The place we call Cherokee County has been inhabited for thousands of years by Native Americans; numerous archaeological investigations have shown that Cherokee County was occupied as early as 11,000 years ago by the Paleo-Indians and then later by the Cherokee Nation. During the 1700s, the Cherokee towns were self-sufficient and self-governing, and each person was a member of one of the Seven Clans of Cherokee. Continuing their efforts to adapt to white culture and keep their lands, the Cherokee established a government with the capital at nearby New Echota.
Despite the national unease over the issue of who controlled the Cherokee territory, the white settlers began moving to the area in the mid-1700s and by 1831 the new Cherokee County was created, which originally encompassed all territory west of the Chattahoochee and north of Carroll County. Soon after the formation of the county, this area was dotted with gold mines and encampments of miners. Most miners did “placer mining,” which included surface mining or panning for gold in the many rivers and tributaries. Larger operations concentrated on mining vein deposits.
The best-known mines were the Franklin, Pascoe, and Sixes mines, which yielded gold and other minerals for decades. As the gold supply dwindled, many people from Cherokee County left for the west after gold was discovered in California in 1848.
During that time, the State of Georgia and the federal government continually pressured the Cherokee Indians to give up their lands, until finally creating legislation that took their land and forced them out. In 1837, local removal forts were built at Fort Buffington and Sixes. In 1838, soldiers forcibly evicted the Cherokee and sent them to the forts. In Cherokee County, 950 were sent from Sixes and 450 from Fort Buffington. They joined over 15,000 on the Trail of Tears and estimates say that approximately 4,000 did not survive the journey west.
During the mid-1800s, the Etowah Valley became the industrial hub of north Georgia. In addition to gold, there were other minerals mined in Cherokee County such as iron ore, copper, titanium, quartz, mica, granite and marble. During this time Cherokee County had as many as ten grist mills, fourteen saw mills, seven flour mills, and twelve distilleries in operation and a population of around 12000.
The years leading up to the Civil War were prosperous ones for Cherokee County. Agriculture was the main industry in the area and small farms dotted the landscape. As in the rest of the South, whites purchased blacks and forced them into labor. The slaves in Cherokee County made up 9% of the population and of the 150 residents who owned slaves, most owned fewer than four.
Although soldiers fought no major battles in Cherokee County, they did frequently forage in the area for supplies, and there were many skirmishes between the armies. The order to burn Canton was issued in October 1864 and at least half of the town was burned, including the courthouse and the bridge over the Etowah River. The order may have been issued because Georgia Governor Joseph E. Brown had lived in Canton.
For Cherokee County’s enslaved blacks, the end of the Civil War in 1865 brought freedom and citizenship. Many former slaves worked as sharecroppers, some on the same farms they worked before the war. New black communities were settled, including Hickory Log near Canton. Some of the land in this area was given to the freed slaves by their former owners, the Keith family.
Life was hard, though, for almost everyone in Cherokee County—the gold rush was over, boomtown Atlanta attracted talented people and investment dollars from Cherokee County, and the wounds of the Civil War were still fresh. When the railroad rolled into Cherokee County, it opened new markets to farmers and industrialists alike. In May of 1879, the railroad linked Woodstock to Canton and two years later it extended to Ball Ground, where the first train arrived in May 1882. Farmers began to send their cotton to larger markets and mills flourished. Trains also made it possible for marble finishing plants in Ball Ground, Nelson and Canton to flourish using marble quarried from Pickens County.
Cherokee County continued to prosper and, in the 1920s, experienced a new surge of growth. During this decade, the population grew to over 20,000 citizens and new construction was going on all over the county. The new buildings in Canton included the new marble courthouse, a post office, Canton High School, and new Baptist and Methodist churches.
Following the Great Depression, which Cherokee County withstood better on average than the rest of the United States, the economy slowly began to improve. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, men from Cherokee County enlisted in the service and in May 1942, women could join the Women’s Army Corps. While the soldiers were away, the families at home dealt with the stringent rationing of goods; others planted victory gardens to supplement their food supply. Numerous women also went to work to support the war effort and their families.
The poultry industry that began during the Great Depression grew dramatically during World War II. This continued through the 1950s and 1960s, bringing prosperity to Cherokee County like its citizens had never seen. During the late 1950s, Cherokee County was known as the “Poultry Capital of the World” and billboards proclaiming this fact greeted everyone as they entered Cherokee County. The surge of the poultry industry created much needed job opportunities for the citizens in businesses such as hatcheries, feed stores, rendering plants, processing plants and equipment manufacturers.
Following the turbulent 1960s during the Civil Rights Movement, Cherokee County was given another opportunity for growth with the federal government’s construction of Interstate 575. In 1979, the first stage of I-575 was completed to Highway 92 in Woodstock and it was opened to traffic the following year. The next section to Highway 20 was opened in 1985 and the last section to Pickens County was completed later. The interstate let Cherokee County residents work in Atlanta, and made Cherokee County part of the Atlanta metropolis. More and more people moved to Cherokee County, by the early 2000s at a rate of one new resident every hour. Home to 100,000 people in the year 2000, Cherokee County more than doubled its population by 2010 with 215,000 residents.