David B. Mitchell, a three-time Georgia governor during the early nineteenth century, held numerous political offices in the state during his career. A native of Scotland, Mitchell is notable for being the last governor of Georgia born outside the United States. Historical sources differ as to whether Mitchell County, in southwest Georgia, was named in his honor or that of Revolutionary War (1775-83) general Henry Mitchell.
David Brydie Mitchell was born on October 22, 1766, in Muthill, Perthshire, Scotland, the son of Annie Brydie and John Henry Mitchell. Property in Savannah inherited from David Brydie, his uncle, brought Mitchell to Georgia in 1782. In Savannah he studied law under William Stevens, and in 1789 he joined the Georgia bar and acquired U.S. citizenship. He married Jane Mills in 1792, and according to family records the couple had six children: William, John, Sara, Edward, Mary, and David II.
A vehement Democratic-Republican who adhered passionately to the ideas of Thomas Jefferson at the national level and James Jackson at the state level, Mitchell began his political career in Savannah in 1794. He was elected for two terms (1794-98) to the Georgia House of Representatives and then served for three years as a judge in the Eastern Circuit of the Superior Court of Georgia (1798-1801).
Following his time on the bench, Mitchell was elected as Savannah’s mayor. During his tenure, Mitchell, well known for his antipathy to both Tories and Federalists, killed William Hunter, an affirmed Federalist, in an 1802 duel.
Mitchell spent two years as mayor before becoming a U.S. attorney in 1803. After a brief tenure in that role, he served one term in the Georgia senate (1804-5). A member of the state militia, Mitchell attained the rank of major general in 1806.
On November 9, 1809, Mitchell was elected governor, defeating incumbent Jared Irwin by a vote of 61 to 41 in the General Assembly. As chief executive of a predominantly rural state, Mitchell focused on economic development in his first administration, making improvements to transportation systems around the state and expanding the state’s banking system.
In 1811, after a productive first term that included the founding of a highway board and the 1810 chartering of the Bank of Augusta, Georgia’s oldest banking institution, Mitchell once again defeated Irwin for governor, this time by a vote of 81 to 30. As the animosities between the United States and Great Britain intensified during the second decade of the nineteenth century, Mitchell responded by making defense the top priority of his second term. The state of Georgia witnessed military action during the War of 1812 (1812-15), when the governor ordered the seizure of seventeen British vessels moored on the St. Marys River in 1812.
Mitchell did not run for reelection in 1813, but he returned to the governor’s office in 1815, defeating Peter Early. Many of his previous political priorities dominated this third term as well. Particularly, Mitchell opened the Savannah and Oconee rivers as viable transportation channels, further developed the state banking system, and allocated fiscal support for the first time to the University of Georgia. The state penitentiary in Milledgeville also opened during his third term.
Mitchell resigned from office in 1817, when U.S. president James Madison appointed him to serve as U.S. agent to the Creek Indians upon the death of famed Indian agent Benjamin Hawkins. Hawkins had ushered in an unprecedented era of peace from his establishment of the Creek Agency Reserve along the Flint River in 1803 until the Creek War of 1813-14.
In 1818 and again in early 1821, Mitchell negotiated treaties between the federal government and the Creeks. These successes, however, were overshadowed by accusations, leveled by John Clark, that Mitchell had smuggled enslaved Africans into Georgia and transported them to Alabama, in violation of federal law banning the African slave trade. Dismissed from his post in 1821 by U.S. president James Monroe, Mitchell soon thereafter, in an attempt to clear his name, published An Exposition on the Case of the Africans Taken to the Creek Agency by Captain William Bowen (1822).
In 1828, his reputation somewhat rehabilitated, Mitchell returned to politics, serving as judge of the Inferior Court of Baldwin County until early 1837. In 1836 he was once again elected as a state senator, this time on the States’ Rights Party ticket.
Mitchell died on April 22, 1837, and was buried in Milledgeville.