Whitfield County is located in northwest Georgia at the southern end of the Appalachian Mountains, about thirty miles south of Chattanooga, Tennessee, and eighty miles north of Atlanta. It shares a northern border with Tennessee and covers nearly 290 square miles.
The county was formed from part of Murray County in 1851 and named for the Reverend George Whitefield, an Englishman who first visited Georgia in 1738. Whitefield created the Bethesda orphan house near Savannah in 1740. In writing the act that created the county, the state legislature omitted the "e" in "Whitefield," to reflect the correct pronunciation of the name.
The Cherokee Indians originally inhabited the land that forms Whitfield County. The first white inhabitants were Indian traders, including Nathan Hicks, who married a Cherokee woman and settled on the Hiawassee River. Their well-educated son, Charles Hicks (born in 1767), established a home nine miles northwest of Dalton and served as the Cherokee interpreter to the U.S. government for thirty years. In 1827 he died at the age of sixty, only two weeks after becoming principal chief of the Cherokees.
Even before the removal was complete, the Georgia legislature organized Cherokee County and held a land lottery for white settlers in 1832. Several months later, the legislature created Murray County from Cherokee County. In the 1830s Cross Plains was the primary settlement, which was absorbed into the town of Dalton in 1847. Edward White, a New York merchant, named the town he founded after his mother and grandfather, Mary Dalton White and Tristram Dalton, respectively. White laid out the streets in Dalton and donated land for a park and churches.
The arrival of the railroad and resulting prosperity prompted the legislature to carve Whitfield out of Murray County in 1851, and Dalton was named the county seat. The thriving community supported Prater's Mill, which was built in 1855 and offered various milling services, a wool carder, a cotton gin, a general store, and a blacksmith shop. Today the mill building, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, is open to the public during the Prater's Mill Country Fair, held each October. In addition to Dalton, the other incorporated cities in the county are Cohutta, Tunnel Hill, and Varnell.
Civil War and Reconstruction
While one-third of his men tried to outflank Johnston in the mountain passes, Sherman moved against Dalton and pushed Confederate troops out of Tunnel Hill, where he set up headquarters at the home of a Unionist. Sherman's flanking maneuver worked and forced Confederate troops to retreat to Resaca in May 1864. The county was devastated by thirteen battles or skirmishes, including those at Crow Valley, Mill Creek Gap, Resaca, Rocky Face, and Tunnel Hill. Union troops also destroyed much of Dalton, and today the city claims the only standing monument to Johnston. In 2000 the Georgia Civil War Commission purchased the Resaca battlefield site, a tract of 508 acres shared by Gordon and Whitfield counties.
During the 1870s Mormon missionaries arrived in the area. One of them, Joseph Standing, was murdered in 1879 in Varnell, near Dalton, by citizens of Catoosa and Whitfield counties who saw the missionaries as a threat to their communities. Standing is commemorated in Joseph Standing Memorial Park in Varnell.
The Great Depression and the General Textile Strike of 1934 dealt severe blows to the Crown Cotton Mill, which managed to stay in operation until 1969. Modern Dalton still testifies to the strong legacy of the carpet and textile industries. As a leading industrial center in the country, the city confidently proclaims itself the "Carpet Capital of the World."
Carpet manufacturing in Dalton has its roots in the tufted bedspread industry. In the late nineteenth century Catherine Evans Whitener began producing bedspreads using the old craft of "candlewicking" or tufting. The demand for her products led to the growth of a cottage industry by the 1920s,
Unlike northern manufacturers who produced woven wool rugs, the industry in Dalton produced tufted cotton rugs at much cheaper prices. The industry boomed with the introduction of durable synthetic fibers. By the end of the twentieth century, 80 percent of the carpet produced in the United States, and more than 70 percent of the world's carpet, was produced by four companies located in Georgia, three of them—Beaulieu of America, Mohawk, and Shaw Industries—located in Dalton.
Immigration and Education
During the 1980s and 1990s, large numbers of Hispanic immigrants moved to Dalton to fill jobs in the carpet manufacturing industry. By 2000 Hispanics comprised 22.1 percent of the county's population, and almost half the students in Dalton's schools were Hispanic.
In the mid-1980s Dalton resident and Mexican native Teresa Sosa established an annual parade to celebrate Mexico's Independence Day, which falls on September 16. In 2008 around 200 people participated in the twenty-fifth anniversary of the parade, while hundreds more gathered to watch.
The influx of so many Spanish-speaking students strained the resources of the Dalton-area schools. This problem came to the attention of Erwin Mitchell, a local lawyer. In 1997, with the help of Robert Shaw, of Shaw Industries, and partners at Mexico's University of Monterrey, Mitchell established the Georgia Project, a pioneer program to promote bilingual education in Dalton's public schools. The Georgia Project brought Spanish-speaking teachers to Dalton to assist with the burgeoning Hispanic population in the city's schools and sent Dalton teachers to Mexico to learn Spanish. With this initiative and others, Dalton sought to smooth the process of globalization for the community.
According to the 2010 U.S. census, the population of Whitfield County was 102,599, an increase from the 2000 population of 83,525.
Susan R. Boatright and Douglas C. Bachtel, eds., Georgia County Guide (Athens: Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development, University of Georgia, annual).
The Heritage of Whitfield County, Georgia, 1851-1998 (Waynesville, N.C.: Walsworth Publishing, 1998).
Whitfield-Murray Historical Society, An Official History of Whitfield County, 1852-1999 ([Dalton, Ga.]: Wolfe Publishing, 1999).
Robert E. Luckett Jr., University of Georgia
A project of the Georgia Humanities Council, in partnership with the University of Georgia Press, the University System of Georgia/GALILEO, and the Office of the Governor.