Washington County, the first county in our nation to be named after General George Washington, was formed in 1784. It became the 9th county in Georgia. The Creek Indians had ceded the vast, unsettled territory the previous year. Revolutionary War soldiers came to Washington County after receiving land grants from the General Assembly.
When formed, the county was located in the territory between the Ogeechee and Oconee Rivers. To the north, Washington County extended to present-day Franklin County and its southern boundary was the Altamaha River. Over time, ten other counties were carved from the original county. Today, Washington County contains 684 square miles and is still one of the largest counties in Georgia. The northern part is known as the Red Hills, referring to the red dirt in this area of the county. In the south, the land is characterized by rolling hills and gullies. The Oconee River still bounds the county to the west and the Ogeechee River forms most of the eastern boundary.
The first settlements were in the northern part of the county in and around Warthen. Many of the early settlers were of Scotch-Irish descent arriving mainly from North Carolina. A smaller number of settlers came from Virginia. Others migrated from other Georgia counties including Burke, Wilkes, and Effingham. These settlers were in search of fertile land, timber, a milder climate, and new beginnings. By 1787, the population in Washington County had grown to 4,552.
With the arrival of more settlers, the population quickly swelled. During this agrarian era, Washington County farmers raised a variety of crops. When the cotton gin was invented in 1793, cotton was on its way to becoming the major crop in the county.
In 1796, Sandersville, originally Saunders Crossroads, was named by the Georgia Legislature as the county seat of Washington County. It was situated at the crossing of two Indian Trails. Today, Sandersville is the largest town in Washington County.
Among the first structures built was a hand-hewn log jail which still can be visited in Warthen. It once housed Aaron Burr, the notorious third Vice President of the United States. In 1804, Burr was housed there overnight while en route to Richmond, Virginia to stand charges of treason following his famous duel with Alexander Hamilton.
In the northern part of the county, deposits of clays suitable for making stoneware attracted communities of potters. Potters introduced their goods that served the cooking and storage needs of early settlers. In some cases, the pottery served as grave markers. Examples of their work can still be seen at the Brown House Museum in Sandersville, an antebellum house better known as William T. Sherman's headquarters during his Civil War stay in Washington County.
During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the agrarian economy of Washington County also supported potters, cobblers, tailors, blacksmiths, gunsmiths, general store merchants, and carpenters. A water-driven sawmill, a woolen mill, cotton gins, and grist mills played a vital role in the early economic growth of Washington County. The rivers in the county were navigable, allowing barges to transport goods from the coast of Georgia up to the Fall Line where the Piedmont Plateau gives way to the Coastal Plain. At this point, the rivers become narrower and rocky thus many early Georgia settlements were located along this geologic area. Timber was also transported on these rivers.
The nineteenth century was a progressive era for the county. By early 1816, a stagecoach line ran between Milledgeville and Savannah through Washington County. A railroad provided a faster and less expensive means of transporting crops. This provided new opportunities for business establishments. Wealth increased as businesses and industries expanded and also the demand for services and merchandise grew due to the increased population in the area.
Washington County flourished with the continued establishment of additional schools, churches, post offices, a courthouse, and a newspaper. Agriculture continued and when the price of cotton plummeted, the farmers turned to the agricultural discovery of soybeans. These were planted as an additional crop to boost economics. Crops of corn, wheat and grain, cotton, and soybeans grew well and continue to be cultivated today. The majority of the field workers were slaves and most of the county's planters and other business and industry owners had one or more, depending on their wealth. Regrettably, slavery was an accepted way of life during this era of Washington County's history.
By the mid-nineteenth century, many of the citizens of the county were enjoying prosperity. Even with the unsettled country heading toward war. Crops were good, businesses and industries flourished and it was quoted that the stories of the North "starving us out" was "a crazy idea." It would not be long before the county and her citizens would feel the ravishes of war.