Rabun County History
Rabun County, Georgia was created from Cherokee lands by the Georgia Legislature on December 21, 1819, and named for William Rabun, a recently deceased Governor of Georgia. However, our rich heritage predates that significantly. Evidence has been found that indigenous people inhabited the area as long as 10,000 years ago, but our more traceable history begins with Cherokee Indians, long before Columbus discovered America, they populated the Blue Ridge Mountains of the Southern Appalachian region that is now northeast Georgia.
Despite the seemingly formidable wilderness, they maintained a complex society fostered by active trading and communication among villages here and south to the coastal region. An elaborate network of trading routes and footpaths linked the area. In fact, several major paths intersected at a place called The Dividings – now Clayton, the County Seat. Many original Cherokee names for rivers and villages remain in evidence, such as Nacoochee, Tallulah, Terrora, Chechero, and Stekoa. These, and the artifacts still unearthed today, link us to those early times.
The first European to see this area may have been Hernando DeSoto. As early as 1540, he made a foray north from the coastal region in search of gold, and is thought to have traveled through here with a vast army. DeSoto never found his treasure, although it is interesting to note he passed close to where the first gold rush in the U.S. would occur in 1828 – almost three centuries later (Dahlonega, Lumpkin County, Georgia).
The first traders, missionaries, and explorers were Europeans, who began to arrive in the late 1700s. Most migrated from Pennsylvania, Virginia, and the Carolinas. Frontier life was certainly a challenge, but some records describe it as less harsh because of abundant wildlife, lush vegetation, and a temperate climate. There were no settlers per se until 1819 when the Cherokees were removed.
History is shaped by people and land, and as time passes, our area’s unique geography and location figured in the mainstream of events. It was a gateway from north to south because there was a natural gap through the Blue Ridge and as such. Rabun County was a passageway for troop movement for the British and near the site of several battles during the French and Indian War. In the Revolutionary War, General Andrew Pickens (previously a hero in the French and Indian war) made a gallant stand Rabun Gap. Pickens Nose Mountain in Macon County, North Carolina was named in his honor.
In the Antebellum times following the County’s official formation, it was part of the route to connect by rail the seaport of Charleston, South Carolina, to Cincinnati on the Ohio River. Cincinnati was connected by a series of rivers to all the inland U.S. at the time, a great market for items sent to and from the coast at Charleston. Most of the grading for the railroad had been completed when the outbreak of the Civil War scrapped those plans and shattered Rabun County’s dreams of improved transportation and commerce.
Although fate cheated the citizens of those days, the first train eventually arrived in Clayton in 1905, when the Tallulah Falls Railroad extended their line from Tallulah Falls to Franklin, North Carolina. It remained in operation until March 25, 1961, tracks were removed and sold for scrap.
The railroad ushered in a new era for Rabun County. Not only was local commerce boosted, but a new industry was born which has become the second largest in the county – tourism. The first area to benefit from tourism was Tallulah Falls, the County’s second oldest city. Incorporated in 1885, it became a popular resort area thanks to the railroad and the majesty of Tallulah Gorge. Today, the Gorge continues to attract thousands of visitors each year as a state park..
Beginning in 1911, the Georgia Power Company established a series of dams and hydroelectric plants to harness the power of the county’s abundant water. In so doing, the magnificent lakes were formed, contributing significantly to recreational opportunities. As word of the county’s natural beauty spread, visitors increased, and hotels, inns and support services appeared. Even Hollywood has responded to the visual beauty of the surroundings by filming such movies as Deliverance and The Long Riders. Walt Disney captured the mystique of the railroad in The Great Locomotive Chase in 1955.
While many came to visit, some came to stay, and the population gradually increased. The years have brought changes, but less dramatic ones than might be expected. In the span of 100 years, the County Seat’s name changed from The Dividings to Claytonville, and then finally to Clayton when it was officially incorporated in 1909, (It was named after Augustus S. Clayton, a Superior Court Judge who later became a Congressman). Yet the original city limits have not changed – a one mile radius from the first courthouse square (now the Intersection of Main and Savannah Streets).
Other towns sprang up. Other incorporated cities are Tallulah Falls, Dillard, Mountain City, Sky Valley, and Tiger. The numerous unincorporated areas and communities, such as Persimmon, Pine Mountain, Rabun Gap, Satolah, and Wolffork Valley lend their own character to Rabun County.
Older Rabun County residents can still remember another way of life that seems very different to us now. The interesting historical facts and local lore that abound here have inspired several books by regional authors. The most famous of these has been the nationally acclaimed Foxfire series. A collection of oral history gathered by local high school students, it also represents a major break through in American education. Rabun County is proud to be the home of Foxfire, which has so carefully recorded and preserved stories about “the old days”. Thanks to them, people everywhere can share portraits of early life in southern Appalachia- Rabun County, Georgia, style.