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George Gilmer
About North Georgia

Biographical

George Gilmer
George Gilmer's English/Irish family moved to the Wilkes County area of Georgia from Virginia, where the Gilmer name was well known. Dr. George Gilmer was Thomas Jefferson's personal physician. Dr. Gilmer's brother, Peachy Ridgeway Gilmer, was born in 1737 and died in 1789. Peachy Gilmer married Mary Meriwether, whose sister, Luci, gave birth to Meriwether Lewis. Peachy's son, Thomas Meriwether Gilmer married Elizabeth Lewis, of Rockingham, Virginia (also directly related to Meriwether Lewis) on April 21, 1783.

George Rockingham Gilmer was the fourth child of Thomas Gilmer and Elizabeth Lewis and was born on April_11, 1790 in Wilkes County, Georgia (now Oglethorpe County, Georgia). He married Eliza Francis Gratten and they had no children. George Gilmer died on November_15, 1859.

Early life

Growing up on the Georgia frontier, George Gilmer lived not far from the territorial boundaries of the Creek and Cherokee Indians at the time. In his book Sketches of North Georgia he talked about Nancy Hart and knowing her cabin since he was a boy. He fought in the War of 1812, earning the rank of Lieutenant before being assigned to Fort Daniel on Hog Mountain in Jackson County, Georgia, now Gwinnett County. The fort offered protection to settlers along the Hightower Trail, but soon after leaving the settlers passed into Indian Territory.

Major Tandy Key assigned Lt. George Gilmer the task of building a road to the Creek village of Standing Peachtree, where he was to build a fort overlooking the confluence of the Chattahoochee River and Peachtree Creek. Among the soldiers with Gilmer on the expedition was James Montgomery, who built a ferry across the Chattahoochee River at Standing Peachtree in 1819. Ferries of Cobb County

Early Elections

George Gilmer was elected to the state house in 1818 and to Congress in 1820. In 1824 he returned to the Georgia house. Gilmer won re-election to his U. S. House of Representatives seat by a large majority in 1828, but officially resigned on May_19, 1829. He had failed to notify the governor of his acceptance of the appointment and Governor Forsyth called a special election to replace the Congressman while he was away in Washington, D. C.

Governor Gilmer's First Term

Arguably George Gilmer's first term as governor brought him more challenges than any other governor until The Civil War governor of Georgia, Joseph E. Brown. Gilmer ordered a man to be put to death in spite of the fact that his case was under appeal, signed legislation to require a license be issued by the state to every white man working in the Cherokee Nation and witnessed (and ignored) two historic Supreme Court rulings.

Gilmer ran for governor as a Troupite in 1829. Candidates in Georgia at the time were normally considered to be Troupites or Clarkites, which grew out of the Revolutionary-era city party (Troupites) and country party(Clarkites). Although there was little difference in the platform, Gilmer was viewed as favoring plantation owners over farmers in his decisions.

With the backing of George Troup and the weakening of the Clarkite faction Gilmer had little problem defeating Joel Crawford on October 5, 1828. Gilmer received 18,440 votes, 7,000 more than Crawford. Crawford's defeat spelled the end to the Clarkite faction.

Corn Tassel case

During George Gilmer's term the case of George "Corn" Tassel was heard in state court. In December, 1828, a bill was enacted placing the independent Cherokee Nation under Georgia law. The bill went into effect on June_1, 1830. Corn Tassel was a mixed blood Cherokee woh was accused of murder under the new statue. Tassel's alleged victim was a Cherokee who lived in the Cherokee Nation.

Former Attorney General for the United States, William Wirt, realized the case could be taken to the United States Supreme Court under a writ of error. The state had no right to extend its law over the Cherokee Nation because only the federal government could treat with independent nations like the Cherokee (Treaty Clause of the Constitution).

The Supreme Court chose to hear the case and ordered the state to turn over all records related to the trial, which Georgia refused to do. When Wirt argued the case in March, 1831, he did so unopposed. George Gilmer had sent a messenger to Hall County, site of the Supreme Court hearing, telling the sheriff to hang Tassel immediately, which the sheriff did. Since the case was pending in a higher court, the state of Georgia could not legally end Tassel's life, making Gilmer's action murder.

Gilmer and the Georgia Gold Rush

During Gilmer's term as governor the Georgia Gold Rush started following the discovery of gold in late August, 1828 in Georgia's Blue Ridge Mountains. At Gilmer's behest, the state of Georgia extended a law over miners and workers from the United States on December_22, 1830, requiring an oath of allegiance and a license to work in the Cherokee Nation.

By 1830 more than 10,000 people including 3,000 miners were living illegally in the Cherokee Nation. Gilmer repeatedly ordered the intruders out of the Cherokee Nation to no avail. He organized a militia under the command of a U. S. Army major to break up the miner's camps, destroyed their tools and escorted miners back into the state.

Missionaries Arrested and Tried

Although the 1830 licensing law would have little effect on the miners, it would be successfully used against another target group, the missionaries teaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the Cherokee including Samuel Austin Worcester and Elizur Butler. On December 29, 1831, Worcester, Butler and others met at New Echota to formally protest the law. In a letter to Gilmer the men correctly claimed that Georgia's law was unconstitutional. The letter of protest was ignored.

Governor Gilmer wrote Samuel Austin Worcestor at New Echota on May 16, 1831 informing him that he should leave the state or face criminal prosecution for his failure to have a license to work in the Cherokee Nation. He also wrote President Jackson, asking Jackson to revoke Worcestor's role as postmaster, which Jackson did. Colonel Sanford (Georgia Guard) wrote each of the men he intended to arrest on May 28, 1831, giving them ten days to leave the Cherokee Nation.

July_7, 1831 brought the arrest of Samuel Austin Worcester at New Echota for his failure to get a license from the state of Georgia. Other missionaries at Spring Place and Carmel were also arrested including Elizur Butler. The missionaries were tried in Gwinnett County under judge Augustin Smith Clayton.

On September_15, 1831, Butler. Worcester and the nine others were sentenced to four years of hard labor. Gilmer offered all the men clemency if they agreed to leave the state and nine accepted, leaving Butler and Worcester in prison. Wilson Lumpkin, who defeated Gilmer in the gubernatorial election, got the men to agree to leave the state in exchange for their freedom. Lumpkin personally released Worcester from prison.

Railroads

In his annual message to the state assembly in both 1831 and 1832 Gilmer admonished the politicians for not looking at railroads to improve transportation within the state. Internal improvements were a keynote of his address including "...railroads, canals, and turn-pikes."

Election of 1831

To battle the Troupite faction Wilson Lumpkin cobbled together a diverse political group called the Union Party supporting Andrew Jackson. Gilmer ran at the head of the States Rights Party, which supported Vice President John C. Calhoun in his belief that states could nullify a federal tariff. When Calhoun preempted the Nullification Crisis, however, Georgia's States Rights Party took a much more moderate stance. Lumpkin's gubernatorial victory in 1831 resulted in the Union Party gaining control of the state legislature in 1832.

During the campaign of 1831, Gilmer repeated stated that the gold in the Cherokee Nation should be controlled by the state and the money used to benefit the people of state. His opponent, Wilson Lumpkin, backed a plan to give the land to the people of the state and let them decide what to do. On October 4, 1830, Georgia elected Wilson Lumpkin as its new governor, defeating incumbent George Gilmer.

Governor Gilmer's Second Term

By 1837 the federal government was preparing to move the Cherokee Nation west on the Trail of Tears. The Creek were already gone. The Troupites and States Rights Party aligned themselves with the Whig Party while the Clarkites and Union Party became Democrats. All seemed to be quieting down following George Gilmer's Democratic party to victory in 1837 in both the gubernatorial and legislative races. The Panic of 1837 and seven-year depression that followed returned control of the executive and legislative branches to the Whigs.

Panic of 1837

Before Gilmer took office, in May, 1837, money center banks in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Charleston ceased paying demands for specie. When the run hit Georgia banks all but 2 halted payments from their reserves. Even the Bank of England was forced to halt all specie payments.

When the economy failed to recover cotton prices began dropping from a high of 17.5 cents per pound in 1836 to a low of 3 to 7 cents per pound in 1842. Gilmer's second term was mired in failing banks, falling prices and paralyzed businesses. With few tools at his disposal Gilmer had little to do but wait for a recovery.

Cherokee Removed

In an interesting turn of fate the Trail of Tears that began under George Gilmer during his first term in office ended under Gilmer in his second term of office. Two months before the forced removal of the Cherokee Governor Gilmer proposed to John Ross and Winfield Scott that Ross voluntarily lead the Cherokee out of Georgia. Ross refused.

After the round-up of the Cherokee in Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and North Carolina, and two ill-fated journeys on the "water route," Ross proposed that he and other leaders be allowed to take the Cherokee west on a land route. Scott accepted the proposal. Gilmer told settlers they could occupy Cherokee land on May_25, 1838, before the Ross-Scott deal came out.

On May_30, 1838, after he found out about the Ross-Scott deal, Gilmer addressed a letter to the Georgia delegation in Washington D. C. about the delay in the removal of the Cherokee proposed by John Ross. Gilmer said the delay was "...a violation of the rights of the State, and calculated to produce the most extensive evils to the Cherokee country."

In spite of Gilmer's protests the removal proceeded under General Scott's agreement with John Ross.

Okefenokee Campaign

Seminole Indians (sometimes identified as Creek Indians), attacked and killed members of the Tiffin and Wilde families on July_22, 1838. Governor Gilmer sent out a call for 7 companies of men to form the Georgia Regiment and respond to these attacks. In early October Gilmer tapped Charles Renaldo Floyd (occasionally identified as his father, John Floyd) to take command of this regiment. When Floyd arrived at the Okefenokee Swamp on November 2, 1838, only 5 companies had answered Gilmer's call.

On November 6, 1838 Gilmer officially put Floyd in command of the 5 companies with orders to "...destroy or drive away the savage enemy." Floyd entered the swamp on November 10, marching to Billy's Island (Floyd called it Chepucky's Island), and spent the next 3 months exploring the Okefenokee looking for Indians. Although none were ever found, Floyd became the first white man to cross the swamp. He left the swamp on February 2, 1839.

Final Years

Gilmer returned to his home in Lexington after completing his term. In 1843 the former governor became embroiled in a battle with the newly formed Whig Party when he claimed in a speech in Lexington that there wasn't ..."an honest whig editor in the state." He earned money through his law practice until he retired in 1857 and died two years later.

This article appeared in About North Georgia, Spring, 2011


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New Echota
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