Life in the Capital City: Augusta, 1786 – 1795

HistoryJJ2015-1c4c5fb0AS GEORGIA and its 12 sister states gloried in their hard-won independence in the mid-1780s, Augusta was the southwestern frontier of the United States. New settlers poured into Georgia’s piedmont over the next decade, making Augusta the hub of the expanding backcountry. The history of Augusta during the early years of the nation is a story of transition from a rugged frontier society to a more refined town.

From 1786 through 1795 Augusta served as capital of the state, a reflection of the shift of power from the coast to the burgeoning interior. By the mid-1780s weekly stage coaches carried people and mail between Augusta and Savannah and Augusta and Washington, connecting to both the coast and interior. In 1790, commerce with South Carolina had increased so greatly that Wade Hampton built a toll bridge across the river from the Carolina shore to Center (5th) Street. υ

As state capital, Augusta was the site of the most significant political events in the state’s early history. In 1787, Georgia gladly sent representatives to the convention being held in Philadelphia to revise the central government. A stronger central government, leaders reasoned, would be able to help negotiate the removal of the Creeks and Cherokee even further westward, opening more new territory for land-hungry migrants. When the completed Constitution arrived in Georgia that autumn, a convention met in the capital city to consider its ratification. On January 4, 1788, Georgia enthusiastically became the fourth state to join the new union. According to the newspaper, “as the last name was signed to the Ratification, a party of Colonel Armstrong’s regiment…proclaimed the joyful tidings opposite the State-House by thirteen discharges from two pieces of artillery.” 

In 1789 electors met in Augusta at the “Coffee-House” to cast their votes unanimously for the revolutionary hero and widely-respected George Washington for president of the United States. Following the announcement of Washington’s election, the militia “immediately discharged thirteen rounds from two brass field pieces in honor of their beloved general, and eleven rounds as a compliment to those Federal States who had adopted the new Constitution.” Georgia’s own new Constitution of 1789, modeled on the federal constitution, was written in Augusta. Governor George Walton and members of the ratifying convention celebrated its ratification by drinking wine to its prosperity.

Ordinances made drunkenness, swearing…and biting and eye gouging illegal.

The ordinances passed by the town’s early governing bodies give insight into some of the problems the community faced and the attempt of those governing to bring order to a society that still had much of the frontier. They set the early speed limit—no galloping horses. They prohibited firing guns in town, throwing dead animals in the street, allowing hogs to run wild. Ordinances made drunkenness, profane swearing, and biting and eye gouging illegal. Grand juries publicly named citizens who violated proper behavior or civic duty, which included keeping the pathways that were the roads clear in front of their property. The penalties for lawbreaking could be severe. Upon the first conviction for biting or eye gouging, the guilty had to pay a $100 fine and spend two hours in the pillory. If unable to pay, the convicted received 100 lashes in lieu of the fine. For horse stealing a first offender sat in the pillory for four hours, was imprisoned for a time decided by the court, was publicly whipped on the bare back for 39 lashes at each of three public whippings and branded on the shoulder. The second offense for the above crimes brought death.

Throughout these years, Augusta was the center of commerce for the fast-growing interior of the state. Liberal land grants transformed the demography of the area as Virginians and Carolinians moved in, bringing with them the cultivation of that lucrative crop they had always planted—tobacco. The crop came to Augusta from outlying farms in hogsheads. Turned on their sides with an axle through the middle attached to a horse or oxen, these barrels could be rolled to market along paths that followed the high ground to keep the leaves dry. The resulting tobacco roads seemed to meander aimlessly to the valley. Farmers also used the Savannah River as a highway, with barges and Petersburg boats filled high with their crops.

 People from the town and the countryside helped Augusta realize the prediction of leading citizen George Walton that the town would be the “great center of commerce.” Tradesmen, some migrants from the North or from Europe, claimed to have the “latest fashions.” Dry goods merchants sold a variety of products including cloth, salt, iron, steel, molasses, window glass, spices, cheeses and usually a sampling of “spirituous liquors” such as “Jamaican spirits,” brandy, port, gin and “coniac.” Of particular appeal to Augusta’s emerging elite were European goods such as the “elegant silks, satins, variety of feathers, lace, ribbons and gloves…” that Robert Forsyth advertised in 1787. Specialty shops testified to the town’s growing refinement. Augustans supported tailors and habit makers (women’s clothing), a watchmaker from Paris, distillers and brewers, hat makers, tanners, bakers and furniture craftsmen. Mr. James Stallings sold frame houses ready for delivery.         Augustans offered professional services as well. Many lawyers practiced in the community and participated in local politics. In 1789 Drs. Dysart and Payne assured the public that they had prepared themselves for the “extensive practice of Physic & Surgery.” Dysart also sold an assortment of medicines, many of them spices. James Lauder, at his medicine store on Broad Street, provided practitioners with medicines including red bark, Epsom, gum camphor, cream of tartar, opium and ammoniac. That same year dentist Dr. T. Steele presciently advertised that he could “cure scurvy of the teeth by removing an infectious tartar that destroys the enamel of the teeth, and will force them out of their sockets if not removed.”

In addition to their concern for goods and services, Augustans showed an early zeal for the development of the minds of their citizens, at least those males who would likely become leaders. In 1783, the  Georgia General Assembly had passed a law to use public lands to secure income for institutions of learning in the towns of the state. In Augusta, the same trustees who oversaw the common church also had the authority to run the academy. They chose the professors and designed the curriculum. The academy provided a classical education for young men, including Latin, English grammar, mathematics, spelling, geography and rhetoric. Students demonstrated their mastery of the curriculum with oral examinations attended by the town’s top leaders as well as the interested public. The exams must have been especially unnerving in 1791 when President George Washington, on a visit to Georgia as part of his Southern tour, was one of the guests. 

Private schools and specialized classes offered instructions in a variety of disciplines and skills. In 1786 P.J.J. Wuchters announced the opening of his French school, saying he used a teaching method that would “facilitate progress more expeditiously” in learning to read, speak and write “that polished and polite language.” While women were considered too fragile of mind for the rigors of Latin, the polite French was less demanding and therefore acceptable. Augustans could also learn bookkeeping, astronomy, navigation and surveying. Professor Chandler’s evening school taught all the above courses plus use of globes, “mensuration” (measurements), algebra and trigonometry. Mr. Charles Chevalier offered a school for fencing and dancing. Within a year, William Spencer also operated a dancing school. Claude Simon, one of the community’s cultural organizers, taught harpsichord, violin, flute, guitar and clarinet.

To further the pursuit of knowledge, Augusta founded the Library Society and an Academic Society in the late 1780s. The Academic Society invited the public, including ladies, to hear debates on current issues of interest including serious topics, such as “Is it consistent with the policy of the American Republic to establish a navy?” to more superfluous topics: “Which is the most desirable, a very beautiful and accomplished young lady with a small or no fortune or one of ordinary person, good sense, large fortune and advanced in years?”

Many civic organizations and cultural events provided opportunities for both service and entertainment. These reflect the growing desire for sophistication and culture, or as the Dramatic Society stated in its purpose, “a thorough annihilation of native rusticity, refinement of manners, and cultivation of taste.” By the late 1780s Augustans could attend concerts, the theater and fancy balls. Mr. Claude Simon often provided the musical entertainment at concerts held at Emanuel Wambersie’s, whose home was a cultural and civic center. The theater company featured an actress named Wall who was the “sweetest syren of the Augusta stage.” The popular sport was horse racing. The Augusta Jockey Club organized and advertised the races every November. The December 1787 race announcement said that “those gentlemen who were fortunate enough to win the race” gave an elegant ball with dancing followed by a supper.

The Jockey Club was only one of many to which men belonged. The Society of the Cincinnati, the organization of the officer veterans of the Revolutionary War, had a local group. The Mechanics Society of Augusta served to “place their craft on a more respectable and social footing.” Artisans such as coach makers, blacksmiths, tanners, coopers, carpenters, shoemakers, silversmiths and others could join. Like their more elite counterparts, they celebrated the various festival days. William Longstreet, who had invented a steam engine, became the best known member, being elected as an alderman in 1792 and state legislator in 1794. Augusta also had lodges of Masons. Fox’s Tavern, Thompson’s Tavern and others were popular meeting places for many of these civic organizations.

Throughout the year were many days of celebration: Washington’s birthday, St. Patrick’s Day, St. Tammany’s Day, St. John’s Day and the Fourth of July. To honor both their sacred and secular heroes, citizens paraded, drank toasts, fired cannons and fireworks, and danced. On a typical St. Tammany’s Day, the 1789 celebration began on the Savannah River with the election of George Walton as “Chief Sachem” and other leaders as “Counsellors and Warriors.” After establishing law in a wigwam, the group enjoyed a dinner at three in the afternoon. The St. John the Baptist celebration by the Lodge Columbia of the ancient York Masons met at the coffee house at 10 a.m., processed “properly cloathed, the officers in the jewels of the lodge,” to the academy to hear a sermon “suitable for the occasion” and had dinner at the home of “Brother” Wambersie.

The July 4th celebration usually involved not only discharges of artillery, but barbecues. In 1788 the governor also gave a ball with “one of the largest and most brilliant assemblies ever seen.” At this occasion the governor and Mrs. Noel, wife of a prominent local attorney, opened the dancing with a minuet. The next year’s celebration began with pealing church bells at 11, followed by a church service for the governor and council, a midday meal at 3 p.m. at the coffee house including 13 toasts, while in the evening a grand display of fireworks dazzled the community.

By the 1790s Augusta was a bustling town with more than 250 houses and a population of over 1,100. It boasted many public buildings including a common church, an academy with almost 100 students, a state house, three warehouses for tobacco and a jail. Goods and services of all kinds made it a destination for the inhabitants of the entire backcountry. Arts and civic organizations provided the amenities of a settled society. The frontier was moving westward. In 1796 the political capital moved further inland to Louisville, but Augusta continued to thrive and expand as an economic and cultural capital of Georgia.

Dr. Lee Ann Caldwell is an Augusta historian, author and director of the Center for Study of Georgia History at Georgia Regents University-Augusta. 


This article appears in the June/July 2015 issue of Augusta Magazine.

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