One of the little known, but most controversial figures in Hall County history was a lawyer named William H. Underwood.
He gained popularity among some but unpopularity among many because he was a lead lawyer in defending the Cherokee Indians in their trials and tribulations with the white man, who was encroaching upon and trying to, and eventually did, take over their territory in North Georgia.
Underwood was born in Virginia in 1779, but as a boy moved with his family to Elbert County in 1790. After getting some education himself, he became a school master, canoeing across the Savannah River daily to tend to his South Carolina school. He married his wife Terrace, studied law, began his practice in 1809, served in the War of 1812 and became a judge in 1825. Underwood moved to Barnesville in 1828, continuing as a judge, but earning a reputation as controversial, highly intelligent and witty.
His move to Gainesville came in 1831, just a decade after the town’s founding. The area still was described as wild and bordered Indian territory across the Chattahoochee River. He took on some of the county’s and state’s most important cases of the day. A contemporary said of him, “As a lawyer, he was the equal of any and in genius and wit, perhaps the superior of them all.”
Sometimes his caustic remarks made him enemies, but those who knew him well brushed off any witticisms or sarcasm as part of his personality and courtroom tactics.
When the state decreed that the Cherokee country should come under the jurisdiction of Georgia laws, Underwood, always eloquent, called the decision, “one of the most high-handed acts of oppression and injustice ever put in force by a people, claiming to be free and powerful, against a feeble neighbor struggling to emerge from the dim twilight of barbarism into the open glories of an advancing and progressive civilization.”
He continued to espouse the cause of the Indians, trying to help them protect their traditions and hunting grounds. His stands with the Cherokees caused him much aggravation and verbal attacks on his character and law practice.
John Ross, principal chief of the Cherokees, hired Underwood to monitor and defend cases against the Indians. Underwood was involved in one of the most infamous cases in Georgia, Indian and Hall County history. He was one of the defenders of Chief Corn Tassel, a half-Cherokee who was accused of murder in Indian territory in 1830. The case came to superior court in Hall County, where he was tried, convicted and sentenced to be hanged.
Underwood appealed the verdict to the U.S. Supreme Court, contending that Georgia had no jurisdiction over Cherokee territory and acted in violation of the U.S. Constitution. Underwood’s argument was that the federal government had made treaties with the Cherokees and that federal laws took precedence over the state’s.
Gov. George Gilmer, however, defied the court and ordered Hall County hang Tassel immediately, despite efforts by Underwood and others to save his life.
Indians and their supporters were outraged, of course, but Underwood was derided by those who supported Gov. Gilmer’s actions.
The Cherokees were marched out of Georgia in 1838 on the infamous Trail of Tears, much to Underwood’s and others’ chagrin. Underwood moved his practice to Columbus, remarried after his wife died, moved to Atlanta and later to Rome, then Marietta, where he died at age 80 in 1859. He is buried in Rome.
Friends said Georgia’s treatment of the Cherokees haunted him to his grave. He had always held a high regard for “the dusky sons of the woods,” as Underwood sometimes referred to the Indians.
Gainesville’s very first lawyer was said to be Richard Venable, who gained a solid reputation as one of the best in his profession in the state. In a historical sketch of Hall County, Ephraim Johnson described him as “a portly, fine-looking gentleman – fluent, high-minded and honorable.” He died in 1829 before Judge Underwood moved to Gainesville.
Johnson, too, was a celebrated lawyer in Hall County and is considered the father of Methodism in Gainesville. He served as clerk of courts and ordinary, was a businessman and promoter of the Air Line Railroad, on whose board he served.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times and can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501; phone, 770-532-2326. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com/johnny.