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Gainesville’s namesake had his problems

POSTED: June 28, 2008 5:00 a.m.

Most people familiar with local history know Gainesville is named in honor of Gen. Edmund Pendleton Gaines, but perhaps fewer know why. Still fewer might know little about the city's namesake.

Sybil McRay, the late Hall County history researcher, reprinted in one of her works passages from an autobiography by W.J. Cotter. He wrote that he was the second child born in Hall County at Cotter's Store near Gillsville. His father, John V. Cotter, was one of the first members of what was then called the county court, which selected the site for the county seat.

John V. Cotter suggested the place where Gainesville now stands and that the town be named after Gen. Gaines, under whom he had served in the War of 1812.

But there's more to it than that. During the early 1800s, the U.S. government and Georgia were at odds because the feds had promised Indians they could keep the lands they held at the time. In 1802, Georgia ceded part of its territory to what became Alabama and Mississippi. As part of that deal, the federal government agreed to ignore the Indian treaty and let Georgia have those lands.

The state didn't worry about running the Indians off at first, but as more settlers populated the territory, the pressure mounted for the federal government to act. This resulted in a states' rights debate between Gov. George M. Troup and President John Quincy Adams. This also is where Gen. Gaines comes in again, as the president assigned him to arrest whites who were surveying Indian lands.

Gen. Gaines and Gov. Troup are said to have exchanged "vigorous correspondence" about the issue and constitutional questions involved. Though Gaines' position apparently ran against popular opinion to immediately remove the Indians, he apparently won the respect of Hall Countians who were willing to have their county seat bear his name.

Gaines was a controversial figure who didn't seem to mind wading into tough situations or taking unpopular stands. He had joined the U.S. Army in his early 20s, left for a career in law, but returned to service for the War of 1812. He made a name for himself in that war and received several promotions. Congress honored him for his leadership in battles at Fort Erie, where he was seriously wounded by artillery fire.

Gaines continued his military service in the Black Hawk and Seminole Wars in Florida, where he also was wounded. He and Gen. Winfield Scott got cross-ways there, and the Army censured both of them. Scott later was in charge of removing Indians from Georgia. Lake Winfield Scott near Suches is named for him.

Gaines also ran into trouble in Louisiana when his superiors accused him of overstepping his authority by signing volunteers to fight in the Mexican War. But he successfully defended himself in a court martial in 1836.

While serving in Louisiana, he arrested Aaron Burr of the infamous Burr-Alexander Hamilton duel on charges of treason. Burr beat that rap, as he had done previously in his trial for killing Hamilton.

Gen. Gaines died of cholera in New Orleans in 1849. He had been married three times. His third wife, Myra Clark Whitney, was an heiress to the estate of her father, Daniel Clark, worth $35 million. But she had to go to court to prove she was his legitimate daughter. She fought that battle until well after Gen. Gaines died, but eventually prevailed.

Gainesville, Ga., isn't the only city or site that bears Gaines' name. A historical plaque in Gainesville, Mo., says that town probably was named after Gainesville, Ga., in 1860. Historians there say, however, there is no official record of that, but believe it is because Gainesville, Ga., is named for Gen. Gaines.
Other Gainesvilles named for him are Gainesville, Fla., Gainesville, Texas, Gainesboro, Tenn., where he spent his childhood, Fort Gaines in Alabama, and perhaps Gainesville, Va., his birth state. Gainesville, Ala., is named for George Gaines, an Indian agent.

Early in the Florida town's history, some had argued Gainesville wasn't named for the general. Instead, they contended it was because that section of the county had made so many "gains" in an election. Indeed, the town's name was written as "Gainsville" (without the first "e") until 1861.

Gainesville, Ga., residents can identify with that, as occasionally their city is missing one of its "e's."

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times and can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle N.E., Gainesville, GA 30501. His column appears Sundays and on gainesvilletimes.com. First published May 4, 2008.



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