Thursday, December 4, 2008

Ellicott's Observatory - A Key Moment in Gadsden County, History

The man seen here is Andrew Ellicott, a contemporary and friend of President George Washington and the man assigned to survey the permanent border between the United States and Spanish Florida.
In 1799 he and his men camped on the present-day site of Chattahoochee, where they conducted astronomical observations to help determine the exact location of the boundary.
The story of Ellicott's Observatory is told in one of the chapters in the new book, The Early History of Gadsden County. If you are interested in obtaining a copy, they can be ordered online by clicking here or from the West Gadsden Historical Society at PO Box D, Greensboro, FL 32330-0803 for $25.00 plus $5 shipping and handling. You can call them for more information at (850) 442-6434 or (850) 442-4041.
Here is the first of a series of excerpts from the Ellicott's Observatory chapter that I will be posting over coming days:
(Excerpt from Chapter Five)
Spain lost control of Florida as a result of the French and Indian War, but regained control of its North American colony in 1783 due to its alliance with the fledgling United States during the American Revolution. Even though they had been allies in the war against Great Britain, however, the two countries soon became uneasy neighbors. Settlers in the southern states looked hungrily to Florida and the Gulf Coast. The old European power found itself faced with an unexpectedly rising American power.
The location of the true border between the two countries became a major issue and following extensive negotiations, the United States and Spain signed the Treaty of San Lorenzo in 1795.
Ratified the following year, the document provided that permanent border between Spanish Florida and the territory of the United States would run east along the 31st parallel to the Chattahoochee River. From the point where the line intersected the river, it would turn south down the center of the Chattahoochee to the tip of the point of land at its confluence with the Flint. From there the line would again turn east and run to the headwaters of the St. Mary’s River, thence down that stream to the Atlantic.
This was all well and good, but neither nation knew exactly where the 31st parallel lay and no one had ever explored the St. Mary’s River sufficiently to find its actual head. As a result it was necessary to employ a joint surveying team to mark the border and establish the line once and for all. The United States designated Andrew Ellicott as its Commissioner of Limits. Spain selected James Dunbar, who was eventually replaced by Stephen Minor.
One of the young nation’s most distinguished surveyors, Ellicott was a native of Maryland and had served during the American Revolution as a major in the Maryland militia. His previous work included the 1786 survey of the western border of Pennsylvania and, of particular note, his 1791 project undertaken at the request of President George Washington to establish the limits for the new District of Columbia. He was one of the men responsible for the unique street design of Washington, D.C.
Spain’s original commissioner, James Dunbar, fell ill before the survey project could begin and was replaced by Captain Stephen Minor of Natchez. A native of Pennsylvania, Minor had served in the Spanish army during the American Revolution and was at the captures of Mobile and Pensacola during that war. A planter, official and commander of the Spanish fort in Natchez, Mississippi, he was a leading figure of his time.
Ellicott and Minor began work on the Mobile River in Alabama in 1799, accompanied by a large team of surveyors, contractors and Spanish troops. The soldiers provided protection for the party against the Creeks, a necessity because the two countries were illegally dividing lands that really belonged to someone else, the Creek Nation. A council was convened with leaders of the Upper Creeks at Pensacola to explain that neither country intended to take any of their lands, but instead were engaged in drawing a line to establish the limits of influence agreed to between the two countries. The Lower Creeks and Seminoles were not represented at the council, but the Spanish governor sent emissaries to them to explain the project.

Ellicott and Minor began the survey by conducting astronomical observations on the Mobile River to determine the exact location where the 31st parallel intersected the river. After erecting a stone at the beginning point for the line, the two commissioners proceeded to Pensacola to enjoy the hospitality of the governor there while the actual work party started chopping its way through the wilderness to mark the line as far east as the Chattahoochee River.
Although neither Ellicott nor Minor knew it at the time, the primitive equipment they used cased them to actually miss their mark. The point where they thought the 31st parallel intersected the Mobile River was actually 799 feet off from the true spot. Over the long distance separating the Mobile and Chattahoochee Rivers, this led to considerable error in marking the line. A study by Greg Spies of Troy University has revealed that the Ellicott Line varies from the true border for virtually its entire length.

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