Jasper and Newton

I got an inquiry recently from reader "Aaron O." I took immediate interest because he sparked my Wolf Island visit during the Riverboat Adventure the last time we corresponded. He was a county counter like many of us on 12MC including myself, and he’d encountered a curious coincidence during his collections.

Jasper County bordered Newton County in Texas. Fine, nothing special there. This year he concentrated on Mississippi though, and once again he noticed a Jasper County bordered on a Newton County. Consulting a map, he observed that Texas, Mississippi, Georgia, Indiana and Missouri each had a Jasper County and a Newton County that shared a common border. Building on Aaron’s efforts, I began my research and saw that two states, Illinois and Iowa, also had a Jasper County (with no corresponding Newton County) that located their local seat of government in a town named Newton. What was going on?

I’d never noticed the pattern before and I didn’t understand the connection although it happened too frequently to be left to chance. However, the nexus would have been obvious to someone living in the United States two centuries ago. Jasper and Newton referred to Sergeants William Jasper and John Newton, as I found through additional Internet sleuthing, historical figures from the American Revolutionary War.(¹) Jasper was genuinely valiant. Newton was a nobody, elevated in stature through creative fiction that included the alleged connection between the two men.

William Jasper

Fort Moultrie. A poor quality video I took a few years ago

It was still early during the American Revolution when Colonel William Moultrie hastily constructed and never quite completed an earthen fort reinforced with palmetto logs on Sullivan’s Island to protect the harbor at Charleston, South Carolina (map). British warships attacked his positions in June 1776. Palmetto, as it occurred, served as an excellent defensive material. The spongy wood and sandy soil absorbed the impact of incoming cannonballs and deflected them harmlessly with minimal effect on the fortification walls. Meanwhile American artillery returned fire, pounding and damaging the British fleet. British forces retreated after a full day of futile bombardment and wouldn’t return to Charleston for another four years.

On the official flag of South Carolina, "The palmetto tree symbolized Colonel Moultrie’s heroic defense of the palmetto-log fort on Sullivan’s Island against the attack of the British fleet…"

The Palmetto State
The Palmetto State by Wendy, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) license

William Jasper served under Col. Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island as part of the defensive forces preventing a British invasion. The Americans raised their flag, the "Moultrie Flag" — essentially the current South Carolina flag minus the palmetto tree — above a parapet and the battle commenced. A British shell shattered the flagstaff during the fight, knocking the Moultrie Flag to the ground. Jasper grabbed the flag, attached it to a makeshift flagstaff, climbed atop a parapet and held it in place. His actions became a rallying point for American defenders during the siege and his bravery became well-known afterwards.

Jasper Monument
Jasper Monument by Dizzy Girl, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) license

Jasper tried a similar feat at the siege of Savannah, Georgia in 1779. Once more he found himself in a position to race to the top of a parapet and affix a flag. This time, however, he was shot and killed although not before he finish his task. This cemented his legacy, he became a revered hero with numerous posthumous honors, a statue was erected in Savannah, and all eight Jasper Counties in the United States were named for him.

John Newton and the William Jasper Connection

John Newton benefited from a largely-fictionalized revisionist history courtesy of Parson Mason Locke Weems. Parson Weems wrote highly romanticized accounts of early American history at the beginning of 19th Century. Modern standards would probably characterize this genre as "historical fiction" although back then it was simply history and presented as such. He’d listened to or concocted fanciful tales and presented them as fact. Most famously, it included the allegorical account of George Washington and the cherry tree which he claimed he’d heard from an elderly woman who said she was a distant Washington cousin.(²)

Weems wrote immensely popular and influential "biographies" of Washington and other leading historical figures such as Benjamin Franklin, William Penn, and more importantly to this account, Francis Marion. General Francis Marion, the "Swamp Fox" served originally under Moultrie at Sullivan’s Island, then at the Siege of Savannah and later as the leader of an unconventional force that bedeviled British troops throughout South Carolina. He is often credited with being instrumental to the development of modern guerrilla warfare.

What Weems did for Washington, he also did for Marion. Chapter VI of "The life of General Francis Marion, a celebrated partisan officer" presented an account of Jasper and Newton.

Jasper and Newton Rescue
Sergeants Jasper and Newton Rescuing American Prisoners from the British
by John Blake White (1781 – 1859)
United States Senate Collection

In this story, William Jasper had a loyalist brother who served in the British army at the Ebenezer garrison (map), near Savannah. Jasper would secretly visit his brother undetected for days at a time then report his findings back to the Americans. He brought John Newton along on his final trip behind enemy lines. While at the British garrison, they spotted the arrival a group of American prisoners captured in Savannah who were destined for execution, included a young woman and her child. British troops later marched the group away from the garrison presumably to be hanged. Jasper and Newton waited at a nearby spring where they supposed the group would relax before completing their march. They caught the resting guards by surprise, overpowered them, and released the prisoners, which they then led back across the Savannah River to freedom.

The heroic story struck a chord with American audiences.

Go ahead and read the original story. It won’t take more than a few minutes and it will provide an good indication of Weems’ fanciful, over-the-top style. I dare you to read it without rolling your eyes.

Too bad it wasn’t true. No similar account ever made it into written records on either side of the conflict at the time. Jasper was already revered for his bravery so it seemed unlikely that his peers wouldn’t have noticed him slipping behind enemy lines and returning with freed prisoners. Weems either heard an after-the-fact friend-of-a-friend tale like the Washington cherry tree story or he made it up on his own.

Nonetheless, the story linked Jasper to Newton inextricably in the American psyche during the first half of the 19th Century. Weems’ publications were so influential that fiction became fact. This coincided with a rapid expansion of the U.S. population and ongoing formation of county structures. Although Weems is largely forgotten today, his sway was great enough that it influenced several states to create both a Jasper County and a Newton County adjacent to each other.

(¹) Newton County, Mississippi claimed that it was named for Sir Isaac Newton. While I don’t have evidence, I suspect it was named originally for John Newton like all of the others and it was changed at a later date. This would be similar to King County, Washington named originally for William Rufus King and later changed to Martin Luther King, Jr.
(²) This tale is widely known to anyone raised in the United States. I doubt the same folklore applies elsewhere so I’ll briefly summarize. George Washington as a small child, according to Weems, received a hatchet as a gift and started chopping on various objects like any small child would want to do. This included his father’s prized cherry tree. When confronted he was alleged to respond, "I can’t tell a lie, Pa; you know I can’t tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet." Weems used this as an object lesson to convey Washington’s moral fiber, that even when wrong he would confess his mistakes and deal with the consequences rather than deceive or hide the truth. My father, the king of bad puns used to tell a joke that I’ll presume was popular in the 1940’s, with the punchline "I cannot tell a lie. Popeye did it."

The Chunk That Got Away

Social Circle, Georgia would seem to hit all of the highpoints necessary for coverage on Twelve Mile Circle. It has an odd name (Social Circle?). It has the word "circle" in its title just like the humble 12MC itself. It is one of those unusual Georgia towns with an actual circular shape, with a radius of two miles (3.2 km) in this instance. It’s a geo-oddity trifecta. And yet… and yet… those don’t come close to being the most remarkable recent feature of the ever-fascinating Social Circle.

View Larger Map

Let’s deal with the name so we can sweep that aside and focus on the good stuff. Nobody really knows why Social Circle came to be known as Social Circle. The State of Georgia said basically the same thing although with a few more words and a bit more tactfully:

Incorporated as a city in 1904, Social Circle offers two possibilities for its naming. One local legend has it that a traveler, much impressed by the townspeople’s kindness, remarked in passing, “This sure is a social circle?!” Another, less colorful, version of the tale has it that a new resident proposed his old village’s name.

The USGS Geographic Names Information System (GNIS) lists only a single populated place called Social Circle — this one in Georgia — so let’s assume a previously-named village no longer exists or the current one was indeed filled with bands of friendly people a century ago. No matter. Let’s move along and take a look at the shape of Social Circle today.

View Social Circle Annex in a larger map

The map displays some complexity so let me walk through it.

  • Social Circle, as it largely exists today (2012), is the blue-shaded area.
  • The heavy black line is the Walton County boundary. Walton County is north of the line. Newton County is southwest and Morgan County is southeast. All but a small chunk of Social Circle falls within Walton County.
  • The area that caused the big fight is approximated by the light green space. I’m not sure those are the exact boundaries although they should cover most of it.

Each of these features will figure into the story which I stumbled across quite by accident. I noticed the Social Circle map posted on the city website differed from Google Maps. Essentially Google included a dangling appendage hanging towards the southeast. It turned out that the city posted an outdated map. If one drilled-down further into their website the dangling appendage appeared on their accurate 2011 zoning map.

I started searching for "Social Circle annexation" and similar phrases to see if I could find an explanation. I uncovered mounds of information although it was all amazingly convoluted. It took me awhile to figure out that the dispute centered on the light-green area, not the dangle. I still don’t know how the dangle came into existence other than Social Circle apparently annexed the area and nobody complained which is remarkable as you’ll learn if you keep reading.

Social Circle based its ongoing viability on moving its border continuously southward towards Interstate 20, with Route 11 as a gateway, like its own miniature Manifest Destiny. The town began to annex rather aggressively in that direction starting right around 2006. This generated a tremendous amount of local news coverage, with a nice timeline summary published in the Newton Citizen in a two-part article, on March, 24, 2010 and March 25, 2010. Here’s what happened as best as I could piece the facts together:

  • Several land owners requested that 1,200 acres in Newton County (the other side of the black line on the map) be annexed into Social Circle in 2006. Upon annexation the land would then be zoned for a mixed-use business park.
  • Newton County objected to the incursion, mediation failed to provide a solution and Newton County sued Social Circle.
  • There were errors in the annexation so Social Circle repealed it in March 2008 and the lawsuit dropped.
  • One of the land owners requested annexation again in July 2008. He wanted to build a motorsports complex with a drag strip. The other landowners joined the request in 2009.
  • Social Circle expanded again.
  • The thought of a motorsports complex and a drag strip upset a lot of local residents who opposed the new annexation. Newton County wasn’t thrilled either.
  • Social Circle de-annexed the properties again in May 2010 in the face of fierce opposition. Once more there was a technical flaw (a one-acre parcel was left out of the description).
  • Drag racing dreams were crushed.

Meanwhile, state legislators representing Newton and other nearby counties managed to shepherd a number of bills into law to restrict towns from annexing land on the other side of a county line. As noted in the Morgan County Citizen,

The genesis of House Bill 2 is in the annexation several years ago of some 1,150 acres of Newton County land by the City of Social Circle. Social Circle, which is in Walton County, faced significant objections from unincorporated residents, and subsequently went through several non-binding mediation exercises. Ultimately, however, current law placed few stumbling blocks in the way of incorporation… The new law may at least slow down land speculators who purchase land, push annexations through a municipality, then sell the land for an elevated price.

The city attempted to annex a completely different property in April 2012. That fell through too for (wait for it…) technical reasons.

Someone must be trying to tell them something.