The history of Atlanta can be separated into three phases. The earliest dates back to the Muskogee (Creek) and Cherokee tribes of the mound-building Mississippian culture.
Next came what we’ll call the pioneer era, when European settlers clashed with natives, a conflict that led to one of the darker chapters in American history — the Trail of Tears, the 1830s displacement of tribes to the Lower Midwestern territories.
Then there is modern Atlanta, when people like my great-grandparents moved north of Atlanta in the 1920s to escape the city and the burdensome taxes that came with it.
All three of these periods intersect near the confluence of Roswell and Powers Ferry roads in Buckhead. As far back as 1812, on land belonging to the Muscogee, early settlers met in the woods and offered prayers to God. This was the beginning of what could be the oldest continuous congregation in Buckhead, if not Atlanta: Sardis Church.
For a little historic perspective, in 1812 the diminutive French Gen. Napoleon Bonaparte was leading his army in a near-total takeover of Europe. The United States declared war on Great Britain for a second time, in what came to be known as the War of 1812. And in English ballrooms, the waltz was just being introduced.
There was no Powers Ferry Road back then, of course, and no actual records to indicate the church dated back that far. Part of the problem, and an issue for all of Atlanta, resides in the fact the DeKalb County Courthouse burned in 1842, destroying all public records (at the time the area was part of DeKalb). As a result, the 1812 date is known only through oral history.
The first real evidence of the church and the history of the land on which it sits is the purchase of Land Lot 97 in 1821, by Joel Neal. According to the church, both a cemetery and the church were on the site at that time. Then came the DeKalb courthouse fire. The next record of the land is the 1848 sale, by Henry Irby and Ransom Gaines, of 2 acres to the trustees of Methodist Episcopal Church for $5. We can only wonder how much history was lost between 1821 and 1848.
To walk among the tombstones in the angular cemetery beside the church is to walk through Buckhead’s early history.
There is Napoleon Cheshire, the son of Ezekiel Cheshire, whose farm gave rise to Cheshire Bridge Road. There is the obelisk marking the final resting place of Henry Irby, the general store and tavern owner whose name is synonymous with Buckhead history. Also here is the grave of Wesley Gray Collier, a settler whose land holdings largely became modern Buckhead. The many, many more include Howells, Roladers and Mathiesons.
When you stand in the graveyard and look at the hilltop church, the skyscrapers of Buckhead are visible in the distance. The church itself is 89 years old. It was completed in 1927, around the time Atlantans began to realize the growing settlement just north of the city offered more space and less taxation.
In 2012, Sardis Church and Cemetery were added to the National Register of Historic Places, with an assist from the Buckhead Heritage Society. Yet its place in Atlanta and Buckhead history exceeds even that lofty distinction.