The area now known as Sylvania, Georgia, was inhabited for thousands of years by various cultures of indigenous peoples. By the time Europeans arrived in Georgia, historic tribes included Iroquoian-speaking Cherokee, as well as Siouan-speaking tribes.
The European-American town of Sylvania was founded in 1790 by settlers' migrating to the area after the American Revolutionary War. The name, derived from the Latin word for forest or "a place in the woods," was suggested by Screven County poet Cuyler Young.
Tourists travel from all over the nation to visit the city's Brier Creek Battle Site, a famous battle site of the Revolutionary War. The Battle of Brier Creek was an American Revolutionary War battle fought on March 3, 1779, near the confluence of Brier Creek with the Savannah River near Sylvania. A Patriot force consisting principally of militia from North Carolina and Georgia was surprised, suffering significant casualties. The battle occurred only a few weeks after a resounding American Patriot victory over the British at Kettle Creek, north of Augusta, reversing its effect on morale.
Cotton played a major role in Sylvania's history following Eli Whitney's invention of the cotton gin in 1793. The flat fields and rich, fertile soil were perfect for growing cotton then and now. In 2010 more than 30,000 acres were planted in cotton here.
By 1830 the county was filled with people. The county seat was moved to Sylvania from its former location at Jacksonborough in 1847 by an act of the state legislature. Land was purchased from Charles Church for $1 per acre, and a courthouse and jail were built at the new location. Sylvania was incorporated in 1854.
Surveyor Azariah Enneis created a spacious symmetrical city plan with variable sized lots, a design which survives intact in modern Sylvania. Enneis chose the site at the center of the county near the highest elevation. This foresight and design serves the county and city to this day.
During Union general William T. Sherman's march to the sea, the cavalry of Judson Kilpatrick, another Union general, passed through Sylvania in December 1864. Despite local legend that the county courthouse was burned at that time, there is no evidence to support the story, and a prominent Screven County resident and historian has discounted the claim. It is likely the courthouse survived until a fire in 1897. Two bronze 12-pound Napoleon guns, or cannons, of Civil War (1861-65) vintage now stand in the town square as a reminder of that conflict.
A massive fire devastated most of the wooden commercial structures surrounding Sylvania's square in about three hours on the night of Jan. 8, 1897. Many private residences were also burned. Although the courthouse was consumed by the flames, county records were saved in a nearby brick annex that had only recently been built for storage. A new courthouse was erected that same year by builder Algernon Blair and stood until 1963. Modern Sylvania's downtown is the home of masonry buildings that reflect the small-town architecture of the 1920s and 1930s.