Sunday, December 14, 2008

More on Ellicott's Observatory

This is a second excerpt from The Early History of Gadsden County about Ellicott's Observatory, the little known 1799 scientific camp established on the site of Chattahoochee. The story picks up as Ellicott prepared to leave a similar observatory established in neighboring Jackson County at the point where the Chattahoochee River intersected with the Florida-Alabama line:

The work at the Jackson County camp was completed and the surveyors prepared to drop down the Chattahoochee River to its confluence with the flint when they suddenly received alarming news:

One or two days before we left our position on the Chattahocha for the mouth of Flint river, Mr. Burgess, who had lately been one of our deputy agents, and interpreters, and who had agreeably to the Creek custom intermarried with several of their females, who then lived with him, informed me confidentially, that a plan was laid to plunder us on our way to the St. Mary’s, and requested me to write to Col. Hawkins, to join us at the mouth of Flint river immediately, as his influence would effect our safety, if it was in the power of any man to do it.

The “Mr. Burgess” mentioned by Ellicott was James Burgess, a white trader that lived among the Creeks and maintained trading posts and homes at Tomatley in Jackson County and “Burgess’ Town” on the Flint River (present-day Bainbridge, Georgia). Burgess had lived in the area for more than thirty years and his warning to Ellicott and Minor (who was also now on the scene) was delivered at considerable risk to his own life.

Ellicott wrote a letter to Colonel Hawkins on the night of August 22, 1799, requesting that he join the party at the confluence of the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers and the next day climbed into a canoe with Minor and paddled downstream to the site of present-day Chattahoochee in Gadsden County. A new camp was established and an astronomical observatory constructed from which the two men could conduct the necessary calculations for running the line east to the head of the St. Mary’s River.

The swampy ground at the mouth of the Flint River proved unsuitable for camping, so Ellicott related that the observatory was established on a nearby bluff:

The ground about the mouth of the Flint river not being fit for encamping on, in consequence thereof, we pitched on the nearest commanding eminence, from which with the least labour in falling the timber, the junction of the rivers might be discovered.

Work had been underway at the Chattahoochee observatory for about two weeks and went peacefully enough for Minor to dismiss his military escort. An escort of American soldiers remained. Things seemed to be going well when James Burgess suddenly appeared on the scene:

On the 9th Mr. Burgess paid us a visit. After dinner he took me into the observatory, and asked this question, “Did you write to Col. Hawkins while at the Upper Camp agreeably to my recommendation”? To which he was answered in the affirmative. “You have not”, says he, “written as pointedly as was necessary, or he would have been here before this: you must write to him immediately, and procure support from the Upper Creeks, which may be had, or you will positively be plundered on your way to St. Mary’s; you may think me a fool, but mark the end.”

Benjamin Hawkins reached the camp at Chattahoochee on September 14th, but just three days later the surveyors received another warning, this time from William Perryman, an important Native American leader that lived about fifteen miles upstream in Jackson County:

Early in the morning of the 17th, we received a message from Indian Willy, (a person of property,) who resides on the Chattahocha, a few miles above the mouth of the Flint river, to the following effect: “Gentleman, I have sent my Negro, to inform you that about twenty Indians lay near my place last night, they intend mischief; many more are behind: they say they are Chocktaws; but this is not true. Be on your guard, and remember I have nothing to do with it: my Negro goes at midnight."

The warnings were providential and caused the surveyors to tighten their guard....

(End of Excerpt)

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