Cherokee County wasn’t along Gen. William T. Sherman’s path to Atlanta, and it was fortunate not to have had any major battles fought here. In the years prior to the Civil War, its 12,000 residents had prospered, and, as an industrial hub for the state, Cherokee routinely supplied the Confederate war effort. Further, while Sherman burned many South Carolina cities to the ground, he and his men destroyed a lot fewer cities in Georgia — with the notable exception of Atlanta.
It’s a little surprising, then, to note that Sherman sent Union soldiers to Canton with specific orders to burn the city. It’s widely believed that his decision to do so largely was because four-term Georgia Gov. Joseph Emerson Brown was from Canton and had a home there.
More than half of Canton, which had around 200 residents at the time, was destroyed. It’s hardly a crime for a town to be the home of an elected official, but as Marcus Tullius Cicero famously stated: “In times of war, the law falls silent.”
The most interesting tale that arose from the day the Union Army burned Canton is the unsuccessful hanging of Mackey Anderson Keith, who owned the Keith Plantation, and was 68 years old the day the soldiers came. Upon hearing that they were on the way, Keith instructed his slaves to bury the valuables and hide food in trees on the property. Some of the food was discovered, and the soldiers decided to set the house on fire. They also hung Mackey Keith, using one of the trees where they’d found hidden food.
Leaving him to die, the soldiers failed to notice that the rope had caught on a tree branch and, in doing so, failed to break his neck. The soldiers left, and Keith’s slaves freed him. He lived eight more years, before finally passing away on Aug. 15, 1872. He’s buried in the Keith Family Cemetery, on the north side of Canton.
During this time, around 1,000 people living in Cherokee County were slaves, yet only 150 residents owned slaves. Conditions for slaves varied tremendously, based upon the character of their owners. Oral tradition handed down from some of Mackey Keith’s slaves to their descendants holds that the Keith family treated their slaves far better than most; they referred to them as “helpers,” not slaves; they never separated families, and they were not abusive.
When slavery ended in 1865, the Keiths’ slaves almost all became sharecroppers and continued to work on the family estate, even rebuilding the house on the property using clay from the Etowah River to make kiln-dried bricks. The Keith family parceled out land to their former slaves, establishing new black communities, including Pearidge, Hickory Log and, of course, Keithsburg. Quoting one such report from a AfriGeneas weblog (https://bit.ly/3Tj00L7) used by Black families with the Keith surname: “My great, great, great grandfather was given 160 acres, some of which is still in the family today.”
– The Wanderer has been a resident of Cherokee County for nearly 20 years, and constantly is learning about his community on daily walks, which totaled a little more than 1,800 miles in 2021. Send questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.