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Beware of bitter battles over borders

POSTED: April 20, 2008 5:02 a.m.

Legislators wanting to challenge Georgia's border with Tennessee better be careful what they ask for. When Georgia got into a border dispute with North Carolina two centuries ago, it came out on the short end.

Tennesseans already have expressed displeasure with Georgians lusting over their land and water, and the same sentiment would prevail if North Carolinians were affected.

Georgia's border with Tennessee and North Carolina is supposed to follow the 35th parallel north. Problem is, surveyors hired to fix the boundary either couldn't find that elusive line, had inadequate equipment or just plain messed up. James Carmak, the guy who was to determine the Tennessee boundary, apparently missed it by a mile.

The mixup over the North Carolina line might not be as serious, but certainly is more intriguing. It involves a North Georgia landmark that hikers, kayakers, rafters and others who run the rapids and scour the mountains along the Chattooga River are familiar with. It is called "Ellicott's Rock." It is named for Andrew Ellicott, a renowned Pennsylvania surveyor contracted by Georgia in 1811 to settle the boundary.

But let's go back to 1732 when King George II set the 35th parallel as Georgia's northern boundary. North Carolina and Georgia agreed to that, but neither knew exactly where the line ran.

Georgia in 1803 claimed a chunk of North Carolina was hers and established a Walton County there, not to be confused with present-day Walton County, of course, whose county seat is Monroe about 40 miles south of Gainesville.

Residents in the two states feuded fiercely over the disputed territory, which became known as the "Orphan Strip" 18 miles north of today's North Carolina-Georgia border. This "no-man's land" became a refuge for outlaws and was avoided by travelers for lack of law enforcement. Separate commissions the two states appointed to determine the boundary never agreed on the precise line, but recommended that Georgia abolish Walton County. The Georgia legislature declined.

Georgia Gov. D.B. Mitchell, however, decided in 1811 to settle the dispute once and for all. He hired Ellicott, who had been on the survey team that established the Mason-Dixon Line and boundaries for the District of Columbia.

Ellicott hired a couple of mountain men to help him. They endured numerous hardships that fall and winter in the rough terrain around the Chattooga River. His diaries described the difficulty in hauling equipment where there were no roads, and scratches and cuts all over his body from tromping through the thick underbrush. He and his team complained about sleeping on the ground, Indians, earthquakes and their aftershocks over several days.

Christmas Day 1811, Ellicott wrote, was the worst day of work he had ever experienced. But the next day, he marked a rock on the eastern side of the river where the 35th parallel was supposed to cross.
Ellicott notified Mitchell he had completed his work and requested payment. He walked 200 miles to the state capital, Milledgeville at the time, and remained several months trying to collect his fee. He received $4,300, which he said only covered expenses. Georgia apparently wasn't willing to pay any more for a survey that put the boundary 18 miles south of where the state thought it was.

It wasn't the end of the Georgia-North Carolina border battle, however. Two years later, North and South Carolina were fixing their boundaries and marked another rock on the Chattooga River as the 35th parallel. And in 1819 North Carolina and Georgia again got together on their states' lines, mistakenly using the 1813 rock instead of the 1811 Ellicott's Rock. They called the 1813 rock Ellicott's, and that name has stuck.

The 1811 rock contained an "N" on the north side and a "G" on the south side, apparently indicating North Carolina and Georgia. The 1813 rock has "NC" and "SC" carved into it.

The disputed territory that Georgia claimed as Walton County and was known as the Orphan Strip became part of North Carolina ironically because of Ellicott's work on of Georgia's behalf. It contains the Nantahala River and National Forest and some of the most picturesque scenery in the country.

Georgia ended up worse off in the fight over the North Carolina line, and if it takes on the Tennessee border, odds are it would fare no better.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. His column appears Sundays and on gainesvilletimes.com. First published Feb. 24, 2008.



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