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A careful study of a detailed map showing the border between Florida and Georgia will show a second line running south of the boundary line and identified as the "Watson Line." Land south of the Watson Line is divided into regular Township square sections one mile on a side. Land north of the Watson Line, while still in Florida, is divided into smaller units bearing the numbers of the Georgia District and Lot system. The history of this line and how the land north of it came to be part of Florida is set forth below in a narration derived from the background discussion in the U. S. Supreme Court case of Coffee v. Groover.
From the earliest settlement of Florida by Spain and of the colonies to the north by Great Britain the boundary between the two was in issue. The first opportunity to resolve it peacefully came in 1763, when Spain ceded Florida to Great Britain, placing authority over both territories in one government. King George acted swiftly, and on October 7, 1763, proclaimed the northern boundary of Florida as follows:
For that part of Florida west of the Chattahoochee River - the 31st parallel; and
For that part of Florida east of the Chattahoochee River, a straight line from the junction of the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers to the source of the St. Mary's River, and thereafter along the course of the St. Mary's River to the Atlantic Ocean.
On January 20, 1764, the province of Georgia was limited to north of that boundary.
The Treaty of 1783, which ended the Revolutionary War and resulted in Georgia becoming part of the United States, included an acceptance by the United States and Great Britain of the previously established boundary between Georgia and Florida. In that same year, by separate treaty, Great Britain ceded Florida back to Spain.
By the Treaty of October 27, 1795, Spain and the United States confirmed the previously established boundary and agreed to appoint a joint commission to survey and mark the boundary on the ground. The United States appointed Andrew Ellicott, Esq. as its commissioner in May, 1796. After dragging its feet for awhile, Spain appointed Capt. Stephen Minor as its commissioner. The two, along with their surveyors, ran the line from the Mississippi River to the Chattahoochee River in 1798 and 1799 and determined the geographical coordinates of the junction of the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers as north latitude 30 deg. 42 min. 42.8 sec. and west longitude 84 deg. 53 min. 15 sec.
At this time hostile Creek Indians still occupied the territory in southern Georgia and northern Florida. Few things upset Indians more than white surveyors on their land, for they had learned that white surveyors were likely to be followed by white settlers. Ellicott and Minor elected not to survey across the Creek land east of the Chattahoochee, but instead sailed around Florida and up the St. Mary's River. In February, 1800, they located what they believed was the head of the St. Mary's River issuing forth from the Okefenokee Swamp at north latitude 30 deg. 21 min. 39.5 sec. and west longitude 82 deg. 15 min. 45 sec. They erected a mound on solid ground about 2 miles southwest of it, which from thereafter would be called "Ellicott's Mound." The distance was calculated from the junction of the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers to the head of the St. Mary's to be 155.2 miles by straight line or great circle, and the initial course for running the line from each terminus was given, with the proper corrections to be made at intervals in order to follow the great circle. The commissioners signed a joint report of their proceedings and transmitted it to their respective governments.
Thus, as between the United States and Spain, the boundary had been determined. It only remained for any competent surveyor to follow the directions of the commissioners and mark the boundary on the ground. There would be no attempt to mark the boundary on the ground for another 19 years, since there was no immediate demand for the land and the Creeks were still a problem. Georgia could not herself remove the Creek Indians. The United States Constitution vests sole authority in the Federal Government for making treaties with foreign nations, which includes Indian nations.
By the convention of April 24, 1802, Georgia ceded to the United States all of her territory between the Chattahoochee and the Mississippi rivers. In return, the United States ceded to Georgia all of its right in any public lands in the remaining geographical boundaries of Georgia and agreed to extinguish the Indian titles as early as could be peaceable done. This was accomplished in the southern part of the state by treaties with the Creek Nation in 1802, 1805, and 1814.
Soon thereafter, Georgia turned its attention to surveying the land along the Florida border in preparation for making land grants to settlers. A question was now raised about the true source of the St. Mary's River, there being a belief in Georgia that it was actually farther southwest of the location determined by Ellicott and Minor. The source of a multi-branched river is not so easily agreed upon. In 1818, Georgia appointed Generals Floyd, Thompson, and Blackshear to determine if Ellicott's Mound was properly located. They returned with the opinion that it was.
In 1819 Georgia appointed J. C. Watson to run and mark the boundary line. Perhaps affected by the earlier belief that Ellicott's Mound was placed too far north, Watson ran his line considerably south of Ellicott's Mound. Georgia began to make grants in this region, using the Watson Line as its border.
In 1821, Spain transferred Florida to the United States. In 1825 the surveyor general for the territory of Florida, to prepare for selling the land near the Georgia border, appointed D. F. McNeil to run and mark the line forming the boundary. The McNeil Line terminated 14 chains north of the Watson Line, but it also terminated south of Ellicott's Mound.
The border controversy between Georgia and Florida was on. In May, 1826, the United States, in its authority over the Territory of Florida, agreed with the State of Georgia that each would appoint a commissioner to jointly run and mark a new boundary line which would terminate at the place established by Ellicott and Minor. The United States appointed ex-Governor Thomas M. Randolph of Virginia, and Georgia appointed Thomas Spaulding. The two of them appointed John McBride as their common surveyor in February, 1827. The line was not run. Spaulding came to believe, as had been believed earlier in Georgia, that the true source of the St. Mary's River was south of Ellicott's Mound, and Georgia withdrew from its agreement with the United States.
Florida became a state in 1845. The controversy continued, and Florida in 1850 filed a bill in the United States Supreme Court to resolve the boundary dispute. It was never brought to a hearing. Meanwhile the United States transferred to Florida all of its interest in the land along the disputed border in July, 1857, and Florida disposed of all of her interest by regular sale in September, 1857. In making this sale, Florida used the McNeil Line as its border. The land in between the McNeil Line and the Watson Line was claimed by both Georgia and Florida, and land grants were made by both on that basis.
Finally, in 1857 Florida and Georgia came to an agreement when Georgia, like Florida, agreed to accept the Ellicott and Minor location as the eastern terminus of the line. Two years later, Georgia appointed George F. Orr and Florida appointed B. F. Whitner as surveyors to jointly run and mark the line accordingly.
The Georgia legislature, on December 16, 1859, agreed to adopt the line being run by Orr and Whitner as conclusive, if Florida would do the same, and provided that the line on its eastern terminus was no more than 1/4 mile (20 chains) from Ellicott's Mound. Florida agreed to the same by act of the legislature on December 22, 1859.
The greatest concern by both states became the rights of those granted land in the controversial area. Georgia had granted titles down to the Watson Line, and Florida had granted titles up to the McNeil Line. Any agreement on either line or on a new line would raise questions about the validity of the grants by either or both states. In the Florida legislation, Florida agreed to convey title, to the extent it had a right to do so, to bona fide holders of land under any grant from Georgia which became part of Florida as a result of the established line, so long as it did not affect title to lands claimed by Florida citizens south of the McNeil Line.
Orr and Whitner ran their line, and it ran even further north than did the McNeil Line, but it did come within the necessary 1/4 mile to Ellicott's Mound (in fact, within 25 feet).
The Georgia Legislature, now turning its attention to the fact that some of its citizens were about to become citizens of Florida involuntarily as a result of the border agreement, passed a resolution on December 14, 1860, directing the governor to reopen negotiations with Florida for the purpose of establishing the boundary at the Watson Line. Meanwhile, the legislature of Florida adopted the Orr and Whitner Line as the boundary on February 8, 1861. The legislature of Georgia on December 11, 1861, formally proposed to Florida that the Watson Line be made the boundary. Florida did not respond to this proposal. Both states were preoccupied with the Civil War at this time, and nothing further happened until a Georgia Legislature under Reconstruction agreed on December 13, 1866, to adopt the Orr and Whitner Line as the boundary.
Both states had now agreed on their common border, and the agreement was confirmed by Congress on April 9, 1872. The border was finally established "on the ground" more than 100 years after it had been established "on paper." Both states gained a little. The Orr and Whitner Line gave Florida more territory than the McNeil Line, which Florida had used for making its grants of land titles. The Orr and Whitner Line gave Georgia more territory than the agreement between Ellicott and Minor. Ellicott and Minor knew that Ellicott's Mound was south of the true source of the St. Mary's River, and they had included in their surveying instructions a requirement that the line terminate at least one mile north of Ellicott's Mound. The Orr and Whitner Line terminated almost exactly at the Mound, placing its eastern terminus a mile south of where Ellicott and Minor had agreed upon.
The Georgia - Florida border was now settled permanently. But, what of the land titles granted in the controversial area? They took longer to settle. The case of Coffee v. Groover is one example of the difficulty is settling them.To see the location of the Watson Line in Gadsden and Leon counties, click here Watson Map