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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,629


This is the grave of Wilson Lumpkin.

Born in 1783 on the Dan River in Virginia, Lumpkin grew up in Georgia, where his parents moved shortly after his birth. His parents did pretty well, owned slaves, and provided a solid education for their son. He went to the local schools, read for the law, passed the bar, and started a practice in Athens, Georgia. He wasn’t the only one in his family to go down this road–his little brother Joseph Henry Lumpkin would end up on the Supreme Court. He was a Jeffersonian and like a lot of people in this era, the law was a pathway into politics, his true interest. He entered the Georgia House in 1804 and served four terms.

After two years out of electoral politics, Lumpkin ran for Congress in 1814 and won that race. He ran for reelection in 1816 but lost that race, rare in his career. At that point, he was a nationalist, which was still popular in the South at this time, connected to people such as Henry Clay and, yes, John C. Calhoun. So he took some time off from electoral stuff after his defeat. He went back to Georgia and was named State Indian Commissioner, which at that time pretty much meant figuring out how to steal all the land from the Cherokee and Creek, which would happen a couple of decades later. A lot of what he did was establishing the precise boundaries between the state and the Creek after the Treaty of the Creek Agency, which was one of the many terrible treaties whites forced on the tribes that it had no intention of settling for once it had more need for Indian lands.

In 1826, Lumpkin decided on another run for Congress. This would start a path to long-term political power in the state for him. He won his race and served two terms before running for governor of Georgia in 1831. He defeated the incumbent George Gilmer. He did not support Nullification and even though he moved away from some of his early nationalist politics, he thought Calhoun and the South Carolina extremists had gone nuts and he strongly opposed Georgia following South Carolina into the loony bin, at least at this point. Generally, he was a competent governor for the time. He supported prison reforms (granted in many states this meant the introduction of solitary confinement, though I don’t know about Georgia) and transportation improvements.

Lumpkin’s truest commitment was stealing the lands from the Cherokee. He was proud of his role in Cherokee Removal for his whole life. Grabbing land for the White Man and getting rid of the Indians? Why, what would make a nineteenth century politician prouder than that legacy? No one in Georgia really opposed this, well, except for the Cherokee. There were differences between open genocide and working with the federal government to kick them out with slightly less death. What a time to be alive. Lumpkin was generally considered to be on the moderate side on this, believing that the races could not live together but also at least somewhat believing that the Cherokees had developed something like culture and that if they could be separated from whites, maybe they could develop on their own. He even thought that maybe, someday, the Cherokee could have their own state in the United States, which certainly made him slightly less genocidal than others. He also thought it was bad that the state had imprisoned the missionaries Samuel Worcester and Elizur Butler, who had worked with the Cherokee to keep their lands. So he had them released, solving a major national problem for the state.

Immediately after leaving office in 1835, Lumpkin became a commissioner where he worked out the details of the removal. In 1837, John King resigned from the Senate and Lumpkin got the nod to replace him. He finished the last four years of King’s terms, so his work up there was not unsubstantial. He became chairman on the Committee on Manufacturers.

In his later life, Lumpkin moved to the right, as did the state. He supported treason in defense of slavery. He died in 1870. His daughters granted Lumpkin’s land in Athens to the state and it became core land on the campus of the University of Georgia.

Wilson Lumpkin is buried in Oconee Hill Cemetery, Athens, Georgia.

If you would like this series to visit other senators of the late 1830s, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Thomas Hart Benton is in St. Louis and Albert White is in Lafayette, Indiana. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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