Jefferson County, in east central Georgia southwest of Augusta, was established in 1796 as the state’s twenty-third county on land formerly a part of Burke and Warren counties. It was named after U.S. president Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and the first U.S. secretary of state.
Louisville, the county seat, was the third capital of Georgia. Unlike its predecessors, Savannah and Augusta, it was founded specifically as the permanent state capital, with the first planned capitol building, which was completed in 1796. In recognition of French support during the Revolutionary War (1775-83), Georgia legislators named the town for Louis XVI, king of France (who had been executed three years earlier). The original design of Louisville was based on the squares of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
During the brief period when Louisville was the state capital (1796-1806), the papers connected with the Yazoo land fraud were publicly burned and the Great Seal of Georgia was adopted (1799). According to the 1820 census, the population of Jefferson County then included 3,932 free whites and 3,094 enslaved people. In 1807 Georgia government moved to its fourth capital, farther west in Baldwin County. The Jefferson County Courthouse (1904), a Neoclassical building designed by W . F. Denny, sits on the site of the original capitol.
By 1860 Jefferson County had 41 free Blacks, 6,045 enslaved Blacks, and 4,133 whites, of whom 431 were slaveholders. During the Civil War (1861-65), Louisville was a target on General William T. Sherman’s march to the sea, and stores and houses on Broad Street were burned.
Jefferson County has maintained an agrarian base since its founding. In 1860 there were 475 farms. The 2002 U.S. Department of Agriculture Census showed 388 farms on a total of 137,217 acres across Jefferson County. Historically, cotton was the major cash crop. The Jefferson Energy Cooperative, based in Wrens, provides power for the area’s farms, including cotton, wheat, timber, cattle, and dairy operations.
The author Erskine Caldwell (1903-87), though born in Coweta County, spent his young adult years in Jefferson County, where his father, a Presbyterian minister, was posted in the town of Wrens. Though he worked as a writer for the local newspaper, his job as a driver for a country doctor had greater impact. On house calls, he saw the squalid living conditions of early-twentieth-century sharecroppers and day laborers. His two most successful novels, Tobacco Road (1932) and God’s Little Acre (1933), were inspired by his observations of the hard lives they led. You Have Seen Their Faces (1937), with the photographer Margaret Bourke-White (his second wife), also reflected his experiences during this time. As a journalist, he exposed in national magazine articles the mistreatment of tenant farmers in Jefferson and adjacent counties.
Other well-known residents of Jefferson County include two Georgia governors, William Schley and Howell Cobb, as well as Cobb’s brother, jurist Thomas R. R. Cobb, who served as a general during the Civil War. Another Confederate general, Ambrose Wright, was born in Louisville and later became owner and editor of the Augusta Chronicle. Prominent twentieth-century state legislator Roy V. Harris also grew up in the county.
According to the 2010 U.S. census, the county population is 16,930, a decrease from the 2000 population of 17,266. Jefferson County has for the most part remained a county of small towns.
In 2003 Sandersville Technical College (later Oconee Fall Line Technical College) opened a satellite campus in Louisville.