Throughout the human experience on earth, whether chronicled in history or long before, streams have determined how and why people gathered at some locations to find food, shelter and much more. Those who remember their history lessons think of cities on the Nile and the Tigris and the Euphrates, the empires of Egypt, Babylon and Assyria. Other rivers were homes to empires in India and China, in fact everywhere.
Rivers gave rise to civilizations for many reasons. They produced fertile soil, the foundation for a dependable food supply, thus agriculture and permanent settlement. They provided transportation necessary for commerce and communication. Settlement encouraged group bonding, organized religion, shared learning, trade and government.
From earliest days of permanent settlement by Europeans, Georgians adapted to their land of rivers. The broad Savannah linked Augusta to Savannah at the birth of the colony. Rivers and smaller streams remained important as settlers pressed into the frontier. They continued to shape communities and commerce into the 20th century.
Clarification of terminology is in order. Rivers range in size from the Canoochee to the Altamaha. A creek is a smaller stream that never goes dry, although some might stop flowing at times. A branch is a smaller stream. The terms “brook or rill” are not used. It can be almost as large as a creek or just a meandering pattern of woodland watered by a small stream. All streams have been important as sources of food (fish, game, berries, etc.) and as convenient markers for property lines.
Settlers chose sites near streams for their houses. They often selected places on the ridge lines that run northwest to southeast along rivers, away from the floods and mosquitoes of the flood plain. Along them were travel paths established long ago by Native Americans who chose routes that kept their feet dry, crossing streams as necessary over foot logs or shallow fords. Settlers simply followed these trails for overland travel, turning many into roads for wheeled vehicles. They show up on contemporary maps under the name “Old River Road.”
Commerce depended upon rivers, both the streams themselves and the roads. Timber was floated down river to coastal ports for sale. The busiest was Darien because the Altamaha and its tributaries brought rafts from vast expanses of virgin forest. For many back country people, the annual timber raft was their main source of income. Theirs was hard and hazardous work involving weeks of preparation and dangerous journeys of several days down river. At the end they had to accept whatever prices that timber dealers offered.
Their rafts were “round timber” that had to be squared by mills at Darien before being loaded into ships which sailed away to feed the demands of an urbanizing world. Before the introduction of steam-driven sawmills, water from high tides was captured in basins then used to drive saws as tides receded.
After the Civil War, entrepreneurs from the North and Europe moved into rural Georgia with organized, mechanized operations that stripped away the virgin pines from thousands of acres. Using water or steam-driven sawmills, they squared the timber, moved it to the river on rail cars, floated it to Darien and loaded it into their own ships. In a place where the earlier economy had been exhausted by war, both timber and laborers to cut it came cheap. Limited local rafting continued well into the 20th century.
The era of organized rafting ended with the building of railroads that criss-crossed the region to move to market loads of lumber, naval stores and farm products. New towns sprang up at coal and water stops on railroads and with them came sawmills and turpentine stills. Soon little remained of the “inexhaustible” of virgin timber.
Rivers carried many things. Pole boats from early times gave way to steamboats on navigable streams. They brought to upstream “landings” things to be consumed from foods to fashions, things otherwise available by long overland trips to Savannah. They carried downstream farm products: bales of cotton, barrels of turpentine, etc. They transported people from one stop to another all the way to fall line towns like Macon and Dublin. Even lesser streams were served by small steam packets. One sank in the Ohoopee in the 1920s a few miles downstream from present Georgia Route 152. The Altamaha system was served by boat traffic until after World War II.
The “river roads” that parallel streams saw varied traffic from new settlers to merchants. Part of the river road along the Altamaha was the path that rafters used returning from Darien, the Hencart (handcart) Road used by peddlers, the upper end of roads to Reidsville and Savannah, a segment of the Kings Highway from South Carolina to Florida in the Spanish era and the stagecoach road leading across the Oconee River. Perry’s Mills, a thriving settlement on that road, was larger than the county seat, and included a store, post office, a popular academy, a physician, a tavern and obviously a mill for corn and wheat.
Breaks in transportation were important. A community grew up at Rocky Ford and at the creation of Screven County in 1793, became the first county seat where my ancestor William A. Coursey served as the county’s first sheriff. Macon and Dublin were established near shoals that created crossing sites and barriers to upriver travel.
Modes of transportation shape society. Railroads had dramatic economic impact in South Georgia. They created new towns, stifled some others, moved people around to find work or start a new business. Some — but not all — flourished. Shifts in power led to birth of new counties. Paved highways for motor vehicles reshaped the economic and political landscape. The back country sprouted tourist stops, factories, auto sales and repairs businesses. People moved in from all sorts of places with new lifeways from religion to food. Then came the interstate highway system, a new revolution.
The latest revolution is in information — including financial systems — rather than transportation. Cyberspace knows no oceans, mountains or streams. Its impact is massive and uncharted.
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.