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A Brief History of Georgia Counties

A Brief History of Georgia Counties

Nationwide, there are just over 3,000 counties in the fifty states. The number and size of counties varies considerably from state to state. Georgia has 159 counties, second only to Texas, which has 254. Every part of Georgia - even the barrier islands along the Atlantic Ocean - falls within a county. This means that no matter where you live in Georgia, you reside in a county.

In the United States, counties serve as the principal political subdivision of a state. Each state has divided itself into specific political areas known as counties (or as “parishes” in Louisiana and “boroughs” in Alaska). In each county, local officials act as arms of state government, performing many state-related functions, such as administering elections, marriage licenses, and vehicle registration. In addition to serving as important subdivisions of the state, counties have a second role. In Georgia, they are the largest general-purpose form of local government. This means that apart from helping administer state government functions, counties can provide a variety of local services to their citizens. In this role, some large urban counties resemble cities in the types of local government services they provide.

Origin of Counties

How did counties originate? In 7th-century England, Saxon kings began marking off their kingdoms into areas called “shires,” the Saxon word for “share.” In time, the king began naming an official in each shire to administer the king’s policies locally. That official was known as the “shire-reeve” - or “sheriff” as he soon came to be known.

At about this time in France, the ruling duke of Normandy began awarding his key supporters with areas of land to administer. The supporters were given the title “count,” and in time the district each administered was called a “county.” When William, Duke of Normandy, conquered England in 1066, he brought his practice of awarding his counts with land. In England counties replaced the old system of shires. By the early 1200s, all of England had been divided into counties. The first American colony to establish counties was Virginia in 1634. Soon other colonies began creating counties.

History of Counties in Georgia

When James Oglethorpe founded the colony of Georgia in 1733, he brought no instructions from the Trustees for dividing the new colony into political subdivisions. In reality, there was uncertainty and debate as to the precise boundaries of Georgia. Also, beyond defense and distributing land grants, there were few governmental functions to be performed in Georgia’s early years. Still, it seems probable that the Trustees envisioned the creation of counties in Georgia, for a 1735 report on Georgia’s Salzburger immigrants includes a map of the Savannah area entitled “A Map of the County of Savannah.”

The first attempt to form counties in Georgia came in 1741. The Trustees decided to divide Georgia into two colonies - one named Savannah and one named Frederica. Each county would be headed by a president. War with Spain, however, kept Georgia occupied with more pressing matters, and the idea of counties died for the time being.

After Georgia became a royal colony, its new legislative assembly made the Church of England the official church of Georgia, and divided the colony into eight parishes. As in England, parishes served as church districts for support of the clergy and other religious expenses. Unlike England, however, Georgia’s parishes served as governmental districts for conducting elections, collecting taxes, caring for the poor, keeping roads passable, and recording vital statistics.

In 1765, Georgia’s colonial assembly divided the land south of the Altamaha River into four additional parishes, giving the colony a total of 12 parishes. Following the Treaty of Augusta in 1773, a large area of Creek and Cherokee lands to the north of Augusta was ceded to Georgia. This land was not designated as a parish, rather becoming known as “Ceded Lands.”

After the outbreak of war with Great Britain, Georgia’s revolutionary government adopted a new state constitution. The new constitution refashioned the twelve parishes and the area known as “Ceded Lands” into eight counties (see provision). With the exception of Liberty County, each new county was named for a prominent English supporter of the rights of the American colonies.

After the Revolution, thousands of settlers from other states moved to Georgia looking for cheap land. As a result, state officials increasingly pressured Creek and Cherokee Indians to give up more and more of their land. After each Indian land cession, Georgia’s legislature would divide the territory into counties. The land was then surveyed and divided into districts and lots.

By 1800, Georgia consisted of 24 counties. An explosion in the number soon followed, with 53 new counties creating during the following 27 years. In Dec. 1831, Georgia claimed authority over all Cherokee and Creek lands in Georgia. Twelve months later, the legislature designated all Cherokee lands within the state as “Cherokee County.” This was a huge area that never really functioned as a county, so In in Dec. 1832 the legislature created ten counties out of Cherokee County - including a much smaller county by the same name. Georgia now had a total of 89 counties.

A new era in the history of Georgia counties followed. As no Indian territory remained in Georgia, the only way to create new counties was by dividing existing ones. Organizing a new county simply required passage of an act in the General Assembly. It was an easy process, and during the decade of the 1850s, 39 new counties were created by the legislature.

By 1875, the number of counties had grown to 137, with no end in sight. To stop this explosion, a new state constitution in 1877 prohibited the legislature from creating any more counties in Georgia. For 16 years, the number of counties was frozen at 137. But state lawmakers were pressured for more. In 1904, the General Assembly proposed amending Georgia’s constitution to allow 145 counties. Voters approved the change, meaning the 1905 General Assembly would have the chance to create 8 new counties. The House of Representatives created a New County Committee, which was busy the entire session considering 23 petitions to form new counties. Late in the session, legislators approved 8 new counties - the maximum allowed after the 1904 constitutional amendment. But the pressure to create new counties continued.

In 1906, lawmakers sought to create a new county - to be named Ben Hill - from portions of Wilcox and Irwin counties. Because an act of the legislature cannot conflict with the state constitution, the only option was to amend the state constitution. The legislature could have proposed an amendment that raised the constitutional limit to 146 counties. For whatever reason, legislative supporters of Ben Hill County chose another approach. Leave the 145-limit in the constitution and simply add an additional provision that said: “Provided, however, That in addition to the counties now provided for by this Constitution there shall be a new county laid out from the counties of Irwin and Wilcox, bounded as follows … .” Voters of the state approved the constitutional amendment, and Ben Hill became Georgia’s 146th county. Thus began the practice in Georgia of creating new counties by constitutional amendment. By 1924, Georgia had 161 counties - 16 of which had been created by amendments to the state constitution.

Why were new counties so popular in Georgia? There were many reasons. Until the 1960s, Georgia was basically a rural state, with the majority of people living in the countryside or in small rural communities. Even today, much of the state remains rural in character.

For rural residents, counties performed many important functions. For instance, residents recorded the sale or purchase of land with the county’s clerk of superior court. It was the county sheriff who provided protection and served legal papers. The county also determined the ad valorem taxes on personal property owned by residents. County officials conducted state and county elections, issued marriage licenses, probated wills, issued car tags, and performed many other important functions.

Although the source of the statement has never been verified, reportedly there was a rule of thumb in Georgia that every citizen should be within a one-day round trip by horse or wagon from the seat of county government. In reality, however, other factors more commonly were behind the push to create new counties. Sometimes, residents of a remote area felt the county was not provide adequate services (particularly with respect to grading dirt roads). Personal disputes and political controversies frequently led to the division of an existing county. For instance, until 1871, Watkinsville served as the seat of government for Clarke County. However, that year Athens supporters persuaded the General Assembly to designate Athens as county seat. However, residents of western Clarke County were unhappy about the change. The dispute ended four years later when the legislature created Oconee County out of the western half of Clarke County.

Sometimes, the boundaries of early counties had been laid off without regard to natural features, such as rivers and mountain ridges. Later, these natural features were used to form smaller counties with more logical borders. Another important reason for the large number of counties is that with each new county came jobs and political power. New counties also meant numerous elected and appointed offices to fill, including a sheriff, judge, court clerk, ordinary (probate judge), tax commissioner, coroner, surveyor, and other positions. Also, until 1965, each Georgia county - no matter how small - was entitled to at least one representative in the General Assembly. Thus, with each new county came a new state legislator.

In many cases, petitions for forming a new county were a matter of local pride. And there were instances where the impetus was economic. For example, prominent leaders of Doerun in northern Colquitt County sought the creation of a new county with the hopes that Doerun would become the county seat, which would mean growth because of the new county buildings and jobs.

The era of creating new counties finally ended in 1924, when Peach County was formed from portions of Houston and Macon counties. Georgia now had a total of 161 counties. Eight years later, the number of counties dropped by two. As a cost-saving measure during the Depression, Milton and Campbell counties consolidated with Fulton County on Jan. 1, 1932. This brought the number of Georgia counties to 159.

In 1945, Georgia voters ratified a new constitution - one which provided an absolute limit of 159 counties, with an additional requirement that no new county could be created except through consolidation of existing counties. The 1945 constitution also provided that counties or parts of counties could merge or consolidate with neighboring counties, providing the action first was approved by the General Assembly and then by a two-thirds vote in referendums in the affected counties.

Georgia’s Constitution of 1976 kept the absolute limit of 159 counties and the requirement that no new county could be created except through consolidation or merger of existing counties. It replaced the two-thirds approval requirement for merger referendums to a majority vote in the affected counties - but added the stipulation that at least 51 percent of the registered voters in the counties affected must participate in the referendum.

Georgia’s current constitution, which became effective in 1983, maintains an absolute limit of 159 counties. It dropped the language from the 1945 and 1976 constitutions that no new county could be created except by consolidation of existing counties (although as a practical matter, so long as there is a 159-county limit, creating a new county necessarily requires consolidation of existing counties or parts of counties). The 1983 constitution also provides that the “metes and bounds of the several counties and the county sites shall remain as prescribed by law on June 30, 1983, unless changed under the operation of a general law.” Any proposal to merge two or more counties or merge portions of one county with another must be initiated through passage of an act in the General Assembly and subsequently approved by a majority of those voting in referendums in each of the affected counties. (The 1983 constitution dropped the 1976 requirement that at least 51 percent of a county’s registered voters must participate in the referendum approving the merger.)

In addition to approving mergers of counties, county residents can vote to consolidate their county government with the governments of cities within that county, as has been done in a number of Georgia counties since 1970.

County Government

In 1789, the General Assembly provided for an inferior court in each county. Consisting of five justices, the inferior court had jurisdiction in judicial matters not entrusted to the superior court. The inferior court also had some administrative authority (e.g., providing for construction of county courthouse and other public buildings, levying taxes, and overseeing maintenance of county roads). The inferior court had a third function - to serve as a “court of ordinary”. [In the Roman Empire, the “ordinarius” was the officer who first heard important civil and criminal cases.] The court of ordinary had a variety of functions, including probating wills and estates, determining guardianship of children under 14, and issuing marriage licenses.

An 1851 constitutional amendment transferred the functions of the court of ordinary from the inferior court to a separate court of ordinary to be administered by a new elected county official known as the ordinary. The inferior court continued with responsibility over other county affairs until 1868, when a new state constitution abolished the inferior court.

The 1868 constitution provided that “courts of ordinary shall have such powers in relation to roads, bridges, ferries, public buildings, paupers, county offices, county funds and taxes, and other matters, as shall be conferred on them by law.” However, the 1868 constitution also authorized the General Assembly to create county commissioners “in such counties as may require them, and to define their duties.”

Upon ratification of the 1868 constitution, every county in Georgia was governed by the county ordinary. But, this changed quickly. In 1869, the General Assembly passed a local act creating a three-member “board of commissioners of roads and revenues” for Harris County. The next year, legislators provided for commissioners in four more counties. Fifteen counties switched from ordinary to commissioners in 1871, followed by 14 in 1872, 20 in 1873, 8 in 1874, 14 in 1875, and 11 in 1876. While some counties subsequently abandoned the commission form of government, by 1877 over half of Georgia’s counties were governed by county commissioners rather than ordinaries.

The 1877 constitution continued the ordinary as the governing authority of each county unless the General Assembly otherwise provided for “commissioners of roads and revenue.” The constitution was silent on how many commissioners were required, with the number - usually 3 - determined by the legislature in the local act creating the commissioners. In 1879, in changing the form of government for Forsyth County, the General Assembly authorized a single commissioner to run the county. Reportedly, Georgia was the first and only state to allow the sole commissioner form of county government. But, in reality, there was little difference between sole commissioner and ordinary as governing authority of the county. Both were a single individual elected by the voters to run the county.

In 1974, voters approved a constitutional amendment to change the name of the office of ordinary to probate judge. A 1976 compilation by the Association County Commissioners of Georgia showed that only two counties - Towns and Union - were still governed by the probate judge, while 26 counties were governed by a sole commissioner (in some instances aided by a board of advisors). Separate local acts passed by the 1984 General Assembly for Towns and Union counties replaced the probate judge as governing authority with a sole commissioner effective January 1, 1985. Today, no Georgia counties are governed by the probate judge, while 9 counties - Bartow, Bleckley, Chattooga, Murray, Pickens, Pulaski, Towns, Union, and Walker - are still governed by a single, full-time commissioner. Interestingly, seven of the nine counties are in North Georgia.

Any decision to change the number of commissioners requires passage of a local act in the General Assembly, with the legislation stipulating whether the change must be subsequently approved by county voters in a referendum. Any change would also require pre-clearance by the U.S. Justice Department under the Voting Rights Act. In recent decades, as noted above, the trend has been to move from sole commissioner to boards of commissioners. There has been only one instance - Murray County - where county residents supported a switch from sole commissioner to a board of commissioners and later decided to return to the sole commissioner form of government.

In addition to commissioners, counties have other elected government officials known as “constitutional officers” (since they are enumerated by office in the state constitution). County constitutional officers include the clerk of the superior court, judge of probate court, sheriff, tax receiver, tax collector, and tax commissioner (in those counties where the offices of tax receiver and tax collector have been consolidated into a single office). County constitutional officers are elected for four-year terms and have such powers and duties as provided by general law. Although dependent upon funding from the county commission, county constitutional officers have a degree of autonomy in carrying out their duties not enjoyed by other county government officials.

Ed Jackson, University of Georgia