Established 1875. Oconee is an American Indian word for “spring of the hills.” Keowee Town, an important Cherokee settlement, was located within the county. Several Indian mounds have also been discovered at the Keowee site.
Oconee County was created by the legislative act of 1875. It was included in the territory ceded by the Cherokee Indians to the State of Georgia and part of the territory established as Clarke County in 1801, out of Jackson County. The County seat for Clarke County was Watkinsville and was changed to Athens in 1871 resulting in the creation of Oconee County and the re-establishment of Watkinsville as the County seat in 1875. The name “Oconee” was taken from the Cherokee name of the river which forms the County’s eastern boundary. Robert Watkins, an attorney from Augusta, is thought to be the namesake of Watkinsville.
Watkinsville’s livelihood in the early nineteenth century came not only from being a courthouse town, where everyone had to come for certain life necessities such as marriages, deaths, taxes, jury duty, filing deed and public services, but it was also a hub for agricultural trade where cotton farmers and planters brought their produce. Roads from other nearby county seats like Greensboro and Madison converged here and proceeded north to Athens and Gainesville. These roads brought even more travelers and commerce to the town.
By 1849, Watkinsville hosted the courthouse and the jail, two churches, schools, taverns, stores, three groceries, one billiard room, one carpenter, one tailor, two blacksmiths, two tanyards, two wagon makers, one saddler, two shoe shops, two lawyers, one doctor, and one minister – all with a population of 240 people.
The Courthouse (across from the Eagle Tavern) was built in 1802, in Watkinsville. Watkinsville was the county seat for Clarke County, which was carved out of Jackson County. The county seat is typically the largest county town, but in the case of Athens and Watkinsville, the former outgrew the latter in population. By the 1840’s and 1850’s there was a clamor for Athens to be the county seat, but it was not until 1875 that Clarke County was divided into Clarke and Oconee. Watkinsville became the county seat for the newly formed Oconee County.