time progressed, and permanent white settlers began crossing the Indian lands in wagons carrying their goods, trails had to be widened. Trees had to be cut and stumps removed. It was a laborious process. Sometimes a road would diverge from the original path for some reason, but for the most part, the newer, wider roads followed the existing footpaths.  

Generally, Georgia’s main Indian trails ran from east to west with a few connecting to other areas north and south. Today’s Augusta was the main east-west gateway into Georgia with many major trails branching out across the state from there because it was a good place to cross the Savannah River. From August the path led to the coastal town of Charles Town (Charleston, South Carolina), a major colonial trading port.

Probably the best-known and most-heavily traveled Indian Trail in Georgia was the Lower Creek Trading Path. From the trading center of Augusta, it ran westward across the state, following the geographical Fall Line, which millions of years ago was the seacoast. The Fall Line, which cuts directly through the Flint and Chattahoochee River Valleys, crosses every major river at its lowest good crossing point. The route was formed thousands of years ago by herds of the large animal migrating across the region and crossing the rivers at the shallows. It was only natural that the Indians following those animals would use the same crossing points. The trading path, a significant factor in Flint River history crossed the Flint River where Col. Hawkins would establish his Creek Indian Agency around 1800 and continued westward to Columbus and then onward into Alabama.  

With the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, President Thomas Jefferson recognized the importance of the most-direct route possible between Washington and New Orleans. In 1805 Congress passed an act to establish a post road from “Washington City by Athens, Georgia, to New Orleans.” Later that year, as part of the Treaty of Washington with the Creek Indian Nation, the Federal government secured the right of way for a wagon road through the Creek Territory, which would closely follow the route of the Lower Creek Trading Path:

“that the government of the United States shall forever hereafter have a right to a horse path, through the Creek country, from the Ocmulgee to Mobile, in such direction as shall, by the President of the United States, be considered most convenient, and to clear out the same, and lay logs over the creeks; and the citizens of said State shall at all times have a right to pass peaceably on said path, under such regulations and restrictions as the government of the United States shall from time to time direct; and the Creek chiefs will have boats kept at the several rivers for the conveyance of men and horses, and the houses of entertainment established at suitable places on said path for the accommodation of travelers; and the respective ferriages and prices of entertainment for men and horses shall be regulated by the present agent, Col. Hawkins, or by his successor in office, or as usual among white people.”  

As much as anything, this agreement, signed by such Creek leaders as William McIntosh, ultimately would lead to the downfall of the Creek Nation.  

By 1809, faced with the threat of war with Britain, the U.S. government determined that the Old Horse Path, as the wagon road had become known, would have to be upgraded to a military road for the purpose of moving supply wagons, cannons and men on horse and foot. Over the protests of the Indians, the U.S. military began widening the Old Horse Path for that purpose. Completed in 1812, the Federal Road, as it was now called, was built in anticipation of conflict with the British, but sparked the Creek War of 1813-14.  

The Upper Creek Trading Path, or Oakfuskee Trail as it was more commonly called, was one of the oldest, longest and most important trails, economically speaking, in Georgia. It paralleled the path of the Lower Creek Trading Path, connecting with it at both its eastern and western terminus, but diverged in between to the north where it connected many of the Upper Creek Indian villages. The path crossed the Flint at Flat Shoals and the Chattahoochee just below the mouth of Wehadke Creek. In time, the Oakfuskee Trail became a pioneer’s trace and some segments of it eventually grew into noted stagecoach roads, but it never gained the significance of its lower counterpart.

Numerous paths in the Flint and Chattahoochee River Valleys diverged from the main trails, sometimes looping back and sometimes going off into a new direction. A number of old paths were known as Barnard’s Trails, named because they ran to or past the residence of Timothy Barnard, a Creek Indian of mixed ancestry who lived on the Flint River at today’s Montezuma. He was, for a number of years, assistant to Creek Indian Agent Benjamin Hawkins. McIntosh Road was a road built by Indian Chief William McIntosh to connect his plantations across Georgia and Alabama. From his plantation at Indian Springs, the road ran northwestward near today’s Griffin, Brooks and Peachtree City, across Whitewater and Line creeks onward to his home, the McIntosh Reserve, near today’s Newnan. Herod’s Trail was one of a large network of old Indian paths that intersected at Leesburg and then eventually went through the old community of Herod and on into Ft. Gaines, when it was a Creek Indian War fort that protected Georgia’s western frontier.  

Not to be confused with the Federal Road was the Federal Trail, which ran southward from today’s Albany on the east side and parallel to the Flint River. United States troops used the path during the Creek Indian War of 1813-1814. Although there was little fighting in Georgia during that war, troops moved up and down the road between Fort Early and other military stations. Later, in 1816, Fort Scott was constructed and Gen. Andrew Jackson moved his troops from Fort Scott down the trail into Florida to fight the Seminoles in 1818. Another Indian path that paralleled the Federal Trail on the opposite or west side of the Flint was also used by Jackson during the Seminole War and became known as Jackson’s Trail.

Ferries

Trails that led to the Flint always found their way to the shallowest point possible in order for travelers to ford the river. Initially, travelers crossed by walking or riding horses over the rocky shoals. The first ferries built were usually just logs tied together to form a raft-like vehicle that was often pulled by horses. Later most ferries were large wooden barges operated by a system of cables and pulleys and powered mainly by the river’s current, with additional encouragement from a long wooden pole in the hands of a muscular ferryman. Horses were sometimes used.  

How many ferries crossed the Flint is hard to determine, but there were plenty. In Macon County alone there were at least four ferries, at one time or another, crossing the Flint. The real heyday of ferries was in the 19th century, although some continued to operate well into the 20th century. In 1920, the Georgia Highway Department took over the state road system and the ferries on those roads were purchased from private individuals who had been operating them. Toll charges were abolished at state-owned ferries. One by on though, bridges replaced the ferries.  

The last ferry crossing in Georgia was on the Flint near Marshallville. At first, a wooden barge was used at the ferry, which was known over the years by various names, including the Miona Ferry, the Marshallville Ferry, Underwood’s Ferry and the Flint River Ferry. Later the craft in use was a 55-foot metal barge with a plank floor, powered by a six-cylinder 1954 Chevrolet engine rigged up to cables. The crossing was safe, smooth and only took a couple of minutes. Unless the river was extremely high or there were problems with snags and floating logs, 24-hour service was available until 1988 when the ferry discontinued service.

Steamboats

Transportation improvements throughout Georgia were almost always aimed at aiding agriculture. By 1820 steam navigation on Georgia’s rivers was just beginning. The first steamboat to travel the Apalachicola-Flint-Chattahoochee River System appeared in 1828. Steamboats regularly traveled the Chattahoochee as far as Columbus, the head of navigation on that river, and served more than a 100-mile stretch of the lower Flint. By 1860 more than 26 steamboat landings dotted the Flint between its junction with the Chattahoochee and Bainbridge—all loaded with cotton waiting for a trip down the river to the port of Apalachicola and northern markets. Navigation above Bainbridge was more difficult, but smaller boats and barges traveled the water from Bainbridge to Albany. In fact, Nelson Tift founded Albany as a purely financial venture to ship cotton to market on the Flint. Steamboats continued to thrive in the 1850s despite the competition of railroads, and remained in operation until about 1928.

Railroads  

The area’s future, as well as that of the rest of the state’s, lay not with steamboats but with railroads. Georgians throughout the Land Between the Rivers were eager to lay the twin ribbons of iron that would bind together the state and the markets for their agricultural products. Like the riverboats preceding them, railroad’s primarily linked established commercial areas. In 1857, the first train of cars over the Georgia and Florida Railroad arrived at Albany and the Upson County Railroad—built, financed and operated by Upson County citizens—was completed. By the end of the Civil War, much of the rail lines in southwest Georgia were twisted into Sherman’s bow ties, like most of the track in Georgia. But the railroads bounced back as large amounts of money for repairs came from northern businesses and banks desiring to get the South’s industry and railroads back on their feet. Manchester and Americus were two of the many towns that grew up along a repaired and extended rail system.

Presidents

Andrew Jackson

As the Creek warriors descended upon Fort Mims, little did they know that this would be the death knell of the entire Creek Confederacy, for it set U.S. General Andrew Jackson on his course to enlarge the territory of his newly founded nation while annihilating that of the Creek Indians.

Jackson was a child of the American Revolution. Born in 1767, he was a veteran of the war and the victim of intense personal suffering by the time he reached the age of fifteen. He grew up with a loathing of the British, a determination that America would prosper, a hatred of the Spanish and a paternalistic attitude towards the Indians.

With the massacre at Fort Mims, Jackson recognized that his long-awaited opportunity for military glory had arrived. With 2,500 volunteers and militia authorized by Governor William Blount of Tennessee, Jackson set out from Nashville, one of four armies that would enter the Creek Nation. The strategy was to kill the Red Sticks, burn their villages and destroy their crops. As they marched south, the army would build forts about one day’s march apart in order to divide the Creek Nation.

Although plagued by desertions, lack of food and supplies and demands from Governor Blount to abandon the expedition, Jackson drove forward. By the close of 1813, he had battled twice with the Creeks. On March 27, 1814, on the Tallapoosa, where the winding river sweeps in a great loop at Horseshoe Bend, he struck them with fury. By Jackson’s side were Indian fighter Davy Crockett and a young officer named Sam Houston. When the battle ended, U.S. troops had slain more than 700 warriors, breaking the spirit of Creek resistance. Creek prophets had said they could never be driven from the ground at Horseshoe Bend. But most of the defenders were dead and the homeplace lay in ruins.  

After Horseshoe Bend, the Creek War was all but over.

Although the Federal government sent army general Thomas Pinckney and Indian Agent Benjamin Hawkins to arrange a peace treaty with the Creeks, Jackson dictated the terms at the negotiations. From them, he demanded the equivalent of all expenses incurred by the United States in prosecuting the war. By Jackson’s calculation this came to 23 million acres of land—more than half of the old Creek domain, and roughly three-fifths of the present state of Alabama and one-fifth of Georgia.

By this treaty, the entire Creek Nation, even the Indians who had fought on Jackson’s side, had to pay the enormous indemnity. All were required to remove themselves from their land and become wards of the Federal government. The treaty removed the threat of attack from the borders of Tennessee and Georgia and confined the Creeks to a manageable area where they could be watched and guarded and where they were separated geographically from the evil influence of the Spanish in Florida and Indians who had fled.  

At Jackson’s urging, the boundaries were drawn and the land sold to settlers as quickly as possible—a measure that would insure the security of the frontier.

Horseshoe Bend was not the end of Jackson’s conflict with the Indians, for now he would go after the Seminoles. But the Creek War and the Treaty of Fort Jackson set up a pattern of land seizure and removal that insured the ultimate destruction of not only the Creek Nation, but of all Indians throughout the South and Southwest. And the man responsible was Andrew Jackson.

Franklin D. Roosevelt

A little more than 100 years after Andrew Jackson stepped foot into Georgia, Franklin D. Roosevelt did as well. A wealthy aristocrat and nationally known Democratic political leader at the time, he was looking for a way to fight the polio that was crippling his body. He sought relief at the warm springs in Meriwether County. Between therapeutic sessions in the warm springs pools, Roosevelt would fish the waters of the Flint River, drive the countryside between Manchester, Greenville and Gay, visit the Cove for bootlegged whiskey and fiddle playing and spend hours on Dowdell’s Knob just thinking as he looked out over the great river valley below him. He would see an impoverished land where people lived as sharecroppers on unmechanized farms, where planting, harvesting and maintenance were done with the aid of mules and black field hands, who worked for a dollar and a half a day. The roads were unpaved, there was no electricity, radio reception was poor and staticky, electricity was available on a very erratic basis and most farms had no electrical appliances.  

Those years were years when the entire country would be plunged into the greatest depression it had ever known and then into the greatest world war ever known. During those years, Roosevelt bought farmland and woodland in Harris and Meriwether counties expressly to demonstrate to other farmers that a farm could be profitable—that they could grow something other than cotton. Roosevelt experimented with cattle and goat raising, timbering, peach and apple orchards, various vegetables and grapes. During those years, Roosevelt would serve an unprecedented three terms as President of the United States and many of the New Deal policies that he would formulate to lead the country out of the Depression and financial ruin would stem from what he saw and learned from the rural people who touched his life in Warm Springs.

Jimmy Carter

In 1924, the same year that Franklin D. Roosevelt first visited Warm Springs, Jimmy Carter was born in Plains, Georgia. Carter grew up during the Great Depression on his family’s 360-acre farm just west of Plains. Carter’s family turned to some of the very practices that President Roosevelt was espousing concerning farming. They shifted away from the growing of cotton, and turned to peanuts, cattle and sheep, geese, wheat, oats, rye and some sugar cane. Life was hard on the unmechanized farm. As a boy, Carter and his family plowed, cultivated and harvested the fields with only the help of mules. FDR’s Rural Electrification Administration brought electricity to the area and the Carter farm in 1938 when Carter was 14.

Carter learned an appreciation for protecting the world that had been given to him. He said the stewardship of nature—of preserving the quality of the land, the beauty of the woodland and the abundance of wildlife—was immediately and dramatically tied in with his belief in God. As governor of Georgia, he demonstrated those beliefs when he vetoed the building of a dam at Sprewell Bluff on the Flint River. As president, he continued to fight the unnecessary building of dams on rivers across the United States.

Towns

Settlements sprang up as the first traders began to enter the Indian Territory between the Flint and Chattahoochee rivers. Most grew up along the banks of the river where river crossings were easier, or at an intersection where major Indian paths converged.

With the land sessions and subsequent removal of the Creeks, settlers rushed in, many times establishing a white settlement around what had been a frontier fort or on or near the location of what was once an Indian town. No matter what the culture or purpose, people tend to look for the same traits in settling a village or town: land near water; land on high ground for protection; land with good fertile soil for growing crops. The Indian town of Chehaw became Albany. Pucknawhitla became Burgess Town, which became Fort Hughes, which became Bainbridge. Chemocheechobee became Fort Gaines the fort, which later became Fort Gaines the town.

But white settlers were more industrial minded than the Creeks. Towns grew up around the gristmills that were built on rocky streams. Towns grew up around river landings where area farmers brought their cotton for shipment to Apalachicola. Towns grew up wherever the tracks of a railroad terminated.

Agriculture

When de Soto arrived in what would become Georgia, he did not find the nomadic savages he perhaps expected, but rather villages of Indians who had been farming the rich bottomland of the river valley, cultivating corn, squash, beans and other crops. In many cases, villages had already relocated several times because years of planting crops around the village had eroded and depleted the soil of nutrients.

But the destiny of much of the Flint and Chattahoochee River Valley was bound in cotton. King Cotton. In fact, cotton was one of the first crops specified to be grown in the Georgia colony when James Oglethorpe and the colonists first arrived at Yamacraw Bluff in 1733. And cotton was the reason planters and farmers flocked to the Flint River Valley as soon as the Indian threat lessened. Cotton had sorely depleted the soils in the eastern part of the state and beyond in the Carolinas. The Flint River Valley was land that had never been touched by cotton. At first, cotton, which was labor intensive, was only profitable for the very large planters who owned hundreds of slaves supplying the labor needed to plant, pick and hand remove the seeds from the short staple fiber. But after Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin in 1893, the economics changed. The gin cleaned cotton as fast as 50 persons. Cotton became profitable to produce on small farms, using only family labor, as well as large slaveholding plantations. Both types of farmers grabbed up the Land Between the Rivers, and by 1860 Georgia was the world’s largest producer of cotton, with much of that production coming from the Flint River Valley.

But the Civil War did much to change the agricultural economy of the region. Plantations were divided into tenant farms. Farmers were growing corn, tobacco and peanuts, but cotton still ruled. Farmers ignored agrarian leaders across the South who warned of cotton’s effect on the soil and of the farmer’s dependency on cash crops.  

By the 1920’s, however, severe erosion, soil depletion, the boll weevil menace and the Depression wrecked havoc on the state’s agriculture. Between 1920 and 1925, 3.5 million acres of cotton land were abandoned throughout Georgia and the number of farms fell from 310,132 to 249,095. It would take new ways of farming, new farm programs resulting from President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal Programs and a world war to turn the agricultural economy around in this region, as well as the rest of the South. The rule of cotton in Georgia would be over. Peanuts, peaches and soybeans would become some of the crops that would replace King Cotton in the Land Between the Rivers.

By the time Plains peanut farmer Jimmy Carter was elected President of the United States in 1976, peanuts and soybeans—combined with traditional row crops, such as corn, cotton, wheat and vegetables—were important crops grown in Southwest Georgia. Dairying as well as cattle, hogs and pigs also became important to the area’s agricultural economy.

Industry

All along the Flint River and its tributaries settlers to the area built gristmills, the first real industries of the area. Until the early 20th century, most mills used water from nearby streams to power gears and machinery. The hilly Piedmont or the Fall Line section of the river, where the water rushes over rock outcroppings and shoals, were ideal locations for mills.

Today, many times only place names, such as Lee’s Mill, Terrell Mill and Mundy’s Mill in Clayton County, remain. In some places, such as Flat Shoals, ruins can be spotted. At a few sites, a structure may still loom, such as Starr’s Mill in Fayette County. At one time all of these mills were important community centers. Farmers traveled for miles to the nearest mill to grind grain, saw timber, hull rice or gin cotton. They fished the pond, swapped news and stories or picked up some supplies as they waited their turn to grind their corn. Many times a town grew up around the mill itself.

With cotton such an all-important crop in the area, it was only natural that textile mills would spring up where there was water power and logical to bring cotton mills to the cotton fields. A number of settlers came to Upson County from northern states for the express purpose of establishing textile mills. The first cotton mill in Upson County, Franklin Factory, was built on Tobler Creek in 1833. A total of four textile mills, all water-powered, were built before the Civil War, making Upson the center of the textile industry in Middle Georgia.

The textile mills in Thomaston, as well as the mills in Columbus on the Chattahoochee, were extremely important to the Confederacy during the Civil War, making such items as gray uniform tweed, osnaburg cloth, cotton duck for tents and cotton jeans. One of the goals of the Union Army as it swept through Georgia in the waning days of the Civil War was to destroy as many mill sites as possible. On April 16,1865, in one of the last major land battles of the war, 13,000 Federal cavalry troops invaded Columbus from Alabama and burned all of the war-related mills, warehouses and foundries. They then moved across the land between the two rivers—burning plantations and destroying railroads—to the Flint, crossed it via the old Double Bridges and completely destroyed all four textile plants and several gristmills in Upson County.

The textile industry, however, was one of the few industries in the South to rebound quickly after the war. New mills were built in both Columbus and Thomaston. As the technology of mill building changed—turbines connected to electrical generators, instead of paddle wheels connected to mechanical gears—the mills no longer had to be close to the rivers to receive their energy supply.   

The Flint River

More than 300 hundred years ago a Creek Indian village existed near what is now Albany. It was called Thronateeska. The word in the Creek language means “flint picking up place” and, over time, the name came to be applied to the river that ran by the village.

The Flint River flows southerly across Georgia in a wide eastward arc from its headwaters at the southeastern edge of Atlanta for 350 miles to its junction with the Chattahoochee River at Lake Seminole.

It is part of the Apalachicola-Flint-Chattahoochee river system, which drains a total area of 19,600 square miles into the Gulf of Mexico. Eight thousand seven hundred and seventy square miles lie along the Chattahoochee River arm and 8,460 square miles lie along the Flint River arm. The remaining 2,370 square miles of the watershed lies along the Apalachicola River below the confluence of the Chattahoochee and Flint.

A major continental divide between the Flint and the Ocmulgee River to its east separates the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean drainage.

The upper reaches of the Flint flow through a plateau characterized by rolling red hills known as the Piedmont. At the Fall Line, the river drops about 400 feet over a distance of 50 miles. The Yellow Jacket Shoals area, between GA 36 and Po Biddy Road Bridge, has slopes of 50 feet per mile. The lower Flint flows through the soft, sandy sediments and limestone that make up the Coastal Plain.

For more than 200 miles, the Flint is a wild and free-flowing river. It is one of only 40 U.S. rivers with 125 miles or more of unimpeded flow. The Crisp County power dam on Lake Blackshear, approximately 220 miles from the headwaters, is the first dam on the Flint and one of only three dams on the river—the others being the Georgia Power Dam at Lake Chehaw and the Jim Woodruff Dam at Lake Seminole.

This river, its watershed, its physical alliance with the Chattahoochee and Apalachicola Rivers and its history—all combine to tell a fascinating story with universal themes—a story of people, of Georgia and of America.

From The Flint River, A Recreational Guidebook to the Flint River and Environs by Fred Brown and Sherri Smith Brown. Available on Amazon Books.

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Brown’s Guides is a website about the top outdoor experiences in America and about the professional outfitters and guides who know them best. Hiking, biking, sea kayaking, rock climbing, whitewater rafting, and over 100 other outdoor activities are indexed on the site. BG has been doing this type of thing since 1972 in books, magazines, maps and on the Internet.

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