Andrew Ellicott

Andrew Ellicott Andrew Ellicott (1754-1820) was perhaps the most notable astronomer, mathematician, and surveyor of the early years of the United States. During his extensive career, Ellicott helped map notable sites including present-day Washington, D.C., Lake Erie, and the Mason-Dixon Line. In Alabama, he is also remembered for surveying the 31st Parallel North, which marked the boundary between the United States and Spain’s North American territories, and eventually the states of Alabama and Florida. A surveying stone north of Mobile, Mobile County, bears his name.

Ellicott was born in 1754 in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, to Joseph and Judith Ellicott. He was the oldest of nine children. He served in the Revolutionary War and rose to the rank of major, after which he began to work as a surveyor, notably mapping present-day Washington, D.C. In 1796, Pres. George Washington commissioned Ellicott to work alongside Spanish appointee Stephen “Don Esteban” Minor to establish the boundary between the United States and Spain. In 1795, the United States had signed Pinckney’s Treaty with the Kingdom of Spain to define the boundary separating American and Spanish territories. Formally known as the Treaty of San Lorenzo, or Pinckney’s Treaty, the agreement allowed U.S citizens to travel freely on the Mississippi River through Spanish territory and fixed the boundary separating the two countries at the 31st Parallel of Northern Latitude. This signaled an important diplomatic victory for the United States as it settled territorial disputes without major conflict. The 31st Parallel North runs between the Mississippi and Chattahoochee Rivers to the Atlantic Ocean, separating what is now Alabama and Florida. At the time, the Kingdom of Spain occupied northwest Florida, so solidifying boundaries was crucial for the relatively young United States.

Ellicott Map At the time of Ellicott’s survey, Alabama was not a state and would not become a recognized territory of the United States until March 3, 1817. Although Ellicott was chosen because of his accomplishments in previous work, the journey to explore the 31st Parallel proved exceptionally difficult because of the overgrown terrain and frequent encounters with the Creek and Choctaw Nations as well as Spanish inhabitants. In addition to these hardships, the U.S. government granted Ellicott too little money and supplies.

Although some Native Americans retaliated against Ellicott and his crew, Ellicott heavily relied on their local insight to understand the land. Overall, Ellicott’s team consisted of 60 people, 10 of whom he knew personally before the expedition. The journey began in 1798 in Natchez, Mississippi, and Ellicott and his team travelled east up the Mississippi river. Their work was slow and tedious. Each day, the survey group cut new trails through the landscape as they battled everything from inclement weather to deadly diseases. During the spring of 1798, yellow fever broke out amongst the crew, nearly killing Ellicott and several of his men. After a short recovery period, however, Ellicott returned to the arduous task of exploring the southeastern wilderness.

As Albert James Pickett notes in his History of Alabama, And Incidentally of Georgia and Mississippi, Ellicott would occasionally leave his team for business purposes. In April 1799, Ellicott sailed to Pensacola to meet with Indian agent Col. Benjamin Hawkins, who warned Ellicott about travelling on the Chattahoochee River past July so as not to interrupt the traditional Native American Green Corn Ceremony. Hawkins and Ellicott met in lodgings provided by prominent mercantile firm Panton, Leslie, & Company. Whereas Hawkins served as a diplomat to the Native American nations, Panton, Leslie, and Co. held a monopoly on trade with Native nations across the Southeast. Working with both Hawkins and the mercantile firm, Ellicott attempted to thwart native opposition to his survey.

The trails they cut would later become routes that spurred major settlements in Alabama, such as Montgomery Hill, Claiborne (present-day Monroe County), and Stockton. To calculate the boundaries between American and Spanish land, Ellicott used state-of-the-art technology that measured latitude by looking at the stars. Setting up an observatory on a bluff above the Mobile River on April 10, 1799, Ellicott calculated the location of the 31st Parallel to establish the boundary between the United States and Spain.

Ellicott Stone Ellicott and the survey party erected a sandstone marker to designate the border, which became known as Ellicott’s Stone, at what is now the intersection of St. Stephen’s Meridian and St. Stephen’s Baseline, just southeast of Bucks, Mobile County, along U.S Route 43. On the American side, the marker reads “U.S. Lat. 31, 1799,” and the Spanish side reads “Domino De S.M Carlos IV, Lat. 31, 1799.” This marker eventually determined the line separating the future U.S. states of Alabama and Florida and became the starting point for all U.S land surveys in the southern region of Alabama and Mississippi. The United States later acquired the whole of Florida in the 1819 Adams-Onís Treaty. Today, there is a small parking lot on Route 43 North at the short trailhead to the marker. The marker became a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 1968 and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.

Although there is only one stone, Ellicott built mounds at set intervals to designate the border. In total, he and his team created 120 mounds ranging from one to two feet tall, but only 40 remain. The rest have been lost to logging and farming over the years. Auburn University instructor and surveyor Milton Denny has worked to locate the existing mounds through GPS and Geographic Information System technologies. Denny uses Ellicott’s original reports to accurately locate the mounds placed along the border when teaching his surveying students.

After the four-year arduous expedition, Ellicott and his team returned home. Ellicott maintained a diary of his time journeying through Alabama and in 1814 published a book of his travels aptly titled The Journal of Andrew Ellicott. In it are detailed descriptions of the flora, fauna, and people Ellicott encountered, as well as correspondence between American and Spanish officials concerning his survey.

Further Reading

  • Ellicott, Andrew. The Journal of Andrew Ellicott. 1814. Reprint, Chicago: American Classics, 1962.
  • Pate, James P. The Annotated Pickett’s History of Alabama. Montgomery, Ala.: NewSouth Books, 2018.

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