The River Brought Us Here-Augusta’s Story

Author: Dr. Lee Ann Caldwell

Published: February 08, 2019

The river brought the first peoples to this place. Located on the fall line where the piedmont meets the ancient shore at the Sand Hills, the Augusta community began in 1736 as a fur trading post and fort named in honor of Princess Augusta, bride of the Prince of Wales. The American Revolution began less than four decades later; in Augusta and other areas of the backcountry it was, for the most part, a civil war fought between Americans– Patriots and Loyalists.

Following the Revolution, Augusta was the capital of Georgia for ten years during which the United States Constitution was ratified by the state. In 1783 Augustans founded the Academy of Richmond County, the first high school in Georgia and one of the oldest in the nation. Throughout the early national and antebellum eras Augusta grew as the marketplace of the surrounding countryside. In the late 18th century tobacco came down river or across tobacco roads. By the 19th century cotton had replaced it. After 1816 steamboats plied the river between Augusta and Savannah and in 1833 the Georgia Railroad was founded to link Augusta with the interior. With the introduction of tobacco and cotton, the plantation system, and slavery, also grew.

In 1819 the US government built an arsenal on the banks of the river and moved it to the Hill in 1827. Today, the main buildings are part of the Summerville campus of Augusta University. In 1828 medical education in the state began with the founding of the Medical College of Georgia, now one of the nine colleges at Augusta University.

In the mid-1840s, the community built a canal for hydro-mechanical power and early industry emerged. Having this source of waterpower resulted in the construction of the Confederate powder works. Today only the chimney remains as a stark Civil War reminder. During the war Augusta was a major center for manufacturing and medical care. Future President of the United States Woodrow Wilson learned about war firsthand when his father’s First Presbyterian Church became a hospital after the Battle of Chickamauga. Today his boyhood home is a historic site telling that story.

For Augusta’s African American community the end of the war brought emancipation and citizenship. Churches, schools – including Lucy Laney’s Haines Institute and Paine College – as well as along with businesses and cultural institutions emerged in the African American community. In Springfield Baptist Church, one of the two oldest independent black churches in the country, both the Georgia Equal Rights Association and the school now known as Morehouse College began.

After the war, Augusta became a “New South” city. Enlarging the canal increased its horsepower and large, architecturally significant textile mills surrounded by mill neighborhoods rose along its banks. Sibley and King Mills have national Historic Landmark status. The restored Enterprise Mill houses an interpretive center that tells the story of the mills and offers Petersburg boat rides on the canal, now a National Heritage Corridor.

In 1888 Augusta held a national exposition that triggered the winter tourism industry. For decades the wealthy of the North spent their winter months enjoying Augusta’s milder climate in resort hotels or in fine homes they built on the Hill in Summerville.

Twentieth Century Augusta

In the early twentieth century, growth and modernization continued with the building of the first skyscrapers, still part of Augusta’s skyline. Like other cities, Augusta had a roaring side in the 1920s and then suffered through the Depression in the 1930s. The bright spot of that decade was the establishment of the Augusta National Golf Club and the beginning of the annual Masters Golf Tournament.

Augusta has always had a connection with the military-Fort Augusta, the US Arsenal, Camp MacKenzie in the Spanish-American War, Camp Hancock in World War I, and Camp Gordon in World War II which became Fort Gordon in the 1950s. Now home to the US Army Signal School and Cyber Command, Fort Gordon remains an integral part of Augusta’s past, present, and future.

In addition to its continued relationship with the military post-war, Augusta expanded its economy by diversifying its manufacturing and reviving its tourist industry. Dams built up the Savannah River and Savannah River Site across the river added to the boom. Rapid suburbanization spread throughout the area, necessitating the current revitalization of the city’s core.

Today, Augusta is a city that retains strong ties to its long and illustrious past while continuing to build and evolve.


For more information on the history of Augusta, visit the Augusta History Museum on 6th St.

Dr. Lee Ann Caldwell

Dr. Lee Ann Caldwell is a Professor of History, the Director of the Center for the Study of Georgia History, and University Historian-in-Residence at Augusta University. She is on the editorial board of the Georgia Historical Quarterly. She is currently the co-editor of the Journal of the Georgia Association of Historians. In 2008 she received the Governor’s Award in the Humanities.