Report of Ellicott Research Project
Roger Woodfill, LS

Like most surveyors, I enjoy history and see its value in my everyday work. Normally, I do not spend much time pondering the comings and goings of the armies and explorers who carved out this country of ours, but sometimes the magnitude of some people and events stands up and slaps you in the face. At a survey retracement workshop recently, for instance, the discussion turned to happenings and circumstances long ago that affected vast areas of the country, yet came very close to home. It prompted me to do a little more research, and to realize once again how important an understanding of history is to our profession.

Colonized by British, French and Spanish

Long before there was a United States of America, the North American continent was colonized largely by the British, French and Spanish who often fought each other. My story starts with the war that ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1763. Although most European histories call it the Seven Year War, we call it the French and Indian War.

During the treaty negotiations, France ceded to the British all its claims east of the Mississippi River from the river’s source to the mouth of the river at Iberville (about 30 degrees 20 minutes north latitude and near Baton Rouge); and then easterly through Lake Maurepas and Lake Pontchartrain to the Gulf of Mexico. Spain had also been involved with that war. In order to pay some debts, France was allowed to cede to Spain the area called Louisiana (French claims west of the Mississippi and the trading center, New Orleans). Spain transferred its claims in East Florida and West Florida to the British in exchange for the English claims around Havana. King George III of England also had some British debts for the Seven Year War to settle, and soon taxation in the British colonies around the world increased. The increase ostensibly led to the American Revolutionary War.

Since I was raised north of the Ohio River, I did not realize that the Spanish governor of Louisiana re-captured West Florida from the British in 1781. In fact, the Spanish claimed by this conquest east of the Mississippi River to Georgia, and north of the Gulf of Mexico to the latitude 32º 28' (the mouth of the Yazoo River, approximately at Vicksburg, Mississippi) at the end of our Revolutionary War. The British had acquiesced to this more northerly line primarily because they did not want to deal with various Indian problems in the area, and because they feared the Spanish more than the revolutionaries at that time.

The Treaty of Paris in 1763 that granted the colonies independence from England was really just one of a series of agreements made at that time between the British, Spanish, Dutch and French. With our independence came the British land rights to the area west from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River and south from what is now Canada to the Spanish claims north of the Gulf of Mexico. The southern line was finally negotiated with Spain in 1795, during George Washington’s second term, in an agreement known as the Treaty of San Lorenzo or Pinckney’s Treaty.

I have repeated all this political background because it is important to a land surveying epic that transpired 200 years ago, and formed the basis for a fascinating workshop in Mobile, Alabama, that I traveled nearly 1,500 miles to attend. A similar meeting will be a part of the Surveyors Rendezvous in Paducah, Kentucky in September, and I would recommend it to you.

Ellicott Appointed by Washington

The second article of the Treaty of San Lorenzo fixed the line between the United States and Spain at the 31st parallel of north latitude between the Mississippi River and the Chattahoochee River, down the Chattahoochee to the Flint River, then on a line to the source of the St. Mary’s River, and down the St. Mary’s to the Atlantic. The third article of the treaty stipulated that the border would be marked in a joint expedition headed by a commissioner and a surveyor from each country. George Washington appointed Major Andrew Ellicott as commissioner and Major Thomas Freeman as surveyor. King Charles IV of Spain appointed Baron de Carondolet and Lieutenant Colonel Guillimard. Andrew Ellicott was the only one who actually participated in the survey that delineated the 31st parallel.

Ellicott was appointed on May 4, 1796, and on September 16 of that year he left Philadelphia on his odyssey. Within two weeks he was in Pittsburgh, where he met his military escort. I certainly don’t know the navigation properties of flat boats, but according to his journal he arrived with some difficulty in Cincinnati on November 11. Had I been looking out of my office in Lawrenceburg, Indiana 200 years ago this month, I would have been able to see his expedition float within a thousand feet of my window! I am told that the Ohio River was low, and that Ellicott had trouble with ice. Anyway, he arrived in Louisville on December 12, was near Paducah on December 17, and was at the mouth of the Ohio on December 18.

Detained by Spanish Galleons

On the Mississippi Ellicott’s problems changed from navigational to political. On February 1, 1797, he was detained by a Spanish galley; he spent February 2 and 3 at a Spanish fort at New Madrid (about at the present Kentucky-Tennessee line), and on February 8 he was detained at another Spanish fort at Chickasaw Bluffs. Then Ellicott was stopped by Col. Howard, described as an “Irish gentlemen in the service of His Catholic Majesty.” I am not sure whose side he was on, but the colonel had two armed galleys with him. Finally, on February 24, Ellicott arrived in Natchez and began dealing with a long series of delaying excuses from his Spanish counterparts. His military “escorts” arrived in Natchez mid-March. I think that Ellicott had organized a territorial government in July. The U.S. Army showed up on December 1, 1797, but it was not until April 9, 1798 that Ellicott left Natchez and traveled downstream to Alston Lake, where he began taking celestial observations necessary to run the 31st parallel. Ellicott had been warned “of the hostile disposition of the Indians, and their determination to stop the demarcation of the boundary,” but he started east, clearing the boundary line. I am told that a swath 60-80 feet wide was necessary; not only to designate the line but to accommodate the surveyors, the military, the wagons and sometimes as many as 200 Indian observers. The first 111 miles of the line was run by astronomic observations. On November 17 Ellicott reached the Pearl River (about midway across the present-day state of Mississippi). This part of the 31st parallel was marked with posts and dirt mounds, and it is now the boundary between Mississippi and Louisiana. Actually, Ellicott had just reached the west side of the Pearl River canebrake, and it was Christmas, six weeks later, before he reached the east side. His journal tells of losing baggage, that his tents were worn out, and about the difficulty moving his observation equipment.

Expedition Divided

The expedition was low on provisions, and Ellicott had been away from home over two years by this time. I assume, he figured that there had to be a better way. Briefly, his new plan was that he would divide his resources—sending one portion of his men to continue overland following a magnetic bearing, and he would take the other group by water to the next astronomic observation station. When the two groups rejoined, adjustments to the overland line would be made and the corrected line would be monumented. Ellicott’s cross-country party advanced the next 100 miles through the Choctaw Indian nation to the Mobile River during the next three-and-a-half months. During the same period, Ellicott and his marine party procured a vessel, sailed down the Pearl River, crossed Lake Pontchartrain, took the Spanish governor’s barge to New Orleans, purchased the hull of a ship, obtained permission from the Catholic bishop to work on Sundays, rebuilt the ship to serve as a scientific schooner; named it after Ellicott’s wife Sally, had a portrait of her made, filed four reports about their progress (two in English, two in Spanish), purchased supplies and sailed the “Sally” across the Gulf of Mexico into Mobile.

Stone Set on 31st Parallel

A contingent of the marine group was sent ahead up the Mobile River with a sextant to establish an observation station. They selected a site called Seymour’s Bluff, where for the next three weeks Ellicott took celestial observations. The Seymour Bluff site was determined to be about 8,500 feet north of the 31st parallel. So the survey party measured south 518.55 perches and set a sandstone monument on the true line between the United States and Spanish West Florida. This point is known as Ellicott’s stone, and it is the only known physical point remaining from this survey. Personnel were reassigned and one land party was sent easterly cutting a guideline to the next navigable river. The other land party was sent back toward the Pearl River, correcting each mile post to the 31st parallel.

There was another 15 months of adventure and another 400 miles of international boundary to run before Ellicott returned to Philadelphia. Indian trouble became severe, Ellicott navigated the “Sally” around the Florida peninsula and north to Savannah, and his journal entries tell about difficulties transporting his surveying instruments by canoe.

Initial Point Controls Alabama

My recent adventure was seeing the Ellicott Stone (which later became the Initial Point for the St. Stevens Meridian and Baseline which controls most of southern Alabama), and standing on Seymour’s Bluff overlooking the Mobile River. I feel privileged to have been part of the archaeological dig that we started there in search of Ellicott’s 200-year-old astronomic observation station. Although the site was only one of many, and Ellicott was only there for three weeks, the work he did there made a significant contribution to political history, scientific observation and surveying professionalism.

Roger Woodfill practices in southeastern Indiana and is the administrator of the Surveyors Historical Society. He has served as an officer of the Indiana Society and the National Society for Professional Surveyors.

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