"In memory of Peter Crawford... Highly gifted mentally and physically ...Under a sense of right he was inflexible."
-- From the tombstone of Peter Crawford
When Peter Crawford left his home in Virginia soon after the Revolutionary War, he had good reason to move to Columbia County. His Uncle Joel, father of his soon-to-be famous cousin William Crawford, already lived here, and since Peter was a war veteran he was eligible for a "bounty grant," part of the land set aside by the state of Georgia for those who had fought for independence.
The Crawford grant, which Peter called "Belair," was located between Columbia Road and the present Fort Gordon. Had Interstate 20 been in existence 200 years ago, the highway would have cut the property in two.
Eventually Belair became one of the area's largest plantations, and Columbia County attached the same name to a road running along one side. Today the plantation no longer exists, but Belair Road remains an important thoroughfare between the northeastern corner of the county and the Interstate.
Crawford was a practicing lawyer and an avowed Whig when he settled in Georgia, and it wouldn't be long before he began the political career that lasted most of his life. Arriving shortly before Columbia County was born, he also helped guide his new community's early years by serving more than 15 years as the county's first clerk of dourts, and 10 terms as her representative to the State Legislature.
Crawford's political influence may have been substantial, but his greatest achievement appears to be the influence he had on his son, George W. Crawford, whose political accomplishments would be greater than his own. The complete George Crawford story will be told later, but there's an incident concerning father and son that needs to be told here.
In 1828, when the younger Crawford's star was rising and his father was in declining health, George read a defamatory, unsigned letter in The Augusta Chronicle about his father. The letter's stinging words were aimed at Peter's political views, but in the eyes of the son, the assault was on the man himself.
George tried to learn who had written the letter, but the newspaper would not release the name. For reasons still unknown, Thomas E. Burnside, another Columbia County lawyer, took responsibility for the letter, and was immediately challenged to a duel by Peter Crawford's angry son.
By this time dueling was outlawed in Georgia, but law or no law, that long-entrenched method of settling disputes had not stopped. The way to defend one's honor now was to meet one's opponent across a state line where the practice was still legal, which is why Crawford, Burnside, and their respective seconds (aides) traveled -- on the same stage -- from Columbia County to Fort Mitchell, Alabama, for the well-publicized fight.
Other than their political views, Burnside and Crawford had much in common. Each had a well-respected reputation to uphold, and both had a wife and mall children. A reluctant Burnside, in fact, only agreed to the duel to protect his career. The night before the duel he composed this letter to his wife:
"Tomorrow I fight... Whatever may be my fate, I believe I am right... I believe I will succeed. But if I do not, kiss the children and tell them, if I fall, my last thought was of them."
Burnside did fall, dying instantly from Crawford's third shot. It would be two weeks before his family learned there would be no returning husband and father, nor body to bury or mourn beside. Thoughtful friends buried him in a nearby cemetery the next day.
Physically Crawford was unscathed, but a lifetime wouldn't be long enough to lose his remorse over the tragedy he caused. In an act of continuing contrition he made annual -- anonymous -- payments to the Burnside family for most of his life.
Within two years tragedy also struck the Crawford family, when George's beloved father died. Peter Crawford's loyal son buried him at Belair beneath a tombstone recently rediscovered in the Maple Creek subdivision off Columbia Road that reads in part: "In memory of Peter Crawford... As clerk of the Superior Court and Senator in the Legislature of the State during nearly the whole of his manhood, these records attest the value of his services.... The widow and the orphan bestow on him the honorable title: Their Friend."
Twenty years later, the "orphan" bestowed a similar honor on the "widow," recalling her "charities and gentleness," and that "her fourscore years only weakened the tie that binds life to body. All else was clear and calm."
(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. The above is an excerpt from As Long As The Rivers Run, her work in progress on the early history of Columbia County. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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