Thomas Freeman

Thomas Freeman (ca. 1784-1821), often incorrectly identified as “Major,” surveyed more than 300 townships in the Mississippi and Alabama territories. He established the Huntsville Meridian, which runs North-South from the Alabama-Tennessee border to a line just above the 33rd parallel and just east and south of Columbiana, Shelby County, and from which point all the lands in northern Alabama were surveyed. Freeman is still recognized for his accuracy and thoroughness in his surveys. He came to own much land in Huntsville, present-day Madison County, through his work.

Thomas Freeman was born in Ireland and emigrated to the United States in 1784; he would become a U.S. citizen. The date of his birth and the names of his parents are unknown to historians. Soon after his arrival, George Washington hired him to survey his farms, collect rents, and secure payments for lands sold. Washington also appointed Freeman to take over Andrew Ellicott’s position surveying the streets and boulevards of the City of Washington. In 1796, Washington, then president of the United States, appointed Freeman as the surveyor of the international boundary line between the United States and Spain as dictated in the Treaty of San Lorenzo (1795), with Ellicott as the commissioner. Ellicott reportedly invited a prostitute to join the expedition, leading to a dispute between him and Freeman and Lt. John McClary, the commander of the military force traveling with the party. This dispute led Ellicott to dismiss Freeman and McClary from the expedition on October 18, 1798. After investigating the dispute, the Army’s senior commander, Gen. James Wilkinson, reassigned McClary and hired Freeman as engineer and superintendent of the construction of Fort Adams, present-day Mississippi, at Loftus Heights on the Mississippi River.

The War Department chose Freeman to survey tribal boundary lines in accordance with provisions set by various treaties with different Indian nations. From 1800-05, Freeman surveyed Native American lands in the Old Northwest Territory, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia. In 1801, he mapped the boundary line of the Cherokees in North Carolina. In 1802, he drew the Vincennes Tract in the Indiana Territory. In 1803, he met with Creek chiefs in Georgia to draw up the boundary lines for two detached tracts of land agreed upon in the Treaty of Fort Wilkinson, or Treaty with the Creeks, 1802, signed near present-day Milledgeville, Georgia. General Wilkinson, Indian Agent Benjamin Hawkins, and former South Carolina congressman Andrew Pickens represented the United States, and Creek signatories included headman Tustanagee Thlucoo, or Big Warrior, of the Upper Creek Tuckabatchee.

In 1805, Pres. Thomas Jefferson wanted to know more about the territory acquired in the Louisiana Purchase and appointed Freeman the leader of the Red River Expedition (the Freeman-Custis or Sparks Expedition in some sources). Formed to find the source of the Red River (it begins near the Texas Panhandle and empties into the Atchafalaya River in Louisiana), this expedition was one of a series of similar efforts, like the more famous Lewis and Clark Expedition, Jefferson ordered to investigate and map the new lands. Freeman was the official head of the party, which included botanist Peter Custis, Lt. Enoch Humphreys (Freeman’s assistant), and Capt. Richard Sparks, who was commanding a group of soldiers accompanying the expedition. Although the former Spanish governor of Louisiana, Sebastián Calvo de la Puerta, permitted the party to conduct scientific exploration, Spanish officials in the Province of Texas were opposed and had the authority to prohibit the trip. Meanwhile, Gen. Wilkinson, then governor of the Louisiana Territory north of the 33rd parallel and a spy for Spain, had informed Spanish officials of the expedition and urged their opposition. Around this time, he was scheming with Aaron Burr to create a territory in the West separate from the United States. Freeman and his party continued with the help of several Indian guides and a Frenchman. In July or August, sources differ on the date, Freeman’s expedition was confronted by Spanish forces under the command of Capt. Francisco Viana and turned back after traveling more than 600 miles above the mouth of the Red River at the Atchafalaya River. Despite failing to find the river’s source, it did produce important maps of the region. Jefferson then sent Freeman to explore the Arkansas River, but Congress did not fund the mission and it was scrapped. Secretary of War Henry Dearborn reassigned Freeman to map the lands acquired by the Cherokees and Chickasaws in the northern Mississippi Territory. Freeman began mapping the Chickasaw line around July 1, 1807, and the Cherokee line around September 11, 1807. He spent 100 days completing this survey and earned $400 (equivalent to $10,812 today).

In September 1807, Freeman agreed to survey the southern Tennessee border, which was the baseline for the Huntsville Meridian. After surveying the Meridian, Freeman proceeded to survey other townships bordering the Cherokee and Chickasaw lines. He surveyed public lands between the Tennessee state line, the Chickasaw and Cherokee Indian Nations, and the Tennessee River between mid-April and late November 1808. During this survey, Freeman placed 17 plats, or plots of land, outlining Madison County, Mississippi Territory.

On December 19, 1808, Mississippi territorial governor Robert Williams appointed Freeman Justice of the Peace, an office which he may have only held for a month until his successors took over. Freeman died on November 8, 1821, at the home of a Maj. Stephen Neal in Huntsville. Today, the Huntsville Meridian coincides with the city’s Meridian Street. There are two historic markers commemorating Freeman’s survey: one just south of the Alabama-Tennessee state line west of Highway 431 and the other in Maple Hill Cemetery. An unincorporated township directly north of Huntsville through which the line passes is named Meridianville. Thomas Freeman was often confused with Maj. Constant Freeman and thus George Washington incorrectly referred to Major Freeman in letters.

Further Reading

  • Flores, Dan L. ed. Southern Counterpart to Lewis and Clark: The Freeman and Custis Expedition of 1806. Norman. Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002.

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Huntsville Meridian Marker

Courtesy of the Historical Marker Database, photo by Darren Jefferson Clay
Huntsville Meridian Marker