How Georgia got its northern boundary – and why we can’t get water from the Tennessee River

In this column, members of Georgia Humanities and their colleagues take turns discussing Georgia’s history and culture, and other topics that matter. Through different voices, we hear different stories.

This week, guest columnist WILLIAM J. MORTON, author of The Story of Georgia’s Boundaries: A Meeting of History and Geography, shares the story of Georgia’s mismeasured northern boundary.

By William J. Morton

William J. Morton

William J. Morton

What does Georgia — more specifically, Atlanta — need to thrive? Today, like many large and expanding metropolitan areas across the United States, it needs water. The drought of 2008 in Georgia brought renewed attention to the fact that if the Georgia/Tennessee boundary had been properly surveyed along the 35th latitude, then plenty of water from the Tennessee River would be available for Georgia’s citizens. This is the story of Georgia’s mismeasured northern boundary.

Here’s what happened. The 1783 Treaty of Paris ending the Revolutionary War gave the new United States ownership of the lands west of the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River. Over the next 10 years, all of the 13 colony-states, except Georgia, ceded their claims to those western lands to the new federal government. It took another 10 years before Georgia agreed to sell her western property to the U.S. government for $1.25 million — the only colony-state to receive compensation for the cession. The 1802 Articles of Agreement and Cession provided that Georgia’s new western boundary would be “a line from the great bend of the Chattahoochee River and thence in a direct line [north] to Nickajack [an Indian settlement] on the Tennessee River . . . running up the said Tennessee River and along the Western Bank thereof to the Southern Boundary line of the State of Tennessee.”

Georgia's northern and western boundaries

Georgia’s northern and western boundaries, 1802. Map by John Nelson. Reprinted by permission of William J. Morton

No survey of Georgia’s new boundary was done until 1817, when the Alabama Territory came into being. Georgia and Tennessee, now concerned about their state boundaries, quickly agreed to survey their common corner at the 35th latitude north. Tennessee appointed a team of surveyors and mathematicians as did Georgia, who chose mathematician James Camak and surveyor Hugh Montgomery. The field work began in 1818, and rather than following the described boundary line crossing the Tennessee River, both teams determined that the “35th parallel north was two miles south of Nickajack,” which Tennessee’s Code of 1819 describes as “one mile and twenty-eight poles due south from the south bank of the Tennessee River as found by mathematician James Camak.”

These words would haunt Georgia for the next 200 years, since the actual 35th latitude north is in the middle of the Tennessee River. Georgia also passed a resolution in 1819 authorizing the governor to have the map of the surveyed lines recorded in the Surveyor General’s office, but there is no record of any law or act certifying or approving the survey as the official boundary between the two states.

As part of the 1818 survey, Camak and the Tennessee teams continued eastward for another 110 miles and made a mark at what they believed to be the eastern boundary of Georgia and Tennessee. In 1819 Georgia asked North Carolina to appoint a survey team to meet with Camak and mark their mutual boundary. Both teams met at the Chattooga River in northeast Georgia at a monument made by the famous astronomer-surveyor Andrew Ellicott, who had been asked by Georgia in 1811 to mark the 35th latitude at the junction of Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina.

Ellicott's Rock. Map by John Nelson. Reprinted by permission of William J. Morton

Ellicott’s Rock. Map by John Nelson. Reprinted by permission of William J. Morton

Starting at what is called Ellicott’s Rock, the teams surveyed the 35th westward for the next 35 miles until they came to the location where Camak and the Tennessee team had stopped their survey the year before. Unfortunately, the lines did not connect: the westward line was almost one-half mile north of the termination of the eastward line. Astonishingly, rather than correct their mistake, the teams simply marked a vertical line southward connecting the two lines. This offset, named Montgomery’s Corner after surveyor Hugh Montgomery, who had been on both surveys, is on every map of Georgia.

That wasn’t the end of it. In 1826 Georgia and the seven year-old state of Alabama agreed to survey their common boundary beginning at the great bend of the Chattahoochee River (located at West Point, Georgia) and then northerly to Nickajack, as provided for in the original 1802 Articles of Agreement and Cession. Georgia again appointed Camak to work with the Alabama team. Camak’s location of Nickajack was “about one quarter of a mile north of the Georgia-Tennessee boundary as surveyed in 1818.” Georgia’s northern boundary was now a mile south of the 35th latitude.

Camak’s confusing explanation is thus: “In 1826, I used three sextants . . . and have not much confidence in their accuracy. The tables I used were good with the exception of typographical errors. Taking everything into consideration, I am inclined to give a preference to the results of 1826.” The 1826 location of the 35th latitude north, as south of the Tennessee River, is the lawful northern boundary of Georgia and the reason why Georgia cannot take water out of the river for her citizens.

There have been several feeble attempts by Georgia over the past years to change the boundary, none of which have ever made significant progress.

William J. Morton is the author of The Story of Georgia’s Boundaries: A Meeting of History and Geography and Andrew Ellicott: The Stargazer Who Defined America.

Kelly Caudle and Allison Hutton of Georgia Humanities provide editorial assistance for the “Jamil’s Georgia” columns.

Jamil Zainaldin is president of Georgia Humanities, a nonprofit organization working to ensure that humanities and culture remain an integral part of the lives of Georgians. The organization is a cultural leader in the state as well as a pioneer nationally in innovative history and humanities programs. The New Georgia Encyclopedia is a project of Georgia Humanities, in partnership with the Office of the Governor, the University of Georgia Press, and the University System of Georgia/GALILEO. The first state encyclopedia to be conceived and designed exclusively for publication on the Internet, the NGE is an important and authoritative digital resource for all Georgians.

21 replies
  1. JamesReese says:

    It would seem instead of fighting a water war with Alabama and Florida we should be suing Tennessee to recapture the 35th northern parallel and the Tennessee River. I guess that makes too much sense. Oh well.Report

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  2. RWW says:

    It’s my understanding that states that have sued over boundaries have generally prevailed. I still haven’t gotten a good explanation for why this hasn’t been pursued.Report

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  3. Wormser Hats says:

    JamesReese If you really want that water so much, better be prepared to pay dearly for it at the tap and out of your taxes.  In the long run, it would be far more sensible to manage the resources we’re blessed with, rather than attempt to defy gravity and pump water from the Tennessee River at Nickajack, over Lookout Mountain, across the Great Valley with the Coosa, Oostanaula, and Etowah Rivers into metro Atlanta. 
    You’ve also got to understand that interstate “water war” is about much more than water.  If it came a biblical flood and every one got all the water they claim to want, we’d still have neighboring states at odds with the economic vigor they see happening upstream and can’t woo-away from north Georgia.Report

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  4. Jacob says:

    Morton is a very good and easy to read author. I’ve read his books and his entry in the New Georgia Encyclopedia about Georgia’s boundaries— all excellent. I’ve also heard him speak about these topics and he knows how to keep the audience interested. Thank you GHC for sharing his work.Report

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  5. UT Guy says:

    You have the Atlantic Ocean. You could do the smart thing and build some desalination plants. That way you could STFU with continual whining.Report

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  6. JamesReese says:

    UT Guy As a UT-Chattanooga alum I’m appalled at your insult (STFU) I certainly thought the great UT System taught you better. As a Georgian I understand your lack of decorum and further understand you know nothing about desalination and the astronomical cost of operating such plants.Report

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  7. BarryCole says:

    From what I seen it is also a Army Corp of Engineer issue. The Tennessee River feeds the Ohio River, which feeds the Mississippi. Taking water from the Tennessee would adversely affect river flow in the Mississippi. Another hurdle for Georgia is wildlife. The last time Georgia took Tennessee to federal court, sometime between 2005-2008, Fish and Wildlife got involved. From a Georgia study it was found that removing the amount of water from the Tennessee just for Atlanta it would adversely effect a few amphibian and reptilian species.Report

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  8. CK says:

    JamesReese You have to understand that moving the line 1.5 miles north would not only give Georgia access to the Tennessee River, but it would also cause 100’s of thousands of us to lose our State citizenship and that’s not going to happen. If I wanted to live in Georgia, I would. I prefer to live in Tennessee as I’m sure those thousands of other folks would. That would be a lot of lawsuits coming Georgia’s way and would gridlock the judicial system for years… It’s like Wormser Hats said, it’s about much more than water…Report

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  9. Mason Hicks says:

    OK, but is it possible to work with Tennessee to get them to let us run a pipeline thru a small part of their state to access water. I don’t mean to sound nieve, but I’ve only heard us threatening to take their water (along with part of their territory), I’ve never heard of our asking nicely.Report

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  10. Burroughston Broch says:

    BarryCole  The Tennessee River minimum flow at Chattanooga is 13,000 ft3/second – 97,000 gallons/second. If Georgia were to withdraw 100,000,000 gallons/day, that would be an average of 150ft3/second, or 1.1% of the minimum flow.Report

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  11. Burroughston Broch says:

    UT Guy   And pump the water up over 1,000 feet to get to Atlanta? 100 million gallons/day average would require 30,000 horsepower just to lift the water, so 50,000 horsepower is a reasonable guess for the total horsepower. That translates to $3,000/hour electrical cost, or $26.3 million/year just for pumping.Report

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  12. writes_of_weigh says:

    Despite my continual reminders, many forget that the State of Georgia extends into downtown Chattanooga and to within about one mile of the Tennessee River. That property, and its utilization, are land based, transportation related. Were there a need to tap natural water resources(i.e. drilling a water well)for continuance of and without impediment to Interstate Commerce, that could occur legally. The only thing Georgia MUST DO…..is acquire several huge steam locomotives(they “drink” water) and several train consists of (currently) dormant (out of service) high cap tank cars, fill the TANKTRAIN with water from the Tennessee River and dispatch the train to where the water not needed enroute to Atlanta is simply disposed of when passing over the Chattahoochie, and then cycling back to Chattanooga for a “refill.”  Interrupting Interstate Commerce isn’t looked upon too kindly by those wearing black robes.
    Additionally, the “short route” to the Gulf of Mexico, most water flowing past Chattanooga takes, is likely down the course of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, not via a junction with the Mississippi River, but to clarify, I AM NOT A HYDROLOGIST. Are you?Report

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  13. Burroughston Broch says:

    writes_of_weigh  The property you mention is the Western & Atlantic right of way, presently leased to CSX railroad. It is no closer to the River than the northwest corner of Georgia.
    I doubt the EPA will let the State of Georgia make significant ground water withdrawal along the W&A right of way in downtown Chattanooga because (1) the soil is contaminated and corrosive from decades of industrial use and (2) the volume of water needed by Atlanta is not available from the aquifer.

    The tank train you propose would consist of 2,900 tank cars per day to supply 100 million gallons per day.
    Part of the water supplied in metro Atlanta drains to the Gulf of Mexico and the rest drains to the Atlantic Ocean. The Eastern Continental Divide runs along Peachtree Street.Report

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  14. Wormser Hats says:

    Burroughston Broch   The entire length of Peachtree Street, including Peachtree Road, Peachtree Industrial Boulevard lies within the Chattahoochee watershed; draining to the Gulf of Mexico. The “Eastern Continental Divide” actually runs out of northeast Georgia, from Black Rock Mountain to Cornelia, to Commerce, then Roughly follows (old) US 29 to Clarkston and Decatur, before turning west along the tracks next to DeKalb Ave, then slices through the State Capitol, before heading down Metropolitan Parkway, before resuming course along the former Atlanta and West Point railroad alignment, through Meriwether County and onward toward Pine Mountain.  Almost all of the metro area counties, north of I-20, take municipal supplies from the Chattahoochee, alone.  However, there is some interbasin transfer from treated wastewater discharged into the Etowah and upper Ocmulgee basins.Report

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  15. UT Guy says:

    JamesReese Georgia has whined for a century over Tennessee River water. Here is a tip for you Georgia natives. Don’t build a metropolitan jungle without a fresh water source.Report

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  16. UTK says:

    Georgia’s poor planning should not be a problem for the state of Tennessee to deal with. If the way Atlanta is constructed is any indication, Georgia will pump the Tennessee River dry and try to solve the issue by by putting in premium water taps (see: Peach Pass/Georgia Express Lanes) so that wealthy residents will not be inconvenienced enough to move away. I had the great displeasure of living north of Atlanta for 2 years after graduating from UTK and I sincerely do not see why anyone puts up with all of it. I sure am glad I got that experience when I did and was very mobile and able to move away (the day before the bridge collapsed!).Report

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