Such is the myth and illusory majesty of the Old South that one is tempted to create a legend of descent from southern aristocracy around those who emerge from the hazy mists of history. But this is rarely the case and certainly not for John Henry “Doc” Holliday.
Of the original thirteen colonies, Georgia was the youngest and by the mid-1800s, it was still largely the home of Creek and Cherokee Native Americans. As Dr. Gary Roberts notes “”John Henry’s childhood was spent in the red-clay country of Georgia, considered during this time to be the southern frontier. When John Henry’s father decided to move his young son and wife away from the violence of the Civil War, it was to southwest Georgia” populated by small farms and free grazers, an area lacking in economic opportunity until the arrival of the railroad. Missing from the reality of John Henry’s young life was the sweeping plantations found in Gone With The Wind, the thousand-acre farms served by hundreds of slaves.
In order to better understand the world into which John Henry was born, we must begin with a few key events that took place in the twenty or so years preceding his birth in 1851. The first major event was the discovery of gold near Dahlonega, Georgia in 1829 which kicked off the Georgia Gold Rush. A rebirth of the slave economy was taking place in Georgia when gold was discovered in 1829, rice and indigo crops were being phased out and king cotton took their place in a move that would transform the economy of Georgia. Settlers began to arrive in larger numbers, with the discover of gold dramatically increasing the population boom.
Within this movement of settlers were the founding members of John Henry’s family, a mixture of Scottish and Irish migrants who “generated a ‘Cracker’ culture marked by fighting, drinking, gambling, fishing, hunting, idleness and independence.”* These men and women resented any proposed restriction of their movements and rights to the lands upon which they settled. Indeed, much of the land in the Lumpkin, White, Union and Cherokee counties of Georgia upon which the gold had been discovered belonged to one of the Five Civilized Tribes, the Cherokee, but that did not prevent gold mining operations from springing up in what the Cherokee considered an invasion.
Thousands upon thousands of white miners (and their slaves) began to pour into the area, stoking tensions with the Native Americans. White settlers appealed to their leaders to confiscate Native land, freeing it up for settlement by white prospectors while others began to call for the complete removal of all of the Five Civilized Tribes – the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee and Seminole from their respective lands in what is called the Deep South. Georgia had entered the nineteenth century as largely the home of Creek and Cherokee Natives, but in 1830, all began to change.
Watch our documentary “In Search of Doc Holliday” for more on the changing landscape of Georgia and John Henry Holliday’s childhood experiences.