The mystery behind naming of our county is a tale of two Fultons.
There is Robert, and there is Hamilton.
The trouble is history does not record for which one the county is named. It has been debated ad nauseam with no clear winner.
Robert Fulton is famous, like, known-around-the-world-famous. Hamilton Fulton is less so.
And neither is from the area that is today Fulton County, though Hamilton played a significant role in its creation. From here on out — and against my editor’s wishes — I am going to use their first names, otherwise it would be too confusing. Bear with me.
Robert Fulton was an inventor, an engineer and a painter. Born in 1765 in rural Pennsylvania, he created the first commercial steam boat, The North River Steamboat, also known as the Clermont, in the late 18th century. This was at a time when canals and rivers connected cities and communities. He also designed the first working submarine, the Nautilus, while living in France, and the first steam-powered warship, which was used in the War of 1812. He died in 1815, and was known the world over for his inventions.
Hamilton Fulton was born and raised in Scotland, and was recruited by Georgia to become the state engineer. This was around the same time Robert was wowing the world with his steam engines. Hamilton came to Georgia to create practical improvements in navigation, including the development of canals. He lived from 1780 to 1834.
And here the stories of the two Fultons collide.
In 1826, Hamilton and future Georgia Gov. Wilson Lumpkin surveyed a route to connect the Tennessee River to the Chattahoochee River, originally conceived as a canal, according to noted Atlanta historian Franklin Garrett in “Atlanta and Environs.”
While the canal was never built, this survey left an indelible mark on Georgia and the Southeastern United States. Hamilton left the service of the state in 1828, and returned to Great Britain shortly after, where he lived out the remainder of his days.
In 1837, when Georgia sought to build the Western & Atlantic Railroad “from some point on the Tennessee line near the Tennessee River … in the most direct practicable route to some point on the southeastern bank of the Chattahoochee River and which shall be most eligible for the establishment of branch railroad then to Athens, Madison, Milledgeville, Forsyth, and Columbus …” the state dusted off the 11-year-old survey.
The route of the new railroad would follow the path laid out by Hamilton.
That decision forever altered that point on the southeastern bank of the Chattahoochee River, which would become Terminus, then Marthasville (so named for Lumpkin’s daughter) and then Atlanta.
By 1853, Atlanta’s population had grown to 6,000, making it larger than Decatur, which served as the seat of DeKalb County. Atlanta was in DeKalb at the time.
The Atlanta City Council passed a resolution to create a new county. It was taken up by the state Legislature and passed, but weirdly the name of the county was blank in the approved motion. DeKalb State Sen. John Collier amended the motion to include the name “Fulton.” Dec. 20, 1853, the bill creating Fulton County was signed into law.
Many, including the newspaper the Times and Sentinel of Columbus, said at the time the name Fulton was in honor of the great inventor, Robert Fulton. Even the historian Garrett, wrestling with the challenge, comes to the same conclusion.
“The present writer leaned to the Hamilton Fulton theory and was anxious to prove it.” But he concludes, “… an historian cannot fly in the face of contemporary evidence.”
I am not under such pressures. I am but a humble columnist, with my own ideas and opinions that are openly reflected on this page week in and week out.
Therefore, it is my opinion the county was named for Hamilton Fulton. While it is possible by 1853 his contribution to the state may have been lost to history, it makes for a much better story. Certainly his contribution to our county and our city is worthy of such an honor.