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What to know about Forsyth County’s namesake before his 239th birthday
Staff illustration

The namesake of Forsyth County has a big birthday coming up with this week.

John Forsyth Sr., who was the 33rd governor of Georgia, was born on Oct. 22, 1780, meaning the 239th anniversary of his birth is Tuesday. A member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Senate and the Minister to Spain, Forsyth became the namesake of the newly-created Forsyth County when it was founded in 1831.

For those who haven’t heard much about the man behind the name, Frank Clark with the Col. Hiram Parks Bell Southern History and Genealogy Center in downtown Cumming and George Pirkle with the Historical Society of Cumming/Forsyth County shared some facts with the Forsyth County News about John Forsyth.

Deep roots

Forsyth wasn’t the first in his family to be well-known as a leader.

Clark said Forsyth descended from Scottish landowners who can be traced to at least the 1200s and possibly the 700s and were “involved in all the fights against the British.” The family lost their lands following the Battle of Culloden in the 1740s and came to America in the 1770s.

After first settling in New England, Robert Forsyth, John’s father, moved to Virginia, where he fought for the colonial side in the American Revolution under Major "Lighthorse Harry" Lee, father of Robert E. Lee, and received a personal letter from then-Gen. George Washington.

Following the war, Robert Forsyth received land in Augusta, where he moved his family. Washington appointed him to the new U.S. Marshal Service in 1789. He was killed in 1794 while attempting to serve a civil court process to brothers Beverly and William Allen when he was shot by Beverly, a former Methodist minister.

Highly educated

Following the death of his father, Forsyth and his brother, Robert Jr., attended the Springer Academy in Wilkes County, where he studied with Jesse Mercer, who became a famous Baptist minister and namesake of Mercer University, and William Harris Crawford, who served as a U.S. senator, including president pro tempore of the Senate and as secretary of the Treasury under Presidents James Madison and James Monroe.

Forsyth graduated from Princeton in 1799, then known as the University of New Jersey, and was admitted to the State Bar of Georgia in 1802.

“He served in both Augusta and Savannah as a lawyer at different times and was very successful,” Clark said. “He was a great debater, had a great voice, was very good at standing in front of the court and giving his case. Because of that, he became quite popular.”

How the county got its name

Up until the 1830s, Forsyth County and north Georgia were the territory of the Creek tribe, and later the Cherokee until the removal of the Cherokee through the Indian Removal Act and the Trail of Tears.

Like many politicians in the state at the time, Clark said Forsyth was in favor of removal of the Cherokee, which he felt to be a states’ rights issue rather than a federal matter.

“The state legislature actually was the one who named Forsyth,” Clark said. “Originally, the entire Cherokee Nation was called Cherokee County, and Jacob Scudder was a representative and said, ‘We need to carve this into 10 different counties.’”

Clark said the debate over removing the natives dated back to the 1800s and Forsyth also added a “nominal tax” on Cherokee that meant they counted toward the census and were protected by U.S. laws.

“Some people, looking back on it now, think Forsyth was just really a bad person, but he wasn’t. He was a man of his time, the way so many other people were,” Pirkle said.

Other places

In addition to Forsyth County, two other places in the state are named in honor of Forsyth.

“There are actually three entities named after him that I’m aware of,” Pirkle said. “One is Forsyth County, one is the city of Forsyth [in middle Georgia] and one is Forsyth Park in Savannah.”

Convoluted career

John Forsyth had a long political career at both the state and federal level, though it typically wasn’t as simple as just moving from one job to the next.

Forsyth first served as Attorney General of Georgia from 1802-1811 before going on to a first term in the House of Representatives (1813-1818), a first term in Senate (1818-1819), U.S. Minister to Spain (1819-1823), the House again (18-23-1827), Governor of Georgia (1827-1829), a second Senate term (1829-1834) and Secretary of State (1834-1841).

“His whole career, other than some legal work, was in government service, and at very high levels of government service,” Pirkle said.

An unlikely connection

According to Pirkle, the namesake of Forsyth County was a friend of William Cumming, a War of 1812 hero who the city is thought to be named for.

In Richmond County, Forsyth met “one of his very best friends.”

“They were such good friends that William Cumming entrusted the care of his son to John Forsyth when John Forsyth became the Ambassador to Spain,” Pirkle said. “So, [Cumming’s] son accompanied [Forsyth] to Spain and assisted him when they were negotiating the acquisition of Florida.”