Times were changing. The early republic of the Founding Fathers had given way to Jacksonian America. Manifest Destiny made its rhetorical rounds, and the bitter divide over slavery was steadily tearing the Union apart.
Closer to home, land was being partitioned from Paulding and Floyd Counties to form Polk County, named for then-president James Knox Polk. Asa Prior sold the county authorities a tract worth $1,200 and an additional 19 acres and the rights to Big Spring to the city. The land in the city center and much of the western end of the county became Prior’s following his move from Morgan County years before. He found success through his blacksmithing trade and land speculation, and he and his wife, Sarah “Sally” Witcher Prior, constructed two homes, one of which still stands as Gammage Funeral Home. The Prior family had some 117 slaves and 31 slave cabins, the largest single holding of slaves in the county, according to Gordon D. Sargent’s “Polk County, Georgia.” Prior was one of three men named by the Georgia General Assembly as a commissioner of the Cedar Valley branch of the Western Bank of Georgia in 1836 and as a Trustee of the Cedar Valley Academy in 1842.
But now he’d decided to leave Georgia behind. What was an ambitious man such as Asa Prior to do? What became of this founding figure of Cedartown?
Richard Ferguson of Anniston, Ala., a great-great-great-grandson of Prior, has spent over 33 years searching for answers to those questions, accumulating copies of deeds, maps, letters, Prior’s will and photos of his property, as well as mapping an extensive family tree. Ferguson’s research, along with information available in books and online, renders a faint picture of Asa Prior’s last days.
In 1845, a few years before Prior’s departure from Georgia in the early 1850s, President Polk attempted and failed to purchase the lands of Alta California and Santa Fe de Nueva México from Mexican President Antonio López de Santa Anna. Polk then ordered Gen. Zachary Taylor to the Nueces Strip, a disputed area in southern Texas between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande. The next month, April 1846, the Mexican-American War began in earnest, ending only after years of bloodshed and the southward march of American troops all the way to Mexico City. With the Treaty of Guadelupe Hidalgo, Mexico ceded Alta California and the western portion of Santa Fe de Nueva México and recognized Texas as part of the United States.
Prior’s eyes turned westward with the nation’s as he aged. One of his 14 children, Andrew Jackson Prior, left Georgia for the young state of Texas, settling in Rusk County. Prior followed, purchasing a league and a labor of Texas Redlands in neighboring Sabine County from John and Winny Horton for $4,000 in gold. Prior’s league and a labor, the latter pronounced “lah-bór” owing to its roots in the Spanish empire, was a common demarcation of land. Labors were plots of 177 acres granted for farming. According to the Texas State Historical Association, the league, also called a sitio from the Spanish sitio de ganado mayor, was used in Spanish Texas to designate “land set aside for specific purposes” and was the equivalent of 4,338 acres. As his descendant William Haden Prior would tell it in the Aug. 13, 1910, edition of Morgan County’s The Weekly Madisonian, Asa Prior went to “buy enough land to make a county and call it Prior County.”
Prior’s western dreams were not to be, however. Ferguson provided the text of a letter from Mary “Mollie” Prior Murchison, the granddaughter of Asa Prior through his son, Dr. William H.C. Prior. Murchison was living in Farmersville, Texas, and writing to her relative, Eugenia Veasey Layne, of Owlet Green, Texas, a small community in Van Zandt County. In the letter, Asa’s granddaughter (Mollie) says she was told that Asa deeded his land (in Georgia) to his children and wanted to go to Texas “to build another fortune for his grandchildren, as he knew his children would not keep what he had given them. Two of Asa’s deaf-mute children, Ephraim and Middleton, went to Texas with him,” Ferguson said. The letter provides evidence that some of the slaves not granted to the children in Prior’s will accompanied him, including a man named Anthony. “Part of Mollie’s letter was a copy of one written by a friend of Asa’s in Texas who was also from Cedartown,” Ferguson said.
That friend would be the last to see Prior alive. He wrote, “At the time of Mr. Prior’s last sickness, I was at New Orleans. He was very much neglected at home, and sent his man Anthony to my house to remain until I returned to tell me to come to him. Within the hour after I arrived I was on my way to his house. It was midnight when I got there. He was delirious, but in the morning he knew me and told me that Ephraim and Middleton and all the Negroes but Anthony were letting him die so they could go back to Georgia. He had sent for me to take him to my house, where he could get cool water and have good care. I put a mattress in his spring wagon, put him in and carried him to my home. He lived ten days and died in my arms. I buried him under a large oak tree just off the public square at Milldam about the edge of my place.”
According to Weldon McDaniel of the Sabine County History Center, the “Milldam” referred to at the end of the letter is likely the town of Milam in Sabine County. “The town was named for Benjamin Rush Milam and was the seat of government for Sabine County until 1858,” McDaniel said. “I believe Asa Prior’s descendants sold the land he’d bought before they returned to Georgia.”
The exact location of Prior’s final resting place has been lost, but his name carries on in Cedartown’s Prior Street and Prior Station Road. Two local burial grounds bear his name, one hidden away in a shady spot on Brooks Street in Cedartown, the other far out on Prior Station Road in a cotton field adjoining a weathered farm.