The western border of White County is formed by the highpoint of the front range of the Appalachians, Georgia's Blue Ridge Mountains. From the original bill creating the county, "Beginning at the Chattahoochee river at the south-east corner of Habersham and Hall counties, running south on the line dividing Habersham and Hall, until it strikes the head waters of, Wahoo Creek near Calhoun's mills to the Lumpkin county line, thence up the Lumpkin and Habersham line to the Union line, thence on the dividing line between Union and Habersham and Towns, and Habersham counties to head of Santa creek, thence down said creek to the Chattahoochee river, thence down said river to the beginning corner on said river."
Georgia's Moundbuilders used the Chattahoochee River to traverse the present-day state. The northernmost mound of the culture on the Chattahoochee is just south of Helen at the intersection of Georgia State Roads 75 and 17. While the Nacoochee Indian Mound is small when compared to mounds at Etowah or Ocmulgee and is considered "unimportant" by some, it is still beautiful, especially with the gazebo on top that is claimed to be the "most photographed site in Georgia."
Men under the command of Hernando deSoto visited White County in 1540. Just before leaving winter camp (present-day Tallahassee, Florida) guards took a young Indian prisoner who told them of a province ruled by a woman. Some chiefs would bring her gold as a tribute. The Indian went on to describe the process of digging for gold and melting it in heavy crucibles to refine and purify the material. Two months later the entrada (expedition) visited Mount Yonah (north of Cleveland) and reached the Indian village of Xualla, which most Georgia scholars believe was in the Nacoochee Valley. In the heart of the Georgia gold country, by the time deSoto reached the Nacoochee Valley the Moundbuilder culture had been replaced by the Cherokee. One of deSoto's lieutenants, Moyano, returned to White County in 1560 and Spanish gold miners would occasionally visit the area until access was cut off by the English in the 1730's
In 1690 James Moore and Maurice Matthews reached White County but were turned back to Carolina by hostile Cherokee before reaching the gold fields. Carolina explorer George Chicken visited Cherokee Indian villages in the Nacoochee Valley in 1702 or 1703.
Wofford's Tract, purchased by the federal government in 1804 moved settlers within 6 miles of present-day White County and when the state of Georgia seized the ridge separating the Oconee River basin from the Chattahoochee River basin in 1812 settlers had officially moved within three miles of the future county line. The date the first American settlers crossed into the county is unknown, but was probably around this time. In 1812 work began on the Unicoi Turnpike, connecting the navigable end of the Savannah River to Knoxville. This road passed through the Nacoochee Valley and followed the Chattahoochee north into the Blue Ridge Mountains.
In 1818 almost all of White County was organized as part of Habersham County and Clarksville was designated as the county seat. Most of the land was distributed during the Land Lottery of 1820. Between 1814 and 1820 a second road into the county was developed, probably from an earlier Cherokee Trading Path. This ran from Clayton (known as The Dividings) to the area of Oscarville, passing through the Nacoochee Valley and Mount Yonah. Stovall Covered Bridge on Georgia Highway 255 was built to carry travelers across a rough ford on Chickamauga Creek.
Although still a part of Habersham County during the entire Georgia Gold Rush, White County contained many of the best producing mines including Loud's (location of the first reported gold mining), Gordon's, and Lumsden. The 20th century Helen Mine, (pictured) would be similar to many of the earlier mines. The road from the Old Federal Road (Oscarville) to Mount Yonah was upgraded and extended to the gold fields to handle increased traffic. At the time Mount Yonah (Cleveland) was the only significant settlement.
It seemed to Georgia in the early 1850's that the creation of the original county system was flawed. Farmers would have to travel 2 days to get to a courthouse in many areas. In 1857 White County was formed with Mount Yonah as its county seat. Although the name of the county is frequently ascribed to David White, a Georgia legislator, it may be derived from Unicoi, the Cherokee word for white. Mount Yonah was renamed to Cleveland in 1870 in honor of Benjamin Cleveland, a colonel in the North Carolina militia who commanded troops at the Battle of Kings Mountain during the American Revolution.
By 1858 hydraulic mining had rekindled a small amount of "gold fever," centered on the gold belt in White County. That year the state legislature passed An Act to facilitate mining operations for Gold, and for other purposes, in the county of White. The article said "...all companies now or hereafter to be incorporated for the purpose of mining for gold...by means of hydraulic hose shall have the right to conduct the water of any creeks or branches by means of ditches, canals, &c., not to exceed six feet in width at bottom, through all such lands as it may be necessary to pass.
The first hydraulic mining company approved for White County was the Nacoochee Hydraulic Mining Company. J. R. Dean built hydraulic ditches, two of which are still visible, the Hamby Ditch and the Horton Creek Mining Ditch. Dean's Cut, one of the results of this style of mining, is still visible near Smithgall Woods Conservation Area
White County went through many changes in the 20th century. The Gainesville & Northwestern Railroad was built into the county before the First World War. Although it did carry passengers, its main goal was to carry lumber from the Byrd-Mathews sawmill and other, smaller mills to Gainesville. In 1915 the road extended to Nacoochee and Robertson. On August_18, 1913 the city of Helen, Georgia was founded, named for a daughter of an executive at the Byrd-Mathews sawmill. Never a financial success, the Gainesville and Northwestern entered receivership on November 23, 1923. Scheduled freight services ended in 1926 and passenger service ended in 1931. The railroad was maintained for 3 years under the direction of the Interstate Commerce Commission before it was abandoned in 1934.
Camp Robertson near Helen now under Unicoi Lake
Working the forest were "wood hicks," who would journey into the mountains and cut the remaining stands of virgin wood, sending them down Curtis and York Creek, crashing over Anna Ruby Falls, then down Smith Creek to the sawmill. The boon from the forest lasted for 10 years, but when the forests were striped work dried up, the sawmills vanished or were greatly reduced in size and the U. S. government purchased much of the land. With the Great Depression came Franklin Delano Roosevelt and with Mr. Roosevelt came his Tree Army, the Civilian Conservation Corps. Camp Robertson, which was located in present-day Unicoi State Park at the bottom of the lake, was responsible for the reforestation of White County.
In the 1950's tourism began to rise as an industry in White County. To cope with this growth the city of Cleveland and White County formed a joint planning commission (approved March_4, 1953). Among the tasks accomplished by this committee was the paving of GA75 north of Cleveland and enthusiastically backing the creation of Unicoi State Park north of Helen. With the addition of Unicoi and the Appalachian Trail as destinations, White County began to grow. In 1969 local Helen businessmen turned their town into a re-creation of a Bavarian Alps town.
In 1978 local Cleveland businessman Xavier Roberts founded Original Appalachian Artworks, Inc, where his Little People dolls where hand-crafted. The dolls were heirlooms, but they never attained the number of sales that Roberts thought they could. In 1983 toy manufacturer Coleco introduced them as Cabbage Patch Kids and world-wide toy store riots ensued by people demanding the soft-sculpted dolls.
While White County has both US and state highways it does not have access to an Interstate. Of the present-day roads in the county, two stand out historically. U. S. 129 was the first paved road in the county. Georgia 75, which begins in Cleveland, runs through Helen and continues north east of the Chattahoochee River to Unicoi Gap. Built in the 1930's as a replacement for the Unicoi Turnpike, it remained a dirt road until the 1950's when White County residents convinced Georgia to pave this road after Unicoi State Park opened in the early 1950's.