Border Wars, Part Two
Tennessee's boundary with Virginia and Kentucky not even close to being straight
In this 1796 map, the northern boundary of Tennessee was depicted as a straight line
IMAGE: TN State Library & Archives
A while back I wrote about the border between Tennessee and Georgia. I pointed out that the boundary was supposed to be at 35 degrees north latitude. However, because of human error inherent with surveying equipment used in the early 19th century, the boundary is south of that latitude by about one mile.
At the time I hinted that the Georgia/Tennessee border was accurate compared to the Tennessee/Kentucky border. Let me amplify on that.
The Tennessee/Kentucky border is not straight. It shifts up and down multiple times on its journey from the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River. Most notably, in the area of the Land Between the Lakes, the border jumps north by a couple of miles and then, where the Tennessee River moves into Kentucky, shifts south about 12 miles – creating what some refer to as Tennessee’s “chimney.” The boundary then proceeds in a nearly perfect straight line all the way to the Mississippi River.
I have always wondered why the border jumps up and down the way it does.
This map, created in 1891, shows how Tennessee's northern boundary actually shifts in places
It turns out that there are people who have researched this topic. James Sames, now deceased, once wrote a book on the subject called Four Steps West. About 20 years ago, the Tennessee Association of Professional Surveyors and Kentucky Association of Professional Surveyors reproduced his book and did extensive research on the topic, photographing stone markers that were placed along the boundary in 1859. And an Internet search on the subject yielded lots amounts of information, some of which I actually suspect to be true (not always the case with Internet searches).
To summarize what I’ve discovered: Tennessee’s border with Kentucky and Virginia is, for the eastern two-thirds of the Volunteer State, nowhere near where government decree said it was supposed to be. The main reasons for this are human error and imperfect surveying equipment. Along the way, the placement of the boundary was also influenced by disagreements among surveyors, compromise between arguing states and countless other reasons. In total, the mislocated border cost Kentucky about 2,500 square miles, according to Sames’ book.
As for the Tennessee-Kentucky border in West Tennessee, it is almost a perfect straight line and is located almost exactly where it is supposed to be.
Here are some details of what I found:
* In colonial times, the King of England decreed that the boundary between Virginia and North Carolina at 36 degrees, 30 minutes north latitude. After Kentucky broke away from Virginia and Tennessee broke away from North Carolina, this boundary line was continued west all the way to the Mississippi River.
* The official border was laid out by different people and in different eras, using celestial navigation readings to determine location on the earth’s surface and magnetic compass headings to draw the line between places where celestial shots was made. Generally, these early surveyors left marks in trees to show where they left the boundary line, which often left surveyors of future generations in confusion as to which marks were left by official surveyors and which were left by someone trying to trick them in to thinking they were left by official surveyors.
* In 1728, a team led by William Byrd started surveying the line between North Carolina and Virginia, starting at the Atlantic Ocean. Byrd kept a detailed journal along the way, explaining that the team took most of the spring and summer of that year off because of an overabundance or rattlesnakes along the way. This original surveying party made is 241 miles, to about two-thirds of the way across present-day North Carolina.
* Twenty-one years later, a group of surveyors led by Joshua Fry and Peter Jefferson started where Byrd left off and made it to about 10 miles east of present-day Bristol. Jefferson, by the way, was the father of Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States.
You can still see the home Daniel Smith built in Hendersonville called Rock Castle
* In 1779 two teams of surveyors picked up about where Fry and Jefferson had left off and drew the line all the way into where the Tennessee River flows north into Kentucky. This group consisted of Thomas Walker and Daniel Smith, representing Virginia, and Richard Henderson and William Bailey Smith, representing North Carolina. (Daniel Smith, by the way, later built the Rock Castle historic home in present-day Sumner County, while Richard Henderson is the land speculator who sent the first settlers to present-day Nashville.)
* As it turns out, all three of these surveying generations mistakenly placed the boundary north by a distance of somewhere in the range of five miles and 12 miles. So, instead of the border between Kentucky/Virginia and Tennessee/North Carolina being at 36-30, it is actually closer to 36-35 in East Tennessee and as far north as 36-41 at the Land Between the Lakes – as much as 18 miles off! It is easy for us to be smug about these inaccuracies in an era in which some us carry hand-held satellite navigation devices. But if you think it is easy to calculate your exact location on the planet using a hand-held sextant and a magnetic compass, you try it.
* When the 1779 surveyors picked up the line left by the Jefferson/Fry party, the two groups of surveyors argued about where the line should be. The Walker/Smith party, representing Virginia, believed that the line was at least two miles north of where it was supposed to be (in fact, it was a lot further than that). This disagreement is the reason that, today, the border “shifts” about ten miles east of present-day Bristol. And for years this caused property disputes all along the Tennessee/Kentucky border, and the creation of one “border” known as the Henderson line and another “border” known as the Walker line.
The spot where three states meet, near the Cumberland Gap
* When I recently visited the Cumberland Gap, I found the place where the borders of Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia meet and made the assumption that the border between those states was put near the gap on purpose. In fact, the border between Tennessee and Kentucky coincides with the location of the actual Cumberland Gap by coincidence – it just so happens to be right about where the surveying party believed the 36-30 parallel to be. (In fact, the Cumberland Gap is located at about 36 degrees, 36 minutes).
* In 1817, the Chickasaw Indians “sold” their rights of the land between the Tennessee and Mississippi Rivers, and that land became what we now refer to as West Tennessee. By this time it had become obvious to everyone that Tennessee’s border with both Kentucky and Virginia was north of where it was supposed to be. During the next couple of years, Tennessee and Kentucky argued over where the boundary should be drawn in this new area.
* In 1820, Kentucky agreed to leave the border east of the Tennessee River where it had been mistakenly placed, so long as the border in the newly claimed land west of the Tennessee River was, in fact, put in the right place. This is why, today, the Tennessee/Kentucky border slides southward about 12 miles in the area of the Land Between the Lakes, where it meets up with the surveying line laid out by surveyors Robert Alexander and Luke Munsell. “That east-west line that Alexander and Munsell did has to be one of the best lines ever surveyed,” says Bart Crattie, a Georgia surveyor who has extensively researched Tennessee’s borders.
* The state of Virginia remained annoyed about the location of the line for more than a century, until the U.S. Supreme Court settled the matter in 1893, ruling in Tennessee’s favor that “a boundary line between states or provinces which has been run out, located, and marked upon the earth, and afterwards recognized and acquiesced in by the parties for a long course of years, is conclusive.” In other words, if you agree to live with a border for long enough, you forfeit the right to complain about it.
The so-called "Simpson County Offset"
Finally, I have always wondered why the Kentucky-Tennessee border dips down in Robertson County, Tennessee, and Simpson County, Kentucky (coincidentally, where Interstate 65 is). “I’ve always heard that it was called ‘dueling ground’ because it was a no man’s land between the two states where people could go to duel and avoid laws against it,” says my friend Robert Brandt, author of the fascinating Compass American Guides Tennessee.
As it turns out, the so-called “Simpson County Offset” was caused by human error. When Walker and Smith surveyed this part of the state in December 1779 and January 1780, they were able to do almost no astronomical observations in this part of the state due to cloudy weather. Also, Walker later noted, “there was some iron ore in that vicinity, which deflected the needle of the compass.”
By 1830 it became obvious that the line was in the wrong place, which is why surveyors were sent to the area to redraw the line. Those surveyors determined about where the boundary line was supposed to be but wisely recommended in their report that the official border be left where it was. “Let Tennessee yield to Kentucky her claim to the triangular territory and let Kentucky yield to Tennessee her claim on the triangular territory in dispute,” they recommended, and the state’s agreed.
However, this didn’t settle the matter. A generation after this survey, a Robertson County settler named Middleton continued to claim that 101 acres of his property that protruded into Kentucky was rightfully in Tennessee. Two surveyors sent to the area to settle the dispute in 1859 agreed with him, which is why a rectangular piece of land about 100 acres in size protrudes northward into Kentucky.
“There are many hearsay stories claiming they were offered a barrel of whiskey to survey around the Middleton offset, and allow it to become part of the state of Tennessee,” Sames’ book points out.