The Shaping of Georgia’s Northern Border: Blunders, a Short War and a Rock

Confusion, outright blunders and armed conflict ultimately shaped the eastern and northern borders of Georgia following the colony’s creation in 1732. Border disputes with Florida and Alabama flared up during the nineteenth century, but none were as contentious as those involving Georgia’s boundaries with South and North Carolina. Given its location, the land that became Rabun County stood squarely amid these mistake-riddled and heated controversies.

The colony of Carolina was divided into North and South Carolina in 1729. The chartered limits of North Carolina encompassed what is now North Carolina and Tennessee. The chartered limits of South Carolina covered Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi as well as present-day South Carolina. Georgia was divided from South Carolina and established as a separate colony by the charter King George II granted to James Oglethorpe in 1732. The charter defined Georgia’s northeastern border with South Carolina as “the most northern part of a stream or river there, commonly called the Savannah.” Since the Savannah River has two branches, which one defined the border?

Beaufort Convention of 1787

The vagueness of this description was sufficient when the area was sparsely populated, but after the Revolutionary War, the upper reaches of the Savannah River were becoming settled. Not surprisingly, border disputes arose between Georgia and South Carolina. To resolve these controversies, three commissioners from each state met at Beaufort, South Carolina in 1787. A major point of contention at the Beaufort Convention was whether “the most northern part “of the Savannah River was its western branch (the Tugalo/Chattooga river system) or eastern branch (the Keowee/Seneca river system). For reasons undocumented, the commissioners chose the western Tugalo/Chattooga system, which became the legal boundary between the future Rabun County and Oconee County, South Carolina to the east.

The Beaufort Convention commissioners blundered. The eastern Keowee/Seneca river system actually is the most northern branch of the Savannah River. If the correct decision had been made in accordance with Georgia’s 1732 charter, the northeastern corner of Georgia would have encompassed what today is most of Oconee County, South Carolina. Instead, a mistake caused Georgia to forfeit approximately 700 square miles of land that eventually would have become part of Rabun County.

Orphan Strip Along 35th Parallel

At least this border controversy was settled peaceably over a negotiating table. Determining Georgia’s border with North Carolina was a different matter. This controversy erupted over a poorly defined, 12-mile-wide piece of land north of the 35th parallel, which was the recognized border between Georgia and North Carolina. Called the Orphan Strip by historians since no one initially wanted it, the land passed through a series of owners in quick succession. Originally claimed by South Carolina, the state ceded it to the federal government in 1787. The government then gave it to the Cherokee. In 1798, the Cherokee ceded the land back to the U.S. government.

Between 1798 and 1802, the Orphan Strip was “open to public domain,” meaning the territory was under no sovereign state authority. Since the area was lawless and violent, largely populated by criminals and renegade Cherokee, the surrounding states of North Carolina, South Carolina, and George were hesitant to claim the area. Even so, individuals with land grants from Georgia and North and South Carolina began to settle there. In 1800, a group of settlers asked South Carolina to accept the territory, but the state turned down the offer. North Carolina finally stepped in and made the Orphan Strip part of Buncombe County, which at the time encompassed most of western North Carolina.

Congress Cedes Orphan Strip to Georgia

Congress enacted the Compact of 1802. Under a portion of this legislation, Georgia ceded the land upon which Mississippi and Alabama currently are located to the federal government. In return, the act ceded the Orphan Strip to Georgia, notwithstanding that North Carolina had taken possession of it and the area’s exact boundaries had never been determined by a survey. Despite these facts, Georgia proceeded to create Walton County (not to be confused with present-day Walton County about 30 miles east of Atlanta) 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, fearing they might lose their land under Georgia’s jurisdiction.

Increasing pressure from Walton County officials on the North Carolina settlers led to an outbreak of violent altercations. One confrontation saw a Buncombe County constable killed after being struck by the butt of a Georgia official’s musket. In response, North Carolina called out the militia, precipitating the brief Walton War in 1804. Two battles were fought near Brevard, North Carolina between the militias of both states. North Carolina killed about a dozen Georgians and took another 25 prisoners. During the fracas, 10 Walton officials fled to Georgia. The Walton War ended quickly, and the Orphan Strip was firmly in the hands of North Carolina.

Georgia Doesn’t Give Up

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 surveys of the area and concluded that the Orphan Strip was in fact located in North Carolina. However, Georgia refused to abide by the commission’s report and continued to govern Walton County, which was included as part of the state in the 1810 census.

In 1811, Georgia hired Andrew Ellicott, one of the leading surveyors of the day, with the 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. Upon reading Ellicott’s report, Georgia Governor David Brydie Mitchell exclaimed, “…it appears that no part of the territory heretofore claimed by this state remains in Georgia.” Georgia finally surrendered its claim to the Orphan Strip.

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. Although a new survey in 1813 moved the 35th parallel a few feet downstream from the 1811 finding, Ellicott’s Rock today is most commonly used to mark the point where Georgia (Rabun County), North Carolina (Macon County) and South Carolina (Oconee County) converge. Ellicott’s Rock is still visible.

Apparently, territorial disputes tend to linger and fester. In 1971, a Georgia legislative commission reported that the state still had a claim to the Orphan Strip. Upon learning of this, the North Carolina General Assembly erupted in a burst of anger and vitriol. The legislature authorized the governor to mobilize the National Guard to “protect, defend, and hold inviolate the territorial border of North Carolina against the spurious claims by the State of Georgia.” However, cooler heads prevailed and both states dropped the matter, hopefully moving on to more pressing issues. It took nearly 220 years, but Rabun County’s northern border was finally settled.

This article by Society member Richard Cinquina was originally published in the Laurel of Northeast Georgia magazine in June 2022.

About the Rabun County Historical Society 

The Rabun County Historical Society is dedicated to keeping alive Rabun County’s 200-year history in the Appalachian Mountains of Georgia. We collect, preserve and display important historic artifacts, photographs and records in our 2,300-square-foot museum and archives located at 81 North Church Street in downtown Clayton, Georgia. The Society is a not-for-profit organization under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, making membership dues and donations fully tax deductible. For more information, please contact us.