The region comprising Clayton County was first settled in 1821, as a result of the Treaty of Indian Springs, in which the Creek Indians ceded a vast portion of their domain to the State of Georgia. Counties were promptly laid off, and settlers immediately began to arrive from older parts of Georgia and Southern coastal states. Clayton County was created in 1858 from portions of Henry and Fayette, and was named for Augustin S. Clayton, a distinguished judge of Western Circuit of Georgia. Jonesboro was designated the County Seat.
The history of Jonesboro as a settlement goes back to the early days of the arrival of settlers to upper middle Georgia. The town was originally called Leaksville, and records show that as early as 1823, the State of Georgia granted a charter for the Leaksville Academy, in what was then Fayette County. In 1825, the Flint River Baptist Church was constituted and erected on a hill above Hynds Spring, near the present Jonesboro High School. From these origins, Leaksville developed as a small rural community.
In 1836, there began a series of events which would have a great influence on the growth and prosperity of this country village, for in that year, the Monroe Railroad and Banking Company was organized in Macon, Georgia. A course was surveyed from Macon to a point just below the Chattahoochee River, where the city of Atlanta soon grew up, and construction of the railroad began. The tracks reached Leaksville in 1843, but a financial depression which began in that year caused a delay in construction, and resulted in the bankruptcy of the Monroe Railroad in 1844. The following year marked the organization of the Macon and Western Railroad Company. In 1846, the railroad was completed to Atlanta and regular rail service was established between there and Macon.
One of the civil engineers who planned this portion of the railroad was Colonel Samuel Goode Jones. Apparently he took an interest in the future growth of Leaksville, and applied his engineering skills to the laying out of new streets in the village. Numbers were applied to sections and lots. About 1845, the local citizens expressed their gratitude by renaming the village Jonesborough (later renamed Jonesboro), after Colonel Jones. New business came into the town and there was a steady period of growth until the outbreak of war in 1861.
Jonesboro was incorporated as a town in 1859, by which time it was the center of a prosperous community. In 1860, its assets included several substantial brick business houses, a new Baptist Church representing the classical style of architecture, and a brick courthouse which was then under construction. in November, 1869, the Clayton County Superior Court made the following observations: “we can state with pleasure that society in Jonesboro and its vicinity are much improving. This to a considerable extent is attributed to a rigorous enforcement of our incorporation laws; we are proud also to say that we have one of the most flourishing high schools in the State of Georgia under the guidance of our efficient teachers whose services have been procured for the next year.”
At this time, Jonesboro contained within its corporate limits two churches, the Baptist and the Methodist. Philadelphia Presbyterian Church was erected several miles north of Jonesboro in 1825, and served the town as well as the countryside. Members of other denominations attended services in Atlanta, which in 1860, was twenty miles away.
Because of the railroad, Jonesboro was a commercial center serving Fayette and Henry Counties as well as Clayton. On market days, its streets and loading docks were the scene of much activity, and during autumn, counties bales of cotton lined the railroad near the depot, waiting shipment to other points. Aside from its prosperous business activity, Jonesboro in 1860 boasted several private residences which were large and imposing. Surrounding the town were the farms and plantations which formed the backbone of local economy.
When the War between the States began in 1861, Clayton County met the severe demands of the times. Local cavalry and infantry units were organized, and citizen-soldiers drilled for war behind the courthouse in Jonesboro, before departing for Virginia battlefields. In 1864, the war came home. Throughout the spring and summer of that year, bitter battles were fought in a line from Chattanooga to Atlanta. The climax of months of fighting, thousands of deaths, and untold destruction of property was reached at Jonesboro during the two days of August 31st and September 1st, 1864.
The Battle of Jonesboro was the most crucial engagement of the Georgia Campaign, and therefore, one of the most important battles of the entire war, for it directly resulted in the fall of Atlanta. Atlanta had become the Confederacy’s most important center of ammunitions and war supplies, and its capture was the objective of the campaign. Primarily through a tragedy of errors on the part of the Confederate High Command, the Battle of Jonesboro was lost, and as its final shots were being exchanged, Atlanta was evacuated.
After the war’s end in 1865, Jonesboro began the task of rebuilding. The courthouse, depot and other buildings were destroyed during the war, and the town bore many scars of battle. The so-called “Reconstruction Era” did much to hinder local progress, and the decade following the war was marked by much turmoil and confusion. Nevertheless, Jonesboro emerged from the 1870’s with indications of returning prosperity, and the decade of the 1880’s saw this realized in an increasingly stabilized business and agricultural economy.
The importance of education had always been recognized by Jonesboro’s citizens, and from the time of the first local academy in 1823, Jonesboro had always made provisions for the schooling of its youth. During the war, the programs of civilization had been severely disrupted, but immediately after the war, classes at the academy resumed. Soon it became apparent that educational opportunities should be expanded in Jonesboro. In 1880, a group of the town’s leading citizens organized as trustees, and founded the Middle Georgia College. This institution played a vital role in the community for nearly thirty years, and from it emerged the present Jonesboro High School. Middle Georgia College was a private school, teaching young people of all ages. The Collegiate Division was similar to the junior colleges of today, and placed great emphasis upon proper conduct and gentle manners as well as upon scholastic excellence. Pupils in the Collegiate Division wars drawn out only from Jonesboro, but from other communities across the state as well. After the turn of the present century, an effort was made to establish the Middle Georgia Military Academy as a branch of the college, but after a few years, this was given up.
By the second decade of the 20th century, Jonesboro had begun to suffer a decline similar to that experienced by nearly all the smaller towns surrounding Atlanta. The improvement of transportation facilities, popularity of the automobile, and loss of young people to larger cities, combined to take a great toll on the town and its development. Then came the depression of the 1920’s, and this had as devastating an effect upon Jonesboro as upon all of Georgia and the South. Recent years have brought a new prosperity, and Jonesboro is now distinguished by a spirit of new growth.
Jonesboro received international attention in 1936, with the publication of Margaret Mitchell’s novel, Gone with the Wind. Numerous scenes of this book were set in Clayton County. The characters and their homes were products of the author’s imagination, and only their inspirational prototypes may be found in the county today.
Despite the phenomenal growth of recent years, and the encroachment of Atlanta upon its borders, Jonesboro has managed to retain its own individual character. This character has been found through almost one hundred and fifty years of the town’s colorful history, and this is its greatest asset for the future. New residents have joined with the old families to work for the town’s advancement, and it is the hope of all that Jonesboro may continue into the future as the center of a cultivated and intelligent community of people.