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William Few: Civil Servant Extraordinaire

Posted: September 28, 2013 - 11:03pm  |  Updated: September 29, 2013 - 12:27am
Columnist Barbara Seaborn March, 2012.
Columnist Barbara Seaborn March, 2012.

Today, for most residents of Columbia County, former resident, war hero and politician William Few is little more than a name on a road sign that bisects the county between Washington Road and I-20. The county owes a huge debt to this extraordinary man, because without him it might not exist.

The small Maryland and North Carolina communities where Few was raised offered little to support a family, and almost no opportunity for an education. So in 1773, when 2 million acres of Indian land became available in Georgia, the Fews migrated south.

In his mid-twenties when his parents and younger siblings left North Carolina, William remained behind to settle his family’s affairs. From this experience, plus some fruitful mentoring by local attorneys, he gained enough knowledge of the legal system to practice law soon after joining his family on the Wrightsborough tract in Georgia. But when it became apparent that American independence could not be won apart from war, William and his brothers, Benjamin and Ignatius, set aside their pacifist Quaker leanings and joined the Revolution. All three became officers in the local militia and figured strongly in liberating Georgia from the British.

By war’s end the Fews were living in Brownsborough on land confiscated from British loyalist Thomas Brown near Appling. William repaid his “spoils-of-war” reward with nearly superhuman service to his adopted state and community. Before leaving Georgia in 1799, he would become her delegate to the Continental Congress, state surveyor-general, member of the Georgia Legislature, signer of the U.S. Constitution, U.S. Senator, and judge of the state’s Second Judicial Circuit. He also would begin a 10-year legislative journey that led to the forming of Columbia County.

To set the stage for William Few’s political battle, it’s important to note that in 1777 the parishes, which had subdivided Georgia since 1758, were regrouped into counties. Thus, Augusta and surrounding territory, formerly known as St. Paul’s Parish, was called Richmond County. Also, it was not unusual for a congressman or legislator to be involved in local issues.

For Few, the most important local issue was the location of the county seat, which he believed should be at Brownsborough, or halfway between Augusta and Wrightsborough, so no citizen would have to travel more than 20 miles to conduct court business or vote. But because the Augusta legislators, George Walton especially, did not want to travel “way out in the woods” for that purpose, the Legislature turned Few’s plan down every year from 1780 to 1785, then tabled it completely until the Georgia Constitution was revised five years later.

Meanwhile, court business continued to be conducted in Augusta, although two additional polling places were held in the western part of the county, including one in Brownsborough. With a constant rise in population, crime increased, too. Suddenly, the courthouse and jail in Augusta were no longer able to police an area of 1,200 square miles.

Finally, in 1790, with the consent of the entire delegation and an act of the Georgia Legislature, Richmond County was sliced in two. George Walton still had Augusta and William Few not only had his Brownsborough Plan, but an entirely new county, called Columbia. And, Brownsborough, later named Appling, was still the county seat.

(An excerpt from Barbara Seaborn’s Columbia County history book, As Long As the Rivers Run. Next time: It all began with Columbus.)

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Few In Many Ways

This is a great piece. William Few was an interesting person responsible for our county. My only question is about the confiscation of the Tory’s land. Many were opposed to the Revolution and I’m not sure taking their land was just. Anyway…The best way to study history is through biographies.

From about the third grade when we got those big, hard covered books for the first time and one of them was called “History,” I’ve been fascinated by the subject. History and geography had my attention from an early age as I would quietly sit in class READING. I remember a big orange geography book, but not the grade. I would actually go chapters ahead. I was the only student in my high school to score 100 on a semester history exam. This was no small feat for a kid who was suspended often and finally kicked out of the school after football season to the chagrin of my history teacher. Those Merit Scholars couldn’t figure me out…and neither could I. But I knew one thing, I loved history of all kinds and still do.