Most famous for its connection with the authors Joel Chandler Harris and Alice Walker, Eatonton has also given rise to at least seven congressmen and to the University of Georgia’s longest-tenured president, Alonzo Church. Eatonton is located approximately twenty miles south of Interstate 20 and about forty miles north of Interstate 16 on U.S. Highway 441, about seventy-five miles southeast of Atlanta. Eatonton is the seat of Putnam County. According to the 2010 U.S. census, the population is 6,480.
The earliest known community in the Eatonton area was a Creek Indian town, Cusseta, whose chief, Bird Tail, signed the Treaty of New York on behalf of his people in 1790. Named after William Eaton, soldier, diplomat, and undercover agent, the town was incorporated in 1809 and remains the sole incorporated city in Putnam County. Dairy farms, plantations, and cotton factories were early supports to the town’s economy. Educational institutions included the Eatonton Academy, where in 1818 a Library Society was organized by headmaster Alonzo Church, who later became president of the University of Georgia.
Its location near the antebellum state capital, Milledgeville, and between Macon and Athens (south-north)and Augusta and Atlanta (east-west) made Eatonton a natural stopping place for eighteenth- and nineteenth-century travelers, including soldiers marching through Georgia during the Civil War (1861-65). A graphic description of that era comes from the Richmond Sentinel, December 2, 1864, reporting that when townspeople had learned of General William T. Sherman’s troops’ possible arrival a week before, “We found Eatonton agitated. The streets were thronged with horsemen, some moving out to look for the enemy and some prudently moving the other way. The windows and piazzas were lined with ladies and children, many of the former and all of the latter very pretty, and all dreading the advent of the vile vandals.”
Author Joel Chandler Harris was born in Eatonton in 1845 (not 1848, as traditionally believed). He grew up in a small cottage behind the mansion of Andrew Reid, who had purchased the Eagle Tavern in Eatonton in 1835. Reid encouraged and supported the young Harris. Later Harris began his professional career at the Countryman newspaper, published on the nearby Turnwold Plantation. In his Uncle Remus tales Harris preserved the stories and dialect of Eatonton-area African Americans. He died in 1908.
The Pulitzer Prize–winning author, essayist, and activist Alice Walker was born to a family of sharecroppers in Eatonton in 1944. At the 1985 premiere of the movie made from her book The Color Purple (1982), the 1961 valedictorian of Eatonton’s Butler‑Baker School was honored with a parade in her hometown, and Eatonton’s citizens have taken pride in her many subsequent accomplishments.
Traditionally a farming community, Eatonton today is proud of its industrial base, claiming more than twenty companies dealing in such goods and services as textiles, timber, electricity, and baseball caps. The dairy industry is still a going concern. Leisure pursuits in Eatonton include a self-guided bicycle tour along Highway 16, golfing on the Uncle Remus Golf Course and visits to the Uncle Remus Museum. A good number of the town’s nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century houses have been preserved or renovated.