After reading one of Jim Wooten’s columns this week (hat tip:Grift Drift) I was reminded of a little song we used to sing at school in rounds. It was also one of the first little tunes I managed to peck out on our piano. The most recognizable verse goes like this:
Make new friends,
But keep the old.
One is silver,
And the other gold.
The tune along with many other verses can be found here.
In his column, Mr. Wooten calls for the General Assembly to redesignate the story behind the naming of Thomas County to honor U.S.Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. The first point Wooten brings up is that even though Justice Thomas is from Pinpoint, Georgia, it would be “far too complicated to rename [Chatham County] due to deeds, contracts, etc.” I do agree with Mr. Wooten on that point, and it’s one reason why I firmly believe our counties should never suffer under a name change, but it’s not my only reason.
Chatham County is not named for any heroic Georgian, but it is one of the original counties of Georgia having been created on February 5, 1777. The name actually stems from the Earl of Chatham who was William Pitt, the Elder. He was British and never came to the colonies but had the distinction of serving as the British Secretary of State during the Seven Years War which you might recognize better if I refer to it as the French and Indian War. Later, Pitt was the Prime Minister of Britian. Pitt has been honored numerous times with place names including the city of Pittsburgh.
So why is it appropriate for an original county of Georgia to be named for a British governmental leader? While it is true that in 1777 the American colonies were involved in acts of rebellion against Great Britain you have to put Georgia in context to the times. Georgia was the youngest colony only having been founded in 1733. Georgia’s body of citizens was heavily infiltrated with people very loyal to the crown. It makes sense they honored British leaders with such a memorial.
Getting back to Thomas County, Mr. Wooten was indeed correct when he stated the county was named for a War of 1812 general named Jett Thomas though some sources say his rank was captain. He was originally born in Virgina in the year 1776, but later moved with his parents to Oglethorpe County, Georgia. He wasn’t really “just” another soldier. He served in the First Brigade of the Georgia Militia, and led the Baldwin Voluntary Artillery Company from Milledgeville under Brigadier General John Floyd.
During the war of 1812 Georgia soldiers served on two fronts. Georgia militia members were dispatched to the southern border with Spanish Florida (they were allies of the British) and the border with the territory of the Creek nation to the west. General Thomas was assigned to the western frontier in an offshoot action of the War of 1812 due to turmoil within the Creek nation. History remembers the conflict as the Creek Civil War, The Red Stick War, and simply the Creek War.
General Jett Thomas distinguished himself at the battles of Autosse and Calabee. The website for Fort Mitchell advises General Thomas was an artillery commander and was left in charge by Brigidier General Floyd to oversee construction of the fort. Later in life Thomas would construct the first building for the University of Georgia (Old College) and the state capitol at Milledgeville.
Autosse was the name of a Creek town, and in November, 1813, it was destroyed along with a second village that was close by. The village of Autosse became interesting to Floyd when he heard the rumor that the great Creek leader, Peter McQueen, along with many of his men was there.
Autosse is notable for two reasons. Floyd’s mission was to destroy all Creek towns and crops along the Chattahoochee and its environs. Floyd had great success at Autosse even though many remember the fighting there to be extremely fierce.
Later, when 1300 Creeks attempted a surprise attack at Calabee Creek the artillery fire led by Captain Jett Thomas was very instrumental in the American victory there. You can read about the night attack at Calabee Creek for futher understanding.
The second reason why Autosse was important was following their defeat many of the Creek survivors made their way along to Horseshoe Bend where the Creek forces were entirely defeated for all time by Andrew Jackson, and the Creeks were forced to sign The Treaty of Fort Jackson which ceded over 23 million acreas to Georgia and what would one day be Alabama.
Mr. Wooten states in his column that besides Jett Thomas “thousands of Georgians had similar accomplishments [to Jett Thomas].” Yes, he’s very correct. I’m sure that if Georgia history was researched with a fine tooth comb we might very well be able to locate many others who should also have memorials.
I also agree with Wooten and his assessment of Justice Thomas as he describes the judge as “a Georgian of national prominence…” Yes, his prominence should be noted in some way.
Where Mr. Wooten and I part company is the notion that we need to do away with old memorials simply out of ignorance or indifference to our past. To honor our heroes today by wiping out our past heroes and their accomplishments we are in essence erasing our history…the good and the bad. Both sides of history have an important place and I trust the bodies of the General Assembly that found them in a position to name our many, many counties. I trust their reasoning behind the memorializing of certain individuals.
By learning more about the stories behind the county names we learn many things about our state and the journey she has taken through the years. I don’t think it will ever be appropriate to rename a Georgia county for a more contemporary hero.
There are plenty of ways to honor our new heroes without compromising those of the past whether we still consider them a hero or not.