Nelson Tift (1810-1891)

Northern merchant and entrepreneur Nelson Tift founded Albany in October 1836. Born in 1810 to a Connecticut mercantile family, Nelson followed his father into business and into the South. While part of a general westward migration of farmers, slaves, and planters, Tift did not invest directly in agricultural enterprises but rather facilitated them. In so doing, he helped make southwest Georgia one of the state's foremost antebellum cotton-producing regions.
Tift took a roundabout route to Albany. Starting in 1826 at the family's Key West, Florida, salvage business, he managed stores in Charleston, South Carolina, and Augusta and Hawkinsville, Georgia. Prospects to the west continued to beckon, and in October 1836 he made his final move, this time to present-day Dougherty County, where he established a trading center on the Flint River.
Tift's arrival coincided with the expansion of cotton culture into southwest Georgia. Settlers had been drifting into the area since the 1820s and, as late as the summer of 1836, were still skirmishing with scattered pockets of Creek Indians. But plantation society flourished with the opening of the land to white settlement, and well before Tift reached Albany, cotton bales were already making their way downriver to Apalachicola, Florida.
Tift's business acumen located him at the hub of southwest Georgia's traffic in land, cotton, and slaves. Determined that the region's economy would remain strong, he promoted numerous transportation schemes, including a toll bridge at Albany and the extension of railroad lines from Savannah and later Americus. He speculated in land throughout southwest Georgia; he operated a dry goods store and several mills; he regularly extended credit to friends and neighbors; and for many years, he owned and edited the local newspaper, the Albany Patriot.
A lifelong Democrat committed wholly to slave society, Tift worked tirelessly to protect both the party and the "peculiar institution." Starting in 1841 he translated his economic leadership into political office, serving three terms in the Georgia legislature (1841, 1847, and 1851-52). He supported the reopening of the international slave trade as a means to extend slave ownership to all white Georgians and chastised white artisans for opposing the use of slave craftsmen. Although not an advocate of immediate secession, he accepted the final decision and lent his services to the new nation. During the Civil War (1861-65), Tift built gunboats for the Confederate navy and supplied the Rebel army with beef and hardtack produced by his factories at Albany and at nearby Palmyra in Lee County.
The war destroyed the Confederacy but not Nelson Tift. In 1868 he won a seat in the U.S. Congress, using that position to call for the end of Radical Reconstruction. Unsuccessful in ridding the South immediately of federal oversight and unable to win reelection, Tift returned to Albany and his business concerns. In 1877 he was a delegate to the constitutional convention. He died a wealthy man in 1891, celebrated for his role in transforming his adopted home into what W. E. B. Du Bois would later describe as the heart of Georgia's Cotton Kingdom.


Further Reading
John D. Fair, "Nelson Tift: A Connecticut Yankee in King Cotton's Court," Georgia Historical Quarterly 88 (fall 2004).

Susan O'Donovan, ed., "The Journal of Nelson Tift," Journal of Southwest Georgia History 3-8, 10-12 (fall 1985-fall 1993, fall 1995-fall 1997).

Nelson Tift, "Dougherty County: Historical Address," Journal of Southwest Georgia History 4 (fall 1986).
Cite This Article
O'Donovan, Susan E. "Nelson Tift (1810-1891)." New Georgia Encyclopedia. 29 July 2013. Web. 18 January 2019.
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