The county courthouse is the center of this political unit, and in a county of unique stories, perhaps the most unique is the story of the various Walker County Courthouses. Originally the founders used a structure that had been a Cherokee Council House near the Gordon-Lee Mansion in Chickamauga (then Crawfish Springs). When the county seat moved to Lafayette, a second courthouse was completed in 1838. For fifty years this structure survived the elements and a Civil War battle (see below) only to succumb to fire in 1883. The brick building that replaced it was completed the same year. The fourth courthouse, pictured right, was completed in 1918 and stills serves the people of our home.
Walker County was one of the earliest areas settled by whites in Cherokee country. These hardy individuals would head west from North Carolina and arrive at Fort Loudon on the western frontier of the United States (now Tennessee, south of Knoxville). The Tennessee River guided them south to Running Waters, where they would leave the river for one of three settlements in the future county. Many of the Indian paths crossed the Tennessee River here; they led south into the future Walker County.
The names of these early settlers would later become well known because of their deep Cherokee ties. Shorey, McDonald, Rodgers, Lowrey and, of course, Ross, were all names of early settlers in this region. The oldest known structure in the county was begun in 1797 by John McDonald and today is known as the Ross House.
John Ross, for whom the house is named, would be the first popularly-elected leader of Cherokee Nation from its conception until his death in 1866. Ross would ably serve the county as postmaster, owner-operator of a general store, and translator for Indian Agent Return J. Meigs from his home in Poplar Springs, now Rossville, at the northern end of Walker County. He move to Head of Coosa (present-day Rome, Georgia) over a period of several years beginning in the early 1820's.
Created from Cherokee land divided among white settlers during the sixth Georgia Land Lottery (1832), the area was home to many Cherokee Indians. As Georgia moved to bring the Cherokee Nation under its control dissention with Ross's ruling party arose. The roots of the Treaty Party, which would eventually be led by Major Ridge, his son John, Elias Boudinot and others probably begins in the new Walker County prior to 1833. But the lottery sealed the fate of the Cherokee, who would be herded into unsanitary forts and forced to march on The Trail of Tears.
Fort Cumming, a Cherokee Removal Fort was located in LaFayette, on the site of the present-day water plant (Big Spring). Captain Samuel Farriss of the Georgia Guard was in charge and local volunteers augmented members of his unit. In 1915 the Walker County Messenger described the fort:
The stockade was a large enclosure of upright logs; the trenches where the logs were placed can still be plainly seen. There was a rifle tower in each corner after the manner of frontier forts, port holes were formed by sawing flared notches in the logs before they were put in the building.Strangely missing from the detailed physical description of the fort is any mention of the horrors that occurred inside the walls.
Although the very northern end of the county, on the Tennessee border, was highly prized in the land lottery because of its proximity to the Federal Road, the rest of Walker County was not. A lack of adequate roads would keep the county mostly agricultural for the rest of the century.
Carved from Murray County in 1833, Walker County would be divided again, ceding its northwestern corner to create Dade County in 1837. In 1851 portions of eastern Walker and western Murray County would be combined to create Whitfield County in 1851 and Catoosa County in 1853. The agriculture of the county was reflected in the mills of the day, one of which still stands, Gordon-Lee Mill.
In the spring of 1861 war loomed across the nation. For the first two years Walker County would supply the men of the Confederacy with needed rations, but by the end of the second, the War for Southern Independence was knocking on Walker County's front door. Braxton Bragg, who had retreated across much of Tennessee with William Rosecrans in pursuit, stopped at John B. Gordon Hall.
Twice he planned attacks in Walker County including a near miss at tiny Davis Crossroads. The Union Army, advancing as ordered towards Dug Gap ran into stiff resistance east of the town and withdrew to the town itself. Generals T.C. Hindman and Patrick Cleburne, ordered to attack the Federal troops, delay the action for lack of support. Union commander Thomas Negley, warned of an attack, withdrew to Stevens Gap.
The stage is set for Chickamauga (September 19-20th, 1863), the bloodiest two days in American history. More than 36,000 soldiers would become causalities in a battle that neither commander wanted to fight in the dense rolling hills of northern Walker and western Catoosa County.
In June, 1864 Confederate General Gideon Pillow returned to LaFayette, Georgia with 1600 cavalrymen on a mission to destroy bridges in northwest Georgia. He ran into 450 Federal troops under the command of Col. Louis Watkins quartered in the courthouse and adjacent buildings. Outnumbered and near exhaustion, the Federals were rescued by nearby infantry who had been alerted to the situation by an escaped Union picket.
At the end of the war Walker County entered into dark days. A major drought, combined with near anarchy, bore heavily on area farmers. Three distinct groups battled for control of Walker County and to rid themselves of Union loyalists. One group launched an attack on Ringgold, Georgia, which was viewed as being a Unionist stronghold.
Starting in 1868 the county's dependence on cotton as a crop would grow. In the 1880's attention would again return to the county. In an attempt to heal the wounds of war men from both the Union and the Confederacy proposed the creation of a park to commemorate the battle of Chickamauga.
Work began on the Chickamauga National Park which included many of the original participants returning to help correctly place thousands of battlefield markers (both the "Military" and the "Chattanooga" that appear in the name today were added later). Most of the park was completed in time for its dedication in 1893. During hearings on the bill for the creation of the park both senators and representatives encouraged the expansion of the park to include the battles around Chattanooga.
One of the more famous Walker County natives was Gordon Lee. Named for two prominent families, Lee had extensive property holdings throughout the county, lived in the Gordon Lee Mansion and owned Lee and Gordon's Mill. During his service in the House of Representatives in the first quarter of the 20th century, Lee would influence the decisions of four U.S. presidents.
During the early 1930's the county began to pave roads. The LaFayette-Chattanooga Road to Lee and Gordon's Mill was the first highway created in the program. A CCC camp was located in The Pocket and did most of the original improvements to the area.
In 1997 the county played host to the Fred Tokars trial. Tokars, tried for the contract murder of his wife, was eventually convicted. The influx of reporters filled local motels and put a strain on the aging electrical system of the courthouse.