For over 200 years, the stone placed by Andrew Ellicott has stood alone in the woods near Bucks, Alabama, a monument of historical significance. Hidden from the traffic of Highway 43, the stone lies about a hundred yards from a roadside marker, down a footpath that crosses the old bed of the Mobile and Birmingham Railroad. The brown sandstone stands about 3 feet in height and is surrounded by a fence that protects it from vandals. The north face of the stone is engraved “U.S. Lat. 31 degrees 1799,” and the south face reads “Dominios de S.M. Carlos IV. Lat. 31 degrees 1799.” As the only stone placed by Ellicott, it is the initial point for all United States Public Land Surveys in the southern region of Alabama and Mississippi, and serves as the point of intersection of the St. Stephens meridian and St. Stephens baseline. But the most interesting feature of the stone is the story of how and why it was placed in this particular spot.
In 1798, Mobile was not within the territorial bounds of the United States. It was a part of Spain’s West Florida, lying south of the 31st parallel, the boundary that had been agreed to by the two nations in the Pinckney-Godoy Treaty of 1795. Although there was no question that Mobile was below the 31st parallel and in Spanish territory, there were questions about other Spanish claims lying farther inland, such as St. Stephens, which would soon become the territorial capital of Alabama. Obviously, no one knew the exact location of the 31st parallel.
For President George Washington and our emerging nation, the location required a lasting solution through an accurate survey. The United States and Spain agreed to commission a surveying expedition to establish, once and for all, their common boundary line. Washington wisely chose Andrew Ellicott, a Pennsylvania Quaker, and an accomplished surveyor, mathematician and astronomer, to lead the American expedition. Spain named Manuel Gayoso de Lemos, governor of Louisiana, to represent its interests during the work. The project would require an extraordinary effort from the surveying party’s axmen, chain men and soldiers who would travel over land, blazing a compass line through the swampy wilderness between New Orleans and Mobile. Ellicott realized it would be impossible to bring his heavy surveying equipment through such difficult terrain. He solved that problem by fitting out a schooner to ship his equipment by sea from New Orleans, along the Gulf Coast, then up the Mobile River to a point near the line of demarcation.
Ellicott named his boat Sally, apparently a sobriquet for his wife, Sarah. His crew was made up of a few illiterate British deserters, a contingent of U.S. soldiers, a cook and a washwoman named Betsy. Ellicott himself did the navigating, steering the schooner from New Orleans, through strong currents and high winds brought on by March northers, to Mobile. After a two-week journey, the Sally arrived in the town of Mobile. Four days later, they met the land party upstream near a point on the Mobile River known as Seymour Bluff. There Ellicott unloaded his equipment and began his telescope observations of the stars, calculating the location of the latitude and meridian.
During this time in the Mobile Delta, life was difficult for a man like Ellicott, who was accustomed to keeping company with a more genteel society of people and enjoying the civilized creature comforts. A sketched portrait made of the famed surveyor shows him as a meaty-faced, double-chinned fellow with small pouty lips and sleepy eyes. While Ellicott busied himself with his observations, the men in his party passed their time fishing in the Mobile River and drinking ale in a local frontier tavern known as Grog Hall. In early June, the surveying party moved its camp to Little Bayou Sara. By this time, the weather had become nearly unbearable, even for Ellicott, who, as a surveyor, was acclimated to the outdoors, but in much milder climates. In frequent letters to his wife, Ellicott complained of the conditions. “The weather has now become extremely hot, and the season uncommonly wet,” he wrote, “and our men badly provided for with tents and other coverings. They are generally indisposed and unfit for duty.” Flying insects, however, became more of a menace for the party than the heat and humidity. “It is impossible in this country to write after night,” he told his wife, “on account of the amazing swarms of flies, mosquitoes, and gnats; all thirsting after the blood of man.” To be able to sleep, he explained to her: “Our beds are all surrounded with a kind of thin curtains called bears to keep them off,” then gloated: “Mine are elegant silk ones.”
Ellicott’s Stone now sits near the west bank of the Mobile River. The inscription on the southern side reads “Dominio De S.M. Carlos IV, Lat. 31, 1799.”A lithograph of Andrew Ellicott. Image courtesy The Library of Congress
Distressing conditions, such as the heat and insects, were probably responsible for hostility within the camp. Men argued, and some became jealous and resentful towards one another. According to Ellicott’s journal and his letters home, a man named Thomas Freeman was the chief culprit behind the feuding. General James Wilkinson, who commanded the U.S., forces in the Mississippi Territory, stated that Freeman was an assistant surveyor under Ellicott, and “was frequently drunk.” He enjoyed playing the role of Shakespeare’s character, Falstaff, to the annoyance of everyone in the camp. Ellicott described him as “one of the greatest liars and rascals in existence.” Freeman was said to take immense pleasure in insulting a certain Captain Minor, a surveyor who represented Spain, as well as harassing Ellicott’s 19-year-old son, Andy. “It was with difficulty,” claimed Ellicott, “that I could for some months prevent a duel between him [Freeman] and Andy.” Freeman, of course, was not the only troublemaker in the party. There was Captain Guion, who by General Wilkinson’s account, “Ellicott very much hated.” Another was Lieutenant John McClary, commandant of the military escort, whom Ellicott described as “lazy and under hostile influence.” Yet the loathsome Freeman remained Ellicott’s greatest problem. “An idle, lying, troublesome, discontented, mischief-making man,” wrote Ellicott before finally expelling him from the camp, and replacing him with a man named Gillespie.
Freeman left but then spread the word that Ellicott had been having sexual relations with Betsy the washwoman. Years later, he testified in court that, although he had never actually seen it, he believed it because Ellicott had invited him to “take part of his bed with his washerwoman.” Whether or not Ellicott paid Betsy or forced her into sexual favors will remain a mystery. But John Walker, who had been a member of Ellicott’s crew, believed Ellicott had forced her to remain with the surveying party against her wishes. By the end of the trip, Walker claimed Betsy had lost her mind, and was “chained in a mad-house.” The rumors may well have merit considering such behavior and treatment of women servants like Betsy was customary during these times. In any case, Ellicott remained devoted to his wife, Sarah, the mother of his ten children, as evidenced in his letters, where he addressed her as “My Love;” “My Dear Girl;” and “My Dearest of All Earthly Beings.”
Although Ellicott’s relationships within the camp caused a distraction, he remained determined to accomplish his mission of establishing the boundary. After finishing his observations, he determined that the actual line of the 31st parallel was about two miles south of the line the surveying party had blazed from the Mississippi River. Correcting this with the placement of the stone, he found himself in a dilemma as to how to shoot that line across the huge swamp of the Mobile Delta. He correctly believed the tangled growth there to be “impenetrable,” and in his journal, describes the Delta as “the large swamp through which the rivers meander after their separation above the boundary is intersected in almost all directions by smaller water courses which maintain a constant connection between the main branches.” Ellicott, however, had a problem-solving mind and came up with a solution. From the high ground of Andry Hill, he could make out the distant tree line of the Eastern Shore. He sent part of his surveying party by boat through the waterways of the Delta to the high ground on the opposite shore with instructions to build a large fire. He then built a signal fire atop Andry Hill, which would act as a smoke signal, allowing the two sides to measure the angle between the points and shoot the line. The idea was ingenious.
Ellicott continued to plot the line of demarcation between the United States and Spain all the way to the Atlantic Ocean, which took almost a year to complete. During this time, he would encounter many obstacles and problems, not the least of which was trouble with the Creek Indians, who could not understand why the white men were running a boundary line through their lands. Nevertheless, Ellicott accomplished the mission he had been assigned by his country. But, above all, the placement of the solitary stone remains the most remarkable accomplishment of the survey. According to modern satellite computations, and the American Society of Engineers, Ellicott, working solely with rudimentary equipment and the stars, only missed the true mark by 500 feet, an amazing achievement.