Canton was formally incorporated on Dec. 24, 1833, as the county seat of Cherokee County under the name Etowah by the state General Assembly. The land for the county was carved out of Cherokee Indian Territory two years earlier. In the early days of Cherokee County, the settlement was growing near the Etowah River, and while there was some talk about moving the county seat to another area, leaders, including William Grisham, John P. Brooke and Judge Joseph Donaldson are said to have prevailed in keeping it where Canton is located today. The decision of where to locate seemed the most sensible choice, as the site was in the most densely settled area of the county, it was already being used for official business, and the early settlers were quickly proving themselves to be people of enterprise.
Many of these early settlers came from South Carolina, or some older county in northeast Georgia, particularly Hall County. Their foresight in choosing the site for Canton, which officially obtained that name on Dec. 18, 1834, was based in wisdom and experience. Canton was situated where the Etowah River curves in a 1-mile semi-circle, almost centrally located in today’s Cherokee County. The land around Canton presented prime possibilities for agriculture and farming. Gold had already been discovered in Cherokee County, and the area was rich in other mineral resources. Timber and water were plentiful, making it a prime location for the early pioneers to put down roots.
During Canton’s first 50 years, while it was for the most part a small village, it was the center of social, educational, and commercial endeavors for the entire county and beyond. Because of the caliber of those early settlers, the town grew in a cultured fashion. In 1833, a church and a school were established. The school was chartered by the state government as Etowah Institute, and served the needs of the community for the next 70 years. The Baptist church was started with 10 members, and both were founded under the leadership of William Grisham, who came to Georgia in the 1820s, and to Canton several years before the city was incorporated.
In 1838, the federal government rounded up all Native American Cherokee still living in Canton and the county and began a removal process that was a dark period in the history of the area. In all, a total of 927 Cherokee were taken into custody by soldiers and most were held at Fort Buffington until they were marched West on what became known as the Trail of Tears.
In the years between 1834 and 1850, white settlers poured into Cherokee County and Canton. Census figures show 1,342 “free, white inhabitants” lived in Cherokee County. By 1850 there were more than 12,000. The settlement included grist mills, sawmills, and mining projects. The town had a livery stable, several general stores, and other enterprises. There was a courthouse, a jail, and a number of lawyers.
Another settler of note was Dr. John Washington Lewis, who moved to Canton in 1838 and built the house on what would eventually become known as the Brown Farm. He is said to have been a descendant of George Washington, and was a lawyer, physician, Baptist preacher, and farmer. Dr. Lewis was instrumental in bringing Canton’s most notable resident, Joseph Emerson Brown and his brother, James Rice Brown, to Canton. Lewis paid for both men to attend Yale University and supported them in their efforts to be admitted to the bar. Joseph Brown was elected governor in 1857 and served throughout the Civil War years.
The coming of the railroad in 1879 brought an economic boon. In 1899, Canton Cotton Mills was founded and gave a new direction to Canton. The city was shaped by the mill, which continued in business until 1981. Canton was a thriving epicenter of North Georgia during those years. Banking, a newspaper, mercantile stores and churches helped strengthen the fabric of the community.
Canton provides a chronicle of life in Georgia that is second to none, from the earliest settlers to the burning of the city during the Civil War to days of significant growth and impact as a thriving city. Its history is among the most colorful and complex in the state, and the county seat continues to grow and hold a place of prominence in the metro region today.
– Excerpt from “Images of America Canton” by Rebecca Johnston
History of Cherokee County
Native Americans have inhabited the place we call Cherokee County for thousands of years; numerous archaeological investigations reveal Cherokee County was occupied 11,000 years ago by the Paleo-Indians and then by the Cherokee Nation. During the 1700s, the Cherokee towns were self-sufficient and self-governing, and each person was a member of one of the Seven Clans of Cherokee. Continuing their efforts to adapt to white culture and keep their lands, the Cherokee established a government with the capital at nearby New Echota.
Despite the national unease over who controlled the Cherokee territory, the white settlers began moving to the area in the mid-1700s and, by 1831, the new Cherokee County was created, which originally encompassed all territory west of the Chattahoochee River and north of Carroll County. Soon after the formation of the county, this area was dotted with gold mines and encampments of miners. Most miners did “placer mining,” which included surface mining or panning for gold in the many rivers and tributaries. Larger operations concentrated on mining vein deposits.
The best-known mines were the Franklin, Pascoe, and Sixes mines, which yielded gold and other minerals for decades. As the gold supply dwindled, many people from Cherokee County left for the west after gold was discovered in California in 1848.
During that time, Georgia and the federal government continually pressured the Cherokee Indians to give up their lands, until finally creating legislation that took their land and forced them out. In 1837, local removal forts were built at Fort Buffington and Sixes. In 1838, soldiers forcibly evicted the Cherokee and sent them to the forts. In Cherokee County, 950 were sent from Sixes and 450 from Fort Buffington. They joined more than 15,000 on the Trail of Tears and estimates say that approximately 4,000 did not survive the journey west.
During the mid-1800s, the Etowah Valley became the industrial hub of north Georgia. In addition to gold, other minerals mined in Cherokee County included iron ore, copper, titanium, quartz, mica, granite and marble. During this time, Cherokee County had as many as 10 grist mills, 14 sawmills, seven flour mills, and 12 distilleries and a population of about 12,000.
The years leading up to the Civil War were prosperous for Cherokee County. Agriculture was the main industry in the area and small farms dotted the landscape. As in the rest of the South, whites purchased blacks and forced them into labor. The slaves in Cherokee County made up 9% of the population and of the 150 residents who owned slaves, most owned fewer than four.
Although soldiers fought no major battles in Cherokee County, they did frequently forage in the area for supplies, and there were many skirmishes between the armies. The order to burn Canton was issued in October 1864 and at least half of the town was burned, including the courthouse and the bridge over the Etowah River. The order may have been issued because Georgia Gov. Joseph E. Brown had lived in Canton.
For Cherokee County’s enslaved blacks, the end of the Civil War in 1865 brought freedom and citizenship. Many former slaves worked as sharecroppers, some on the same farms they worked before the war. New black communities were settled, including Hickory Log near Canton. Some of the land in this area was given to the freed slaves by their former owners, the Keith family.
Life was hard, though, for almost everyone in Cherokee County — the gold rush was over, boomtown Atlanta was attracting talented people and investment dollars from Cherokee County, and the wounds of the Civil War were still fresh. When the railroad rolled into Cherokee County, it opened new markets to farmers and industrialists. In May 1879, the railroad linked Woodstock to Canton and two years later it extended to Ball Ground, where the first train arrived in May 1882. Farmers began to send their cotton to larger markets and mills flourished. Trains also made it possible for marble finishing plants in Ball Ground, Nelson and Canton to flourish using marble quarried from Pickens County.
Cherokee County continued to prosper, and in the 1920s experienced a surge of growth. During this decade, the population grew to more than 20,000 and new construction flourished throughout the county. The new buildings in Canton included the marble courthouse, a post office, Canton High School, and Baptist and Methodist churches.
After the Great Depression, which Cherokee County withstood better on average than the rest of the country, the economy slowly began to improve. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, men from Cherokee County enlisted in the service and in May 1942, women could join the Women’s Army Corps. While the soldiers were away, the families at home dealt with the stringent rationing of goods; others planted victory gardens to supplement their food supply. Numerous women also went to work to support the war effort and their families.
The poultry industry that began during the Great Depression grew dramatically during World War II. This continued through the 1950s and 1960s, bringing prosperity to Cherokee County. During the late 1950s, Cherokee County was known as the “Poultry Capital of the World” and billboards proclaiming this fact greeted everyone as they entered Cherokee County. The surge of the poultry industry created much needed job opportunities in hatcheries, feed stores, rendering plants, processing plants and equipment manufacturers.
After the turbulent 1960s during the Civil Rights Movement, Cherokee County was given another opportunity for growth with the federal government’s construction of Interstate 575. In 1979, the first stage of I-575 was completed to Highway 92 in Woodstock and opened to traffic the following year. The next section to Highway 20 was opened in 1985 and the last section to Pickens County was completed later. The interstate let Cherokee County residents work in Atlanta, and made Cherokee County part of the Atlanta metropolis. More and more people moved to Cherokee County, by the early 2000s at a rate of one new resident every hour. Home to 100,000 people in the year 2000, Cherokee County currently has more than 250,000 residents.
– Provided by the Cherokee County Historical Society