Disputes over Georgia’s borders flared up periodically during the state’s early history. Most involved the 35th parallel north, which commonly was accepted as the shared boundary between Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee by the late 1700s. However, it was one thing to declare the 35th parallel a legal boundary, while it was altogether something else to know where it actually traversed the region. And no one knew for certain during the first decades of the 1800s, resulting in surveys that erroneously defined Georgia’s northern border. Commissioner’s Rock in Rabun County is a legacy of these mistakes.
The errors that were made in determining Georgia’s northern border resulted from crude surveying instruments and techniques, the difficulties of traveling through rough, mountainous terrain, and hostile Indians who did not welcome the presence of white men. Moreover, most surveyors lacked an adequate knowledge of mathematics and astronomy. These issues made accurate surveys the rare exception, not the norm.
Orphan Strip Controversy
The story of Commissioner’s Rock begins with one of the most contentious northern border controversies that erupted in the first years of the nineteenth century over a vaguely defined, 12-mile-wide piece of land claimed by Georgia and North Carolina. Known today as the Orphan Strip, this tract of land covers portions of several present-day North Carolina counties: Macon, Jackson and Transylvania, all of which lay to the north and east of Rabun County.
The Orphan Strip received its moniker because by the end of the 1700s, it was under no state authority. Neither North Carolina, South Carolina nor Georgia wanted to govern the lawless area, since it was inhabited primarily by outlaws, fugitives and renegade Cherokees. The lack of any state governance gave rise to festering problems as settlers from Georgia and the Carolinas started moving into the area. Around 1800, North Carolina finally stepped in and made the Orphan Strip part of Buncombe County, which then encompassed most of western North Carolina.
Congress Cedes Orphan Strip to Georgia
In 1802, Congress enacted the Articles of Agreement and Cession, under which Georgia ceded to the federal government the land that encompasses present-day Mississippi and Alabama. In return, the act extinguished Indian land titles in the state and awarded the Orphan Strip to Georgia. This was done notwithstanding that North Carolina already had taken possession of the Orphan Strip and that the area’s boundaries had never been determined by a survey. However, with the blessing of the federal government, Georgia created Walton County on the Orphan Strip in 1803.
Settlers with Georgia land grants readily embraced Walton County. However, those with North Carolina land grants strongly objected to the imposition of Georgia law and taxes. Pressure on North Carolina settlers to pay Georgia taxes led to an outbreak of violent altercations. North Carolina’s governor called out the state militia, precipitating the brief Walton War in 1804. Two battles were fought near Brevard, North Carolina with Georgia’s militia on the losing end. The conflict left the Orphan Strip firmly in the hands of North Carolina.
Georgia Contests Area’s Ownership
Georgia continued to contest the issue. To resolve the dispute, a joint commission of the Georgia and North Carolina legislatures was established in 1807. The commission analyzed several crude maps of the area and concluded that the Orphan Strip was located north of the 35th parallel, making the area part of North Carolina. However, Georgia refused to abide by the commission’s report.
In 1811, Georgia hired Andrew Ellicott, one of the nation’s leading surveyors, with the clear intention of resolving the border controversy in Georgia’s favor. Despite Georgia’s motives, Ellicott determined that the Orphan Strip was, indeed, north of the 35th parallel, definitely placing it within North Carolina. Ellicott marked a rock “N-G” on the east bank of the Chattooga River, designating the 35th parallel and boundary between Georgia and North Carolina. Ellicott’s Rock, which still exists, is most commonly used today to mark the point where Georgia (Rabun County), North Carolina (Macon County) and South Carolina (Oconee County) converge.
UGA Mathematician James Camak
Upon reading Ellicott’s report, Georgia’s governor finally surrendered the state’s claim to the Orphan Strip. Unfortunately for the state’s history, Ellicott was not commissioned to conduct a survey going west from his marker to determine the exact course of the 35th parallel across Georgia. If the renowned surveyor had done so, perhaps future blunders might have been averted over the borders between Georgia and North Carolina and Tennessee. Absent Ellicott, James Camak, a University of Georgia mathematician, would play a central role in the forthcoming series of errors.
The Georgia and Tennessee legislatures agreed in 1817 to form a joint survey team that included Camak to identify the precise border between the two states. The survey began at Nickajack, an ancient Creek village on the Tennessee River that marked the westernmost point of Tennessee’s border with the Alabama territory. Due to Camak’s erroneous calculations, the surveyors incorrectly determined that the 35th parallel was two miles south of Nickajack. Based on this mistake, the surveyors continued eastward on a course south of the 35th parallel. After 110 miles, they stopped at what they thought was the eastern boundary of Tennessee and Georgia. In reality, they were nearly halfway through Georgia.
Montgomery Corner Mistake
Georgia’s Governor William Rabun then authorized a survey in 1819 to define the state’s border with North Carolina. Camak was appointed to represent Georgia on the survey team. Starting at Ellicott’s Rock, the surveyors proceeded west for 35 miles along a route south of the 35th parallel due, once again, to Camak’s incorrect calculations. At the 35-mile point, the survey team expected to meet the line previously surveyed from Nickajack. However, the westward line was nearly a half-mile south of the termination of the eastward line. Astonishingly, instead of trying to correct this error, the survey team simply ran a straight vertical line to connect the two survey lines. This jog or offset was dubbed Montgomery Corner after a member of the survey team. Shortly thereafter, the survey team reran the line westward from Ellicott’s Rock and still did not connect with the westward survey line. The jog at Montgomery Corner became part of the official Georgia/North Carolina border. It remains so today.
On that second westward survey from Ellicott’s Rock, the surveyors set a stone 11 miles west of Ellicott’s Rock. Located in Rabun County on the south bank of Commissioner’s Creek (which crosses present-day Hale Ridge Road), this granite marker was inscribed “1819 NXG” to denote the North Carolina/Georgia border as determined by the 1819 survey. This stone marker became known as Commissioner’s Rock.
Commissioner’s Rock broke from its granite pedestal and was found lying in Commissioner’s Creek by a team of Georgia and North Carolina surveyors. After its retrieval from the stream, the rock was taken to North Carolina but was returned to Georgia earlier this year. Commissioner’s Rock now resides in the permanent collection of the Rabun County Historical Society’s Museum in Clayton. The public is invited to view this important piece of history.
This article by Society member Richard Cinquina was originally published in the Laurel of Northeast Georgia in April 2023.