A Brief History of Athens

 Franklin_House_1845Just below the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, near the confluence of the North and Middle Oconee Rivers, lies the city of Athens. Among the rolling red clay hills of North Georgia, a city and a university grew into a center of culture and wealth, nurturing individuals and ideas that have commanded national attention.

The city of Athens began as a tiny settlement that emerged at Cedar Shoals, where an ancient Cherokee trail crossed the Oconee River. Clarke County was enacted on December 5, 1801, and originally contained present-day Oconee County, as well as parts of Madison and Greene Counties. Clarke County was named for Elijah Clarke, who came to Georgia from North Carolina in 1774 to fight in Georgia's battles with the Cherokee and Creek tribes. Clarke was instrumental in securing treaties with the Creeks in 1782 and the Cherokees in 1792, which temporarily halted hostilities between settlers of European descent and the indigenous Native American populations.

The City of Athens was incorporated on December 8, 1806. The University of Georgia had opened for classes in 1801, and the city was named in honor of the center of higher learning that had flourished in classical Greece. As fine federal homes began to appear around the new campus, the role of Athens as the intellectual center of Georgia became increasingly evident: the cultured social life surrounding the college attracted prominent families of wealth and national stature. Industry developed rapidly; Athens' economy during the first half of the nineteenth century was based primarily upon cotton, brick works, textile mills, and railroad transportation.

Wray Nicholson House ca 1825The Civil War interrupted antebellum prosperity. Mercantile production was halted, and the local citizenry suffered the loss of more than 300 men and boys who were killed during the war. Athens was spared the fate of many of Georgia's cities, however, remaining virtually intact after hostilities had ended: Sherman's infamous army did not march through the area.

The Reconstruction period was devastating for the entire South; however, under the leadership of the University and such men as Benjamin Harvey Hill, Howell Cobb and Joseph Henry Lumpkin, Athens soon regained its momentum. In 1867, visiting naturalist John Muir described Athens as "a remarkably beautiful and aristocratic town," where "marks of culture and refinement" were everywhere apparent. Textile factories and related businesses flourished once again, resulting in a growth virtually unparalleled in the New South. The benefits of economic prosperity were reflected in the community: the Lucy Cobb Institute earned a reputation as one of the finest girls' schools in the country, while mansions of ever-increasing grandeur multiplied throughout the city during the Victorian period. The Athens Street Railway Company was organized in 1870, and, in 1871, the seat of Clarke County was transferred from nearby Watkinsville to Athens.

The 20th century continued the positive evolution of Athens, witnessing the growth of The University of Georgia into an internationally recognized educational and research institution. During the final quarter of the century, historical preservation became a great priority. The citizens of Athens value the stunning architectural heritage of the city, and irreplaceable treasures of the past continue to be restored to their original glory. Today, Athens-Clarke County, the commercial, medical, professional, and educational hub of northeast Georgia, is home to 101,489 residents (2000 U.S. census). The University remains a great influence on lifestyle, tempo, and outlook for the community, maintaining a crucial link with tradition while assisting in Athens' propulsion into the 21st century.


Old_College_1806The University of Georgia was incorporated by Act of the General Assembly on January 27, 1785, making it America's first chartered state college. The charter was authored by Abraham Baldwin, who was dedicated to the belief that the state is obligated to educate her citizens. Baldwin, a Yale graduate and one of Georgia's two signers of the U.S. Constitution, was named president of the new institution.

Several years elapsed before the new University began educational instruction. The campus was established in 1801, when John Milledge, Governor of Georgia, purchased a tract of 633 acres on the banks of the Oconee River and donated the property to the university. Originally called Franklin College, the University began classes in September 1801. This first class graduated on May 31, 1804; the graduates numbered ten students, and the ceremony took place under a brush arbor in front of the rising walls of the first permanent brick structure on campus, which was completed in 1806 and still stands today.

UGA Chapel ca. 1832 Historic North CampusDuring the 19th and 20th centuries the University steadily grew, adding students and facilities as the years passed. Today, The University of Georgia is ranked among the nation's top research institutions and boasts America's 19th largest library. The University has grown to include many diverse programs of study, including veterinary medicine, bio-sciences, pharmacy, business, journalism, education, environmental design, and one of the country's leading schools of law. The university is home to the Georgia Museum of Art, which houses Georgia's official art collection, and the State Botanical Garden is also administered by The University. About 32,000 students attend the University of Georgia, fulfilling its motto: et docere et rerum exquirere causas, which means "to teach and to inquire into the nature of things."