“Trans-Oconee Republic” is the name used by later historians to describe the short-lived independent state established by Elijah Clarke west of the Oconee River in 1794. While occupying areas in present-day portions of Greene, Morgan, Putnam, and Baldwin counties, Clarke and his followers erected as many as six fortified settlements, wrote a constitution, and elected their own officials. But after a few months, pressure from the federal government forced the governor to take action, and Clarke’s independent state came to an end.
Like most Georgians at the time, Clarke wanted the hunting lands of the Creek Indians beyond the river to be opened for settlement as quickly as possible. The 1790 Treaty of New York, however, limited Georgia’s westward expansion indefinitely and returned to the Creeks some land gained by the state in an earlier cession. According to the treaty provisions, the Creeks were responsible for expelling or punishing intruders as they saw fit. Clarke believed that those settlers whom the Indians were unwilling or unable to expel should be able to settle west of the river.
In February 1794 Clarke resigned from the Georgia militia after two decades of distinguished service. Around that same time he received a French commission as a major general and began recruiting soldiers for an attack on Spanish Florida. The invasion never materialized, and he decided to use the remnants of his army to seize Indian lands west of the Oconee in May of that year. The Creeks did not resist, and the independent state quickly took shape. With promises of land to those who would join the venture, Clarke hoped to fill Creek lands with settlers before the state and federal government had time to react. Many Georgians were skeptical of his dubious plan, and no more than a few hundred crossed the river.
U.S. president George Washington believed that Clarke’s scheme was detrimental to relations with both the Indians and the Spanish. In accordance with Washington’s policy of neutrality, his administration pressured Governor George Mathews to put an end to the affair and threatened federal military intervention otherwise. To keep the federal government out of what he considered to be a state issue, Mathews issued a proclamation in July officially condemning Clarke and his adventurers. Certain of his innocence, Clarke voluntarily surrendered to authorities in Wilkes County. Four sympathetic justices of the peace released him, and he promptly returned across the river to continue his plan.
Recognizing Clarke’s popularity, Mathews hesitated to take further action against him. Furthermore, restoring valuable land to the Creeks, who were despised by many Georgians, would not be received favorably. After a month of indecision, the governor was spurred into action by the “spirited exertions” of Judge George Walton, one of Georgia’s signers of the Declaration of Independence and a staunch Federalist. In his charge to an Augusta grand jury, Walton carefully explained why Clarke’s actions were in violation of both state and federal laws. Allowing Clarke’s settlements to continue, Walton argued, would disrupt the stability of the new federal government and set a dangerous precedent. If Clarke could occupy “the richest jewel the state of Georgia possesses” before the lands were legally opened, then nothing would prevent others from doing the same, and federal treaties would be worthless.
With Walton’s eloquence and reputation on his side, Governor Mathews felt confident enough to send the militia against the illegal settlements. As 1,200 militiamen under Generals Jared Irwin and John Twiggs marched to the Oconee in late September 1794, Clarke vowed to defend his independent state with his life. However, when Irwin offered full amnesty to those who would peacefully return east of the river, Clarke and virtually all of his men surrendered and went back to their homes. Mathews wrote to the secretary of war in October, declaring that “the whole business happily terminated without the loss of blood.” Thus Georgia peacefully ended a tense standoff and avoided a clash with the federal government.