|The Peachtree Question
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.