The Creek and Cherokee inhabited the Georgia area when Hernando De Soto and his expedition passed through the region c.1540. The Spanish later established missions and garrisons on the Sea Islands. In 1663, Charles II of England made a grant of land that included Georgia to the eight proprietors of Carolina. However, Spain claimed the whole eastern half of the present United States and protested the grant. The English ignored the protest, and the English-Spanish contest for the territory between Charleston (S.C.) and St. Augustine (Fla.) continued intermittently for almost a century. England became interested in settling Georgia as a buffer colony to protect South Carolina from Spanish invasion from the south.
In June, 1732, the English philanthropist James E. Oglethorpe received a charter from George II (for whom the colony was named) to settle the colony of Georgia and form a board of trustees to manage it. Oglethorpe planned to settle Georgia as a refuge for debtors in England. The first colonists, led by Oglethorpe, reached the mouth of the Savannah River in Feb., 1733. On a bluff c.18 mi (29 km) upstream, the colonists laid out the first town, Savannah. In 1739 war broke out between Spain and England. Fighting occurred in Georgia, and in 1742, near Fort Frederica on St. Simons Island, Oglethorpe defeated the Spanish in the battle of Bloody Marsh, thereby effectively ending Spain's claim to the land N of the St. Marys River.
Georgia's early settlers included English, Welsh, Scots Highlanders, Germans, Italians, Piedmontese, and Swiss. Jews, Catholics, and settlers from other American colonies were at first barred. Immigrants fell generally into two groups: charity settlers, who were financed by the trustees, and adventurers, who paid their own way and came to receive the best land grants. The trustees had hoped that the colony would produce silk to send back to England, and early colonists were required to plant a specific number of mulberry trees for the cultivation of silkworms. The scheme, however, came to nothing. At first slavery was prohibited, but this and other restrictions impeded the colony's growth, and by the time Georgia became a royal colony in 1754, most of the restrictions had been abolished.
Georgia flourished as a royal colony. It fitted well into the British mercantile system, exporting rice, indigo, deerskins, lumber, naval stores, beef, and pork to England and buying there the manufactured articles it needed. Georgia's citizens were slower to resent those acts of the crown that exasperated the other colonies, but by June, 1775, Georgian patriots had begun to organize, and the following month delegates were elected to the Second Continental Congress. Georgia's colonists were about equally divided into Loyalists and patriots during the American Revolution, but the patriots, exposed to Loyalist Florida on the south and Native American tribes on the west, fared badly. In Dec., 1778, the British captured Savannah, and by the end of 1779 they held every important town in Georgia.
After American independence had been won, Georgia was the first Southern state to ratify (1788) the Constitution. Georgia came into conflict with the federal government over states' rights when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in Chisholm v. Georgia (1793), that an individual could sue a state, a decision equally distasteful to other states as well as to Georgia. (This decision was later nullified by the Eleventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.)
Further difficulties with the federal government stemmed from the related issues of the removal of Native Americans and land speculation centering around the Yazoo land fraud. In the midst of the Yazoo controversy, Georgia ceded (1802) its western lands to the United States in return for $1,250,000 and a pledge that the Native Americans would be removed from Georgia lands. By 1826 the Creek had yielded their lands, but in 1827, the Cherokee set themselves up as an independent nation. The U.S. Supreme Court held (1832) that the state had no jurisdiction over the Cherokee, but President Jackson declined to support the chief justice, and in 1838 the Cherokee were forced to migrate west to government land in present day Oklahoma. The path of their journey is known as the Trail of Tears.
With the invention of the cotton gin (1793) by Eli Whitney, Georgia began to prosper as a cotton-growing state. Cotton was grown under the plantation system with labor supplied by slaves. By the 1840s a textile industry was established in the state. Although Georgia was committed to slavery before the Civil War, state leaders opposed secession. However, successive defeats on the national scene, culminating in the election of Lincoln as president, fostered separatist sentiment in the state.
On Jan. 19, 1861, Georgia seceded from the Union and shortly afterward joined the Confederacy. The coast was soon blockaded by the Union navy, and in Apr., 1862, Fort Pulaski (which had been seized by the state in Jan., 1861) was recaptured by Union forces. Georgia became a major Civil War battlefield when, in 1864, Union Gen. W. T. Sherman launched his successful Atlanta campaign. On Nov. 15, 1864, Sherman set fire to Atlanta, and his subsequent march through Georgia to the sea, culminating in the fall (Dec.) of Savannah, left in its path a scene of great destruction.
During Reconstruction, Georgia at first refused to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment and was consequently placed under military rule. During the period of military rule Rufus B. Bullock, a radical Republican, was elected governor. Corruption prevailed during Bullock's administration (1868–71), but after the legislature approved the Fifteenth Amendment (the Thirteenth and Fourteenth having been ratified earlier), Georgia was readmitted (1870) to the Union, and Bullock resigned. Georgia's Democratic party has dominated the state's politics since the end of Reconstruction.
The textile industry recovered from the effects of the war and was expanding by the 1880s. Atlanta, which had succeeded Milledgeville as the capital in 1868, grew into a thriving industrial city, largely due to its importance as the center of an expanding regional railroad network.
The effect of the war on agriculture—which had formerly been dependent on slave labor—was more serious. The breakup of large plantations resulted in the rise of tenant farming and sharecropping, systems often accompanied by poverty and abuse. After World War I agriculture suffered further setbacks as the boll weevil caused great destruction to cotton crops and the soil became exhausted through erosion and overuse. A farm depression began in Georgia long before the general depression of the 1930s. The state weathered the depression, but its subsequent history was marked by political and racial conflict.
In 1941, Gov. Eugene Talmadge caused nationwide commotion by discharging three educators in the state university system alleged to have advocated racial equality in the schools. The state university system lost its accreditation for a time as a result of Talmadge's action. Talmadge was defeated in the 1942 Democratic primary by Ellis G. Arnall.
Under Arnall's administration, Georgia became the first state to grant the vote to 18-year-olds, and in 1946 (on the strength of a U.S. Supreme Court decision) blacks voted for the first time in the Georgia Democratic primary. Among Arnall's other administrative acts was the adoption of a new constitution in Aug., 1945. The 1945 constitution, which, in amended form, is still in effect in the state, contained a provision for Georgia's notorious county-unit system. This system for nominating state officials in Democratic primaries led to the political control of urban areas by sparsely populated rural areas.
The integration of public schools, following the 1954 Supreme Court decision, was strenuously opposed by many Georgians. However, in 1961 the legislature abandoned a "massive resistance" policy, and Georgia became the first state in the deep South to proceed with integration without a major curtailment of its public school system. Racial tensions persisted, however, and in May, 1970, racial disorders broke out in Augusta.
Georgia's county-unit system (held constitutional by the Supreme Court in Apr., 1950) was abolished by federal court order in 1962. In 1972, the Georgian Andrew Young became the first African American elected to the U.S. Congress; he later became mayor of Atlanta. Jimmy Carter, a Democrat and the 39th president of the United States (1977–81), had been governor of Georgia from 1971 to 1975; his administration brought attention to the state, whose urban centers, especially Atlanta, were beginning to experience rapid growth. Today, roughly one half of the jobs in Georgia are in the Atlanta metropolitan area, which is sprawling into formerly rural districts, highlighting the cultural and economic gaps between Georgia's rural and urban areas.