History of Atlanta

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Visitors to Atlanta often remark on a certain local curiosity: Even though just about every other street, plaza, or business establishment is dubbed "Peachtree," there doesn't seem to be a single peach tree standing in the entire city. The reason for the absence of these trees, simply enough, is that peach trees are not indigenous to the area. But the phenomenon of the peachtree naming mania stems from a confusion that dates back 200 years.

In the late 18th Century, the low rolling hills of North Georgia were still wilderness, populated chiefly by Native American tribes of the Cherokee and Creek nations. Most of Georgia's commerce and agriculture centered around the bustling port of Savannah and the fertile plains of the Southeast region of the new state. In 1782, military scouts moving west through Georgia discovered a small Cherokee village on the banks of the Chattahoochee River. The name of this settlement, as the explorers understood it, was Standing Peachtree.

Maybe. Historians speculate that since it was unlikely that the natives of this region had named their village after a variety of vegetation they had almost certainly never seen, the peach tree name was probably a misunderstanding. It is more likely that the settlement's name came from the pitch tree, a type of evergreen found widely throughout the region.

Nevertheless, by 1812, the budding American military establishment had built itself an installation on the site of the Cherokee village, which they happily named Fort Peachtree, thereby establishing a tradition of misnomerism that would continue for hundreds of years.

The small outpost in Northwest Georgia saw limited action in the War of 1812, and served mostly as a quiet stopover for those intrepid souls headed for points west. By 1813, work was completed on a trail that connected Fort Peachtree to Fort Daniel, a similar outpost a bit to the Northeast. This insignificant avenue would eventually come to be called Peachtree Road, which today is the main traffic artery through the heart of Atlanta.

Of New Rails and Bitter Trails

It didn't take long for the expansion-minded settlers of Georgia to discover the beauty and fertility of the area around Fort Peachtree, and by the early 1820s, more and more whites were moving into the region. With this new influx came conflict between the settlers and the indigenous population. While there certainly were instances of skirmish and bloodshed, the overall process was comparatively non-violent. The peace was largely kept by the willingness of the Cherokee and Creek tribes to agree to a long series of ever more disagreeable treaties, which granted more and more land to the white settlers.

Throughout the 1820s, this all-too-common process of treaty and renegotiation played out in North Georgia. The Native Americans of the region were unusually accommodating in their efforts to adapt. Tribes established settlements that resembled those of the white newcomers, set up trade, schools, and even embraced Christianity to an extent. But whatever they did was not enough.

In 1830, President Andrew Jackson ignored a Supreme Court ruling that the act was unconstitutional, and supported a Congressional bill that approved the forcible removal of the Native American population from their Georgian homes. In 1832, a lottery distributed Indian land to white settlers, intensifying the need to eliminate the previous tenants. This objective was soon taken care of.

The year 1837 witnessed a big swing in the fates of the two populations of North Georgia, in predictably opposite directions. Early in that year, the Georgia state legislature approved the construction of a railroad to connect the region to points north, and the push was on to clear a path. Native Americans remained the biggest obstacle to this and other expansion, and the solution to this problem was to be a bloody one.

As the weather turned cold, federal troops rounded up and interred the entire Native American population of the region, shepherding them into makeshift camps. When all had been collected, they began a forced westward march that was to stretch over some 800 miles, across the Mississippi River and into what is now Oklahoma. Of the more than 17,000 Cherokee and Creek Indians forced to walk the "Trail of Tears," over 4,000 perished of hunger, cold, and disease.

With the Indian situation no longer a concern, construction of the new Western & Atlantic Railroad proceeded full bore. Late in 1837, a town was founded near the site of Fort Peachtree that would serve as the Southern terminus of this beneficial new railway. The town was, rather poetically, named Terminus.

The Start of Something Big

The small burg at the end of the line did not stay small for long. Rail workers, settlers, and traders established homes and businesses in the town, which, in 1843, was renamed Marthasville as a tribute to the daughter of ex-governor Wilson Lumpkin. In 1845, the first train pulled into the station at Marthasville, and a new center of American commerce was born.

It was soon decided by the rough-and-tumble frontier types who peopled the town that Marthasville was an unsuitable name for a new center of American commerce. So, in 1845, the city was renamed Atlanta. The city was to thrive under this new name, and over the next 15 years, would develop into one of the South's most vital economic crossroads.

As trade, travelers, news, and money flowed through in ever-greater volume, the city grew accordingly. In 1848, Atlanta elected Moses W. Formwalt as its first mayor. Formwalt made stills, the devices used to make whiskey, and he beat out a candidate from the anti-alcohol temperance party with backing from the so-called Free and Rowdy Party.

As more track was laid throughout the South, Atlanta become connected by rail to almost every major port and trade center, making it a vital link between the resources of Dixie and the markets of the North. In the decade the followed Formwalt's rowdy victory, the population would grow from a mere 2,500 souls to a city of over 10,000.

War Comes to Town

By the time Georgia seceded from the Union in 1861, Atlanta's significance to the South and to the nation's commerce had grown beyond anyone's expectations, and before the end of the Civil War, it would be home to a civilian population of more than 20,000. If the young boomtown had been important to the South's economic well-being before, it became absolutely critical to her success when war broke out. Atlanta became the hub of military transport, keeping the Confederate armies in Tennessee and Virginia supplied with a steady stream of troops and munitions. As the fighting wore on, Union strategists turned their attention more and more to shutting down this critical backbone of the Confederate support network.

In 1864, General William Tecumseh Sherman set his sights on Atlanta, and entered Georgia through Tennessee with more than 100,000 troops. Confederate confidence that the city was safe soon proved misguided, as the Federal forces pushed back the defenders throughout the summer, culminating in the Battle of Atlanta on July 22nd. In a last ditch effort to defend the city, Confederate forces fell back behind Atlanta's fortifications.

Sherman's forces bombarded the city with artillery for over a month, killing many civilians and crippling the city's economy. When Sherman maneuvered around the city and cut off Atlanta's southbound rail lines, all was lost. On September 2nd, Atlanta's mayor walked out of the city, approached the nearest Union encampment with a white flag in hand, and surrendered. Before he did so, however, rebel forces set flame to supplies, munitions, and whatever else they felt would be useful to the enemy, effectively burning down two-thirds of Atlanta.

Sherman's troops occupied the decimated city for a month, ordered a full civilian evacuation, and, on November 14th, set fire to the remaining structures before continuing their march toward Savannah.

Of the 4,000 homes, businesses, and civic buildings that stood in Atlanta before the summer of 1864, only 400 remained. The rail system was destroyed, and what had once been the Confederate Army's primary medical facility was in enemy hands. Little remained of Atlanta, and even less remained of the South's hopes for victory.

Capital of the New South

The post-war period known as Reconstruction was a difficult period for the entire South, but it succeeded in Atlanta with better success than elsewhere. Despite the end of the war, federal troops remained in Atlanta for 10 years, and although their presence was long resented, it probably contributed significantly to the rebuilding process.

The valuable rail system was rebuilt and restored to service within two years, and once transportation was up and running again, it was hard to keep the city down. Atlanta became more urbanized and civilized, erecting theatres, schools, and even two opera houses. Industry took a new foothold in the city, employing many of the former slaves who had been relocated to Atlanta to help with the war effort only a few years before. By 1870, the city boasted over 250 stores, a horse-drawn streetcar system, and Atlanta University, which today stands as the world's largest predominantly black college.

In 1877, with a population nearing 37,000, Atlanta was named the new capital of Georgia. The 1880s witnessed the birth of Atlanta's tradition of hosting vast and various conventions. The crowning glory of these expos was the 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition, which was attended by over 1 million visitors during its three-month run. The Expo featured the Liberty Bell on display, performances by Buffalo Bill and his Wild West Show, and presentations by ex-slave and civil rights pioneer Booker T. Washington. This monumental success also resulted in the creation of Piedmont Park, one of Atlanta's most prized intown retreats.

In 1886, local drug store owner John Pemberton introduced something he called a "brain tonic." Meant to relieve headaches, this syrup derived of the cocoa leaf and the kola nut proved a hit with his patrons, so much so that Pemberton was able to sell the recipe to another local businessman a year later for a whopping $2,300. Oops. Ten years later, recipe-buyer Asa Candler had made Coca-Cola a household name, on its way to becoming the world's most famous soft drink.

Growing Pains

The trials of the early 20th Century played out in Atlanta as they did elsewhere in urban America, with great city advancements frequently marred by civic strife. By 1900, the city's population and workforce was almost evenly divided between white and black, but the laws of segregation dramatically divided these two populations.

Although race conflicts occurred, Atlanta fared somewhat better than other Southern cities in that the movement for black advancement began sooner and with more success. As the most important city of the rebuilding South, Atlanta became a lightning rod for the success and failure of such movements. In 1900, Professor W. E. B. DuBois founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the NAACP, which would come to be the most important civil rights organization in American history.

The gubernatorial race of 1906 precipitated one of the most shameful occurrences in Atlanta's history. With Jim Crow in full swing and racial tensions high, both candidates based their campaigns largely in racist, inflammatory rhetoric. On September 22, white mobs took to Atlanta's streets, beating and killing blacks in parks, in stores, and even on trollies. After several days of mob violence, the official toll of the Race Riot of 1906 marked 25 black and one white dead. Historians agree that these numbers were grossly understated on both sides.

Disaster struck again in 1917, as fire raged through the Northeast section of the city, destroying 3,400 buildings and leaving over 10,000 residents homeless. City firefighters called in help from all over the area, but were unable to extinguish the blaze until homes along Ponce de Leon Avenue were dynamited to create a fire break.

Atlanta expanded its tradition as a transportation hub in 1929 with the opening of what would eventually become the busiest passenger airport in the world. Delta Airlines established itself in Atlanta that same year, and still makes Hartsfield International Airport its home.

In 1936, a book about the Civil War by Atlanta writer Margaret Mitchell was published without much fanfare, but went on to become the second best-selling book in history (behind the Bible). The success of "Gone With the Wind" brought much attention to the city, and summoned Hollywood as well. The film premiered to much fanfare at Atlanta's Fox Theater in 1939 on its way to becoming the largest-grossing movie of all time. The event was sadly marred, however, when black cast members from the film were not allowed to attend because the theater was segregated.

As elsewhere in the South, desegregation came gradually and painfully, complete with protests, riots, and violence. Atlanta's public golf course was desegregated in 1955, public transportation in 1959, but the big blow to segregationists came in 1961, when progressive candidate Ivan Allen, Jr. defeated Lester Maddox, an outspoken opponent of integration, in the mayoral election. Later that year, Atlanta's public schools were peacefully integrated.

Atlanta has been a focal point for American race relations throughout the years. In 1960, Atlanta native and civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr. established his Southern Christian Leadership Conference in his Auburn Avenue neighborhood, making the city his headquarters in his campaign against racial prejudice. In 1964, King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. His Center for Nonviolent Social Change now stands near his boyhood home on Auburn Avenue within the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Site, which draws nearly 1 million visitors each year. King's tomb is located on the grounds.

Atlanta was the first major Southern city to elect a black mayor, voting in 35-year-old Maynard Jackson in 1974. Jackson was succeeded by Andrew Young, Atlanta's second black mayor, who went on to serve with distinction in Georgian Jimmy Carter's presidential administration.

Growth Growth Growth

Through the latter part of the 20th Century, Atlanta has continued to expand as a vibrant, vital international city. Standing as a shining example of the South's new place in American and international commerce, culture, and tourism, Atlanta keeps growing by leaps and bounds.

In 1966, the city became the first in history to be awarded a professional baseball and football franchise in the same year. The Atlanta Falcons of the National Football League made their debut that fall, while the Milwaukee Braves relocated and set up camp at Fulton County Stadium. Eight years later, this would be the site of baseball history, when the Atlanta Braves' Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth's home run record.

In 1968, the Atlanta Hawks brought professional basketball to Atlanta. In 1976, the Georgia World Congress Center opened as the largest single-floor exhibit space on the planet, and, in 1979, Atlanta unveiled MARTA, a state-of-the-art public transit system. To contend with the ever-growing waves of new residents and visitors, Hartsfield International Airport underwent a massive expansion in 1980, and again in 1994. Today, Delta Airlines alone moves about 2 million passengers a month.

The national political spotlight turned on the city in 1988, when Atlanta hosted the Democratic National Convention at the Omni. In 1994, the two-year-old Georgia Dome was the site of football's Super Bowl XXVIII (the Dome would again play host to the Super Bowl in 2000), and the very next year, the Atlanta Braves culminated their decade of success with a win in the 1995 World Series.

In 1996, the world watched as Atlanta showcased the Centennial Olympic Games, an event which resulted in the construction of many new facilities in the city, including parks, dormitories, and the new home of the Braves, Turner Field, which opened the following year. In 1999, the brand-new Phillips Arena welcomed the National Hockey League's newest expansion franchise, the Atlanta Thrashers, and now serves as the home of the Atlanta Hawks as well.

A City on the Rise

Today, Atlanta stands as a premier American city and the capital of one of the nation's most rapidly-developing economic regions. Expansion and development continue as new ventures are born and people flock from around the country to take advantage of the low unemployment and unprecedented opportunity. The influx has been so great that it is sometimes said that the hardest thing to find in Atlanta is someone who was born in Atlanta.

The journey from a small Cherokee village to a skyline that rivals that of any American city witnessed triumph and tragedy, hardship and success, injustice and achievement. But throughout it all, Atlanta has remained a truly Southern city, a modern metropolis rooted in the seeds of a history in which she takes great pride.