Stanley Nelson

Andrew Ellicott was a surveyor and mapmaker who took a perilous journey down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to Natchez in 1796 to mark the new boundary line separating American and Spanish lands.

That east-west line, which began on the east side of the Mississippi River six miles below Fort Adams in Wilkinson County, separated the U.S. to the north and Spanish Florida to the south.

Ellicott was 41 when he began his journey to Natchez. A Pennsylvania native, he was the eldest of nine children of modest means who grew up in the Quaker faith. His father was a miller and clockmaker.

Showing an understanding of mathematics and mechanics at an early age, Ellicott became a surveyor and mapmaker. Despite the anti-war stance of the Quakers, he served in the Revolutionary War in the Maryland militia and rose to the rank of major.

After the war, in 1784, he helped extend the survey of the Mason-Dixon line and later taught math at a Baltimore academy. He also served in the legislature.

But surveying was his true calling. His projects included marking the boundary of western Pennsylvania and conducting the first topographical study of the Niagara River, including Niagara Falls. One of his most recent projects prior to the Natchez journey was the 1791-92 survey of the future city of Washington, D.C.

So respected was Ellicott's work that in 1803 President Thomas Jefferson asked him to train Meriwether Lewis in preparation for what became known as the Lewis & Clark Expedition following the Louisiana Purchase.

But before the U.S. purchased Louisiana, the U.S. and Spain in 1795 signed the Treaty of San Lorenzo, also known as Pinckney's Treaty and the Treaty of Madrid. The agreement defined the boundary separating the two countries in North America along the 31st parallel and gave the United States, which possessed no lands west of the Mississippi, free navigation of the great river. The treaty also provided the U.S. a right of deposit at New Orleans, which remained a Spanish possession, and included an agreement that both nations leave the Indians be. Additionally Spain was required to remove its military posts on the east side of the river.

 

‘A GREAT THOROUGHFARE’

 

On May 4, 1796, President George Washington appointed Ellicott to survey the boundary on behalf of the U.S. Ellicott departed Philadelphia on a horse on September 16, 1796, arriving 12 days later. He had arranged for his baggage, instruments and equipment to be transported by wagon to Pittsburgh on the Ohio River.

Pittsburgh was then 25 years old and contained 200 houses, 50 bricked and framed, the remainder log cabins. The town was the center of western emigration and housed a rapidly growing boat-building industry.

According to the journal of Thomas Chapman, boat building was the "chief industry ... At either river bank could be procured at a moment's notice canoes cut from a single log, pirogues able to carry fifteen barrels of salt, skiffs of from five hundred to twenty thousand pounds burden, bateaux, arks, Kentucky broadhorns, New Orleans boats for use on the Mississippi river, and barges and keel boats with masts and sails."

Ellicott recorded in his journal that Pittsburgh "stands at the confluence" of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers, "the junction which forms the Ohio ... a great thoroughfare and the trade, of course, considerable - being a point of land and a large river on two sides."

There, Ellicott procured four boats, one with a cabin that was "new and spacious ... very elegant," and included "glass windows" and a wood stove. His baggage and instruments arrived at Pittsburgh on Oct. 3. His flotilla included a military escort, his son and other surveyors, and 25 woodsmen to do the back-breaking work of clearing a path through the southern forests to mark the boundary. 

Ellicott's party left Pittsburgh on Oct. 24.

In his journal, Ellicott recorded detailed information on what he saw and whom he talked to along the way down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. He took the air and water temperatures, described the geography, made scientific observations and calculated his position with the instruments of a surveyor.

 

‘WITHOUT ANY SHELTER’

 

At Marietta, Ohio, two weeks after departing Pittsburgh, he wrote Sarah his wife that the low water stage required his men to drag the boats "over the gravel, and shoals." He said game "is remarkably plenty" and that his party lived on wild turkey and fish.

Passing Blennerhassett's Island on the Ohio, he observed a floating mill on the river: "The ordinary streams of water in that part of the western country so universally fall in the summer, and beginning of autumn, that the inhabitants are under the necessity of having recourse to floating mills, or to others driven by wind, or worked by horses to grind their corn. Those floating mills are erected upon two, or more, large canoes or boats, and anchored out in a strong current. The float-boards of the water wheels, dip their whole breadth into the stream, by which they are propelled forward, and give motion to the whole machinery. When the waters rise, and set the other mills to work, the floating ones are towed into a safe harbrough" until the next season.

On Nov. 20, about a mile inland from the Kentucky shore of the Ohio, Ellicott viewed "salt works" where he learned "that 300 gallons of water, produce one bushel of salt; that they had 170 iron kettles, and made about 30 bushels of salt per day, which sold for 2 dollars cash per bushel ... The salt lick, or spring, is situated in the bed of a small creek."

By late November the weather had turned frigid. Once the shirts worn by crewmen froze after they were forced to stand neck deep in the low water to drag the boats over shoals. On Nov. 28, they arrived in Cincinnati, where Ellicott met Winthrop Sargent, secretary of the Northwest Territory and soon to be appointed first governor of the Mississippi Territory. He also met a future president, Captain William Henry Harrison, who commanded Fort Washington.

On Dec. 1, Ellicott discovered that "one of our soldiers had deserted after being detected in stealing liquor; made search for him but to no purpose." He often had to stop and repair the leaky boats damaged by hitting the shoals.

The party reached Louisville, Kentucky, on the Ohio on Dec. 8 where they came upon a Kentucky flatboat caught on a log and deserted by the passengers. On shore Ellicott found "several men, women, and children, who left the boat two days before in a small canoe when they found their strength insufficient … They were without any shelter ... it was then snowing very fast. We spent two hours getting the boat off, and taking it to the shore, where we received the thanks of the unfortunately crew, and left them to pursue their journey."

On Dec. 15, he observed "much ice" in the Ohio and at an "indian camp" his party "procured some meat," dined at a "great cave ... one of the greatest natural curiosities on the river."

On Dec. 16 he passed the mouth of the Cumberland River in Kentucky and on the 17th passed the mouth of the Tennessee. Two hours later he arrived at Fort Massac near the Ohio's confluence with the Mississippi. Captain Zebulon Montgomery Pike, who later explored part of the Louisiana Purchase and for whom Pike’s Peak is named, commanded the American fort on the fringes of the country’s western border.

 

‘THE ICE GAVE WAY AGAIN’

 

On the 18th, after six weeks of travel along the 1,000-mile long Ohio, Ellicott arrived at the river's confluence with the Mississippi. He noted that the Ohio country produced "all the immediate necessaries of life in abundance" and that many articles "such as hemp, cordage, hardware, some glass, whiskey, apples, cider, and salted provisions, are annually carried down the river to new Orleans, where they find a ready market."

The juncture between the two rivers at the time was an ice jam "impossible to navigate" with safety. Their situation was considered "very disagreeable; not expecting to be overtaken by such extreme cold weather, we were not prepared to meet it. Great part of our blankets and stores, flour excepted, were behind. Our instruments, baggage, and other articles, were all taken to the top of the bank, on the east side of the river, where we encamped, and for a number of days the cold was so intense that we had to keep up large fires both day and night, to prevent our being frozen." 

But there was another concern: The boat carrying provisions was missing. Ellicott sent a party up the Ohio to locate the vessel, which was manned by 20 men, including Ellicott's son. On the 26th at dawn "the ice gave way again ... it continued to move the whole day in so great a mass, that the water was not to be seen ... The concussion of the ice at the juncture of the two rivers produced a constant, rumbling noise, for many hours, similar to that of an earthquake."

Unable to move down the Mississippi due to the ice, Ellicott's men traded with Native Americans who lived and hunted nearby. The Indians supplied Ellicott's party with meat in exchange for flour. Ellicott's hunters were also able to kill wild game as well as "a great number" of raccoons and possums, which were skinned and "hung out in the frost a few days."

While encamped, Ellicott met Philip Nolan, an American closely aligned with the Spanish and known for his ability to hunt and capture wild horses. Nolan was traveling up river in route to Fort Massac. He described Natchez to Ellicott, discussed some of the leading citizens and shared his "very extensive knowledge of that country, particularly Louisiana."

 At Ellicott's request, Nolan agreed to accompany the surveyor to Natchez. He provided Ellicott information on the Indians on the west side of the Mississippi. The horse hunter was able to speak the language of several tribes and also understood the sign language of the Native Americans. 

By Feb. 1, the flotilla was off again before meeting a Spanish officer at New Madrid (just north of the present day boundary of Missouri and Arkansas), who said that he was under orders not to allow passage of boats down the river until Spanish posts had been evacuated. When Ellicott insisted that he had no orders from his government to delay his journey, the commander made no opposition.

Seven days later, Ellicott arrived at the Chickasaw Bluffs (Memphis), where the Spanish had a military post that was to be abandoned via terms of the Treaty of San Lorenzo. 

On the 15th, the Ellicott flotilla came upon two armed Spanish galleys but was not halted. On the 19th, Ellicott arrived at the Walnut Hills (Vicksburg), where the Spanish had erected "some considerable works. The post is a very important one, and capable of being made very strong."

Ellicott noted in his journal that the Walnut Hills "are so called from the tree of that name juglans nigra {Black Walnut}." A number of peach trees planted on the hills were in full bloom.

A short time later, Ellicott and his crew safely arrived in Natchez.

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