Actual Factual Georgia

Q: I’ve always assumed Snellville was named for a person, but never looked it up. Who or what is the source of the name of that city?

A: Snellville's English roots took a different path after a collection of 120-year-old letters showed up three years ago.

Here’s some background.

Thomas Snell, an English lad wanted to go to the United States with his buddy James Sawyer in the 1870s. The plan hit an obstacle when Snell’s parents wouldn’t let him go.

This wasn’t just running down the block to pick up a donut from QT.

Snell and Sawyer, who were still in their teens, were from London, so going to the United States in those days meant a long journey.

Sawyer and his brother started their trip in 1874, but Snell stayed home.

He eventually left and met up with the brothers in Georgia, where he and James built a business named Snell and Sawyer’s Store.

The area was undeveloped, but they quickly became successful.

Some say the community was called New London at that time, but historians don’t agree.

Snell and Sawyer were competitive, but Snell obviously was the dominant personality of the pair, said Jim Cofer, president of the Snellville Historical Society.

Here’s where new evidence changed history.

It was thought the town became Snellville after the postmaster visited to establish a mail outpost and – since Sawyer was out of town – Snell chose the name.

But that story fell apart when a lawyer in Wisconsin found about 130 letters that Snell wrote to his mother in England in the late 1800s. Snell’s sister kept the letters and, when she died, they went to a relative in the United States, where the letters remained undiscovered until 2012.

“In the letters, he was writing to his mother in London,” Cofer said. “But several of the letters were on letterhead for the store, listed Snellville as the location and were dated five years before the post office opened.”

Snell and Sawyer split up in 1884, and the latter started a competing store. They parted as friends, Snell told his mother in one of the letters, which also show what it was like for an adventurous young man making his way in post-Civil War Georgia.

“In early letters, Snell was very unhappy,” said Cofer, who is writing a book about the city. “He didn’t like the heat, hard work, low pay and all the talk about the Civil War. He thought people were unsophisticated.”

Makes you wonder if his mom didn’t tell Thomas, “I told you so.”

Snell died in 1896, after surgery to remove an abdominal tumor when he was only 39, but Sawyer lived until 1948, dying when he was 91.

Descendants of Snell’s sister, Charity, still live in the city that bears their name. Snellville was incorporated in 1923, with Snell’s nephew serving as first mayor.

“We may never know why Snell and Sawyer split up or exactly why they called the town Snellville,” Cofer said.