This tour page contains illustrations and excerpts from Unicoi Road, a 188-page book which begins at a long-abandoned and all-but-forgotten pioneer cemetery, and from there sets off on a three-centuries-long odyssey through the Helen valley and across much of North Georgia. The region was the wild domain of panthers, Indians, traders, and soldiers for a hundred years until the Unicoi Road was begun in 1813. The next century belonged to the pioneers and gold miners whose story is told for the first time in Unicoi Road. The tale does not end there, though, for Unicoi Road follows the threads of the past to find them still woven into the evolving tapestry of modern life in the beautiful northeast Georgia mountains. Two Reading Tours provide book excerpts and several Photo Tours lead to gold mines and the days of pioneers.
When the Helen area was acquired from the Cherokees in 1819, the first settlers were not far behind. The wealthiest came with wagons and slaves to set up plantation-style farms along the Chattahoochee. Those of lesser means came as well, some on foot with perhaps a mule in tow to help carry their worldly goods, usually to settle in the smaller valleys and back in the mountain hollows. For nearly 20 years after the first pioneers arrived, the frontier was delayed in its westward rush by the Cherokees, who clung to their remaining lands just across the Blue Ridge and the Chestatee River until the Removal in 1838.
The families who came to the Helen valley brought children and had more even as they struggled to claim their fields from a vast mountain wilderness. The valley became home to spinning wheels and looms, a grist mill, and a blacksmith as over 30 youngsters ran along the banks of the Chattahoochee. The pioneers were still laboring to build churches, establish stores and a post office, and even a small school when word came that gold had been discovered on nearby Dukes Creek in about 1828 (the exact date is in some dispute).
During the fevered rush which followed, thousands of outsiders from all walks of life and various moral persuasions swarmed over the Dahlonega gold belt, which runs from the Helen area about 30 miles southwest to the Etowah River valley below the abandoned town of Auraria. Although the frenzied Gold Rush literally "panned out" in the 1830s, gold mining continued in some fashion for another century. The residents of the Helen valley dabbled in gold, which lay in deposits beneath their fields. At least one made a fortune from the sale of his farm, and a late arrival became the area's most successful miner (see the "J.R. Dean Hydraulic Mine Tour" below).
These pioneer families and the Georgia Gold Rush are the focus of Unicoi Road. As the years passed, pioneer children moved away. The last of the pioneer settlers to live in the Helen valley died in 1890. By the time the city of Helen was founded 23 years later, even the memory of the original settlers of the Helen valley had vanished almost without a trace, leaving a small abandoned cemetery and a few placenames attached to local creeks as faint reminders of the hardy souls who once occupied this small stretch of valley on the headwaters of the Chattahoochee.
Although little was left in the valley, enough clues were scattered about elsewhere to reconstruct a portion of the Georgia frontier and pioneer life in the Helen valley. Particularly important were the diaries of valley resident Sam Conley, which were in the possession of his descendants in Texas where he had migrated in the 1890s. With over 50 pictures, maps, and illustrations, Unicoi Road is a virtual front porch where one can sit and watch a long-lost story of the Georgia mountains unfold. For those who wish to consider our "ultimate tour" of those days long past, here are the contents of Unicoi Road (with a few cyber-tours thrown in for good measure):
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"Gedney weaves a captivating tale.... a most refreshing approach which blends the best of fact-based history with the charm of good old-fashioned Southern storytelling.... a beautifully done work -- I read it twice within a few days! " D. Michael Allison, National Allison (Allanson) Family Association.
"A virtually unknown segment of history comes alive in this extremely interesting chronicle. From the England family who settled in the Helen valley in the early 1800s through the great gold mining era, this portion of Helen's history is re-lived through the very capable pen of Matt Gedney. The vivaciousness of his characters and the tales of the Gold Rush make this story as appealing as any book on the market today. Helen Fincher, Executive Director, Helen-White County C&VB.
"I saw this book born in the persistent archival research of this relentless writer. . . . not only a well-researched but also a well-written glimpse into a pocket of 19th century Georgia civilization. . . . some especially richly detailed history. . . ." Dale Couch, Historical Research Advisor, Georgia Department of Archives and History.
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