The early history of Oglethorpe County is very similar to that of Wilkes County. The Cherokee and Creek tribes originally inhabited Wilkes County. In 1773, Governor James Wright acquired the land within Wilkes County from Indians in the name of the English Government. In exchange for this parcel of land, the English did not require repayment of the large debts the tribes incurred. The land received from the Indians was, at that time, part of Wilkes County. Although Governor Wright's main objective was to populate the newly acquired lands, the Revolutionary War slightly delayed the settlement of Wilkes County.
Many of the first settlers came from North Carolina and Virginia. These early settlers acquired land through two methods. First, the Land Act of 1777 created the "head-right" system that allowed the head of the family to select up to 200 acres of unoccupied land for himself and 50 acres for each family member and slave. Second, those who were loyal during the Revolutionary War or served in the military were given "bounty" land as a method of land disbursement. By 1808, property was also being distributed through land lotteries.
The rich lands and properties surrounding the Broad River were the first areas settled. In the 1780s, Colonel George Mathews (twice appointed Governor of Georgia) led a migration of settlers from Virginia into the Goose Pond/Broad River area of what was then Wilkes County. The families who settled this rich, new territory mainly consisted of tobacco farmers. Prominent families, such as the Meriwethers, Gilmers, Johnsons, Jordans, Marks, and McGehees, brought with them the slave plantation system that quickly thrived. These families also brought their own cultural traditions once practiced in Virginia. The fertile lands and southern climate proved conducive to tobacco and cotton production. The plantation system and the planted crops soon flourished. Despite the widespread growth of tobacco and cotton, most of the plantations were self-sufficient; capable of providing copious amounts of food and raw materials.
In order to accommodate population growth, Oglethorpe County was created from a portion of Wilkes County in 1793. Oglethorpe County, the 19th county in Georgia, was named in honor of James Edward Oglethorpe, founder of the colony of Georgia and the state's first governor. Shortly after the county's creation, the legislature began to plan the county. The county seat was established in Lexington and lands were also reserved for public buildings. The construction of a jail and courthouse were planned and town lots sold.
Oglethorpe County was formed by a series of land transactions. A part of Greene County was added to Oglethorpe County in 1794. Parts of Oglethorpe County were added to Greene County in exchange for parts of Greene in 1799. In 1811, parts of Oglethorpe County were given to Madison County. In 1813, a portion of land was taken from Clarke. In 1825, a part of Oglethorpe County was given to Taliaferro County and in 1831 another part was added to Madison County. In 1906, Winterville residents voted to become part of Clarke County--a right granted by the state legislature in 1906.