Augusta-Richmond and Columbia counties were both created in the 1700s. Richmond County was established in 1777, Augusta was established in 1736 and Augusta-Richmond became a city-county consolidation in 1996. Richmond County was named for Charles Lennox, 3rd Duke of Richmond, a British politician and office-holder sympathetic to the cause of the American colonies. Augusta was named in honor of Princess Augusta, wife of Frederick, Prince of Wales. Columbia County, named for Christopher Columbus, was first created Dec. 10, 1790. Over the next century or so, land was exchanged between neighboring counties, including Richmond, McDuffie and Warren, to form what we now know as Columbia County’s boundaries.
Augusta was laid out on the flat slopes of the Savannah River, just east of the sand hills that would come to be known as Summerville. In 1739, construction began on a road to connect Augusta to Savannah. This made it possible for people to reach Augusta by horse, rather than by boat, and more people began to migrate inland to Augusta. While slavery was originally banned in the colony by James Oglethorpe, it soon became an integral part of Georgia’s history. Under Georgia’s new constitution, a new political structure was laid out in 1777; Augusta’s parish government was replaced by a county government, Richmond County.
During the American Revolution, Savannah fell to the British. This left Augusta as the new state capital and a new prime target of the British. By Jan. 31, 1779, Augusta was captured by Lt. Col. Archibald Campbell. But Campbell soon withdrew, as American troops were gathering on the opposite shore of the Savannah River. Augusta again became the state capital, but not for long. Augusta fell into British hands once more before the end of the war.
From then until the American Civil War, with the establishment of the Augusta Canal, Augusta became a leader in the production of textiles, gunpowder and paper. The Georgia Railroad was built by local contractors Fannin, Grant & Co in 1845, giving Augusta a rail link to Atlanta. The railroad connected to the Tennessee River at Chattanooga, Tennessee, thus providing access from inland Georgia to the Mississippi River. The cost-savings of this link from the middle of the country to the Atlantic Ocean via the Savannah River increased trade considerably.
Originally, Augustans welcomed the idea of the Civil War. Over 2,000 Augustans went away to fight in the war, but war did not set into the minds of Augustans until the summer of 1863. It was in that year that thousands of refugees from areas threatened by invasion came crowding into Augusta, leading to shortages in housing and provisions. Next came the threatening nearness of Gen. William Sherman’s advancing army, causing panic in the streets of the once-quiet town. However, the city was never burned to the ground. After the war, Augusta and Georgia were both under martial law during the period known as Reconstruction. During this time, civil rights of African-Americans were expanded. Following the end of Reconstruction, the white majority population of Georgia and other Southern U.S. states enacted Jim Crow laws to limit the rights of African-Americans. These restrictions would not be lifted until the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century.
Unlike most Southern cities, postbellum life for Augusta was prosperous. By the beginning of the 20th century, Augusta had become one of the largest inland cotton markets in the world. A new military cantonment, named Camp Hancock, opened nearby during World War I.
Prior to World War II, the U.S. Army constructed a new fort in Richmond County, Camp Gordon, which was finished a few days after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Many new soldiers were brought to this camp to train to go off to war. Within the few months after WWII, many of the GIs at Camp Gordon had been sent back home, and the importance of the Army in the community seemed to almost come to an end.
In 1948, new life came to the city when the U.S. Army moved the Signal Training Center and Military Police School to Camp Gordon. Later, in November 1948, the Clarks Hill Reservoir was created by a newly constructed dam, which provided the city with a supply of hydroelectric power. In 1950, plans were announced to build the Savannah River Plant nearby, which would boost the city’s population about 50,000. Augusta moved into the second half of the 20th century on the threshold of becoming an urban industrial center in the South.
Beginning in the late 1970s, businesses started leaving downtown Augusta for both Regency Mall and Augusta Mall. That started a trend of urban abandonment and decay. To counter this trend, city politicians and business leaders promoted revitalizing Augusta’s hidden riverfront (obscured by a levee) into Riverwalk Augusta, with parks, an amphitheater, hotels, museums and art galleries. The first segment of Riverwalk Augusta was opened in the late 1980s and later expanded in the early 1990s. However, the renaissance of the riverfront did not appear to be spilling over into Augusta’s main street, Broad Street, as more businesses were leaving and more storefronts boarded up.
In 1995, citizens of the city of Augusta and Richmond County voted to merge governments. Citizens of Hephzibah, Georgia, and Blythe, Georgia, decided to remain separate. The consolidation took effect Jan. 1, 1996, with the city of Augusta surrendering its city charter and merging operations with Richmond County. Today, the city-county consolidation of Augusta-Richmond County has a population of more than 197,000.
Columbia County, the 12th county formed in Georgia, was created by an act of the Legislature of Georgia on Dec. 10, 1790, from Richmond County. During the Colonial era, settlement of what would become Columbia County occurred primarily due to colonists settling at the second city in Georgia, Augusta, located on the fall line.
Two small battles occurred in what would become Columbia County during the Revolutionary War between Patriot Militia and Tories; the area was then primarily frontier, and loyalties were badly divided. Just before and immediately after the Revolution, numerous Virginians and North Carolinians migrated to the frontier of Georgia above Augusta, including the area around Brownsborough. After the Revolution, residents disagreed as to whether Augusta or Brownsborough should be the county seat of Richmond County. At the insistence of William Few, the county was partitioned. The new county formed from Richmond was named Columbia; this did not end the controversy about location of the county seat. The citizens of Columbia County turned to arguing among themselves. Supporters built one courthouse in Brownsborough, and those of Cobbham built another. The courthouse at Cobbham was used; and Brownsborough in short order ceased to exist. In 1793, part of the county was taken, combined with part of Wilkes County, and formed into Warren County.
Around 1799, William Appling deeded a tract of land to the county to build a courthouse. It was near Kiokee Creek and a Baptist Church which Daniel Marshall had founded in 1772. A courthouse was constructed and served the county until around 1808. The small town that existed around the church and courthouse came to be known as Columbia Courthouse. In 1816, Columbia Courthouse was chartered as the Town of Appling, named for the Appling family who had donated the land to the county, and for Col. John Appling, a local resident who died in a campaign against the Seminole Indians.
Appling was the political, educational, social and religious center of the county. During the Georgia Gold Rush of the 1820s, some successful prospecting and mining occurred in Columbia County. The 1830s were a period of major infrastructure projects and the coming of the railroad. When the Georgia Railroad was established, the judges determined that having trains passing near Appling would disturb their proceedings; they insisted that the railway line that was built in the county from Atlanta to Augusta pass well below Appling. Construction of the Augusta Canal in the 1830s required Columbia County’s cooperation, as the beginning of the canal and the locks were within the county.
The railroad brought increased trade and population to the area. In 1870, the part of Columbia County which included Thomson, Dearing and Wrightsboro, the 12,000-acre settlement established in 1768 by Colonial Gov. James Wright as a settlement for displaced Quakers from North Carolina, was combined with parts of Warren County to form McDuffie County — named after South Carolina’s U.S. Sen. George McDuffie. Thomson became the county seat of the newly formed county.
The 20th century brought many changes to the county, with new technologies and modernization. In 1917, Harlem was badly damaged by fire. Bringing electricity to the county began. Men from Columbia County answered the call of duty and served in both World War I and World War II. Prior to WWII, the county was still primarily agricultural; it had escaped the boll weevil infestation that destroyed cotton crops in Mississippi and other parts of the South. The U.S. Army built Camp (later Fort) Gordon, taking over a large portion of Richmond County and parts of Columbia, McDuffie and Jefferson counties. The Army kept the fort after WWII, creating a new population and economic center for the county. During the 1950s, the Clark Hill Dam was constructed, submerging considerable land in northern Columbia County under the new reservoir. It prompted new residential development around the lake.
Between 1950 and 1990, the population increased dramatically. Agriculture declined, as farmland was redeveloped as suburban housing and community centers for people employed in Augusta. Numerous personnel stationed at Fort Gordon eventually settled in Columbia County. During the 1960s, the schools were integrated largely without incident under the leadership of Superintendent John Pierce Blanchard. The unincorporated communities of Martinez (formerly Lulaville, named after a Cuban doctor) and Evans (possibly named after Confederate Gen. Clement A. Evans) became the population centers of the county, since they were located nearest to Augusta.
During the 1980s and 1990s and demographic shifts, Evans gradually became the de facto county seat, as the Columbia County Government Center and the Government Complex Addition were built there to serve the growing population in the county’s eastern areas. Court functions remained in Appling since Georgia state law required that superior court sessions must be held at the county seat and courthouse of each county at least twice a year. In 1998, the legislature changed the law to allow counties with unincorporated county seats to hold court sessions at annexes or satellite courthouses. With the 1993 passage of legislation requiring incorporated cities to provide at least three municipal services, Appling was not able to maintain its status as an incorporated city. Appling was one of 187 inactive cities in Georgia that lost its charter on June 1, 1995. Today, it is nearly a dead town although Appling retains its status as de jure county seat; all governmental functions are carried out in Evans. As of the 2017 Census, population in Columbia County was more than 151,000 with more than half of its residents living in Evans and Martinez.