Laying Out Alabama

December 4, 2005
/ Print / Reprints /
ShareMore
/ Text Size+
A look into the creation of the public land surveys of Alabama.

Billy Smith, PE, PLS (left) and J.W. Kennedy, PLS (right) represented James Weakley and Thomas Freeman at the Huntsville, Ala., Maple Hill Cemetery in May.

As part of Huntsville, Alabama's bicentennial celebration this year, the Hunts-ville Pilgrimage Association hosted the city's annual Maple Hill Cemetery Stroll on May 8th. The group welcomed volunteers dressed in costume to represent many of the local community's most prominent citizens; Thomas Freeman and James Weakley, both federally appointed surveyors buried at this cemetery, were two of them. The Huntsville Pilgrimage Association, in conjunction with the city of Huntsville, continues to restore historic Maple Hill Cemetery, as its mission states: "Maple Hill is a history written in headstones, monuments and memories. Our goal is to preserve it for future generations." This year, J.W. Kennedy, PLS, of J.W. Kennedy Land Surveyors, portrayed Thomas Freeman, and Billy H. Smith, PE, PLS, of Smith Engineering Company Inc. represented James Weakley. Both Freeman and Weakley were instrumental in conducting much of the surveying of the public lands that make up the state of Alabama.

Alabama was one of 30 states that benefited from the public land survey system developed by a committee headed by Thomas Jefferson in 1785. The plan for this system called upon each state having a base line meridian to commence from a given point, and to have a grid system spread out into townships to include sections. In 1799, the Mississippi Territory was formed with much of the land occupied by Indians. A land cession in the Tennessee Valley region was needed as public demand grew. It was from within the Mississippi territory that the state of Alabama was later formed. Many individuals were involved with the surveying of the territory, including both Freeman and Weakley.

Huntsville, Ala., where he hired many hands to assist him. The Federal Land Sales Office was then also moved to Huntsville from Nashville.

Thomas Freeman

Thomas Freeman came to the United States from Ireland in 1784. Freeman then served under General George Wash-ington and aided with much of the surveying for the District of Columbia. Later, he joined Andrew Ellicott in an expedition along the Ohio River. When Freeman returned to Washington, D.C., in 1807, he was appointed to survey the newly ceded lands found within the newly formed Madison County in the Mississippi Territory. Freeman first arrived at the Tennessee Valley in September 1807. He met with leaders of the Cherokee and Chickasaw Nations at the Chickasaw Island (today known as Hobbs Island) found along the Tennessee River. A consensus was soon reached among the parties on where the boundaries for the ceded lands were to be surveyed. Using astronomical observations, Freeman established both an east and a west side boundary. Today, both of these Indian treaty boundaries, one Cherokee and the other Chickasaw, are marked on USGS maps. After Freeman surveyed each boundary up to the 35th parallel, he then proceeded to mark a point for the commencement for the Huntsville Meridian. Today, a historic marker highlights this point along the Tennessee-Alabama state line adjacent to a busy highway corridor.

After this point was defined, Freeman and his crews proceeded to run the Huntsville Meridian back to the Tennessee River. The base line seemingly split the new triangular-shaped Madison County in half. Freeman later extended the Huntsville Meridian more than 100 miles further south until it reached what became known as the "Freeman Line" separating the northern and southern survey districts of the Mississippi Territory. Back in the newly formed Madison County, many speculative land buyers became squatters seeking early possession over much of the lands. This was true prior to Freeman completing his surveys within the region. With instructions from the U.S. Capitol, Freeman proceeded to act as land registrar, taking applications from the land squatters to remain as "tenants at will" until the official public land auctions took place in Nashville, Tenn. Soon, Freeman completed the surveying of more than 345,000 acres of land within Madison County. Sections of the land were sold in 160 acre quarter sections for as little as one dollar per acre. Freeman himself became the largest single purchaser, securing more than 1,000 acres. He later sold much of his land to the many potential land buyers who soon flooded the region.

In July 1810, Freeman was reappointed as survey general for the Southern District of the Mississippi Territory. Freeman relocated to Washington, Miss., which was then capital of the territory. There, Freeman moved in to the office once run by Seth Pease, a former survey general for the region. Freeman was now faced with the dilemma of maintaining all the office land records in addition to performing survey duties in the field. Freeman also had to hire many new crewmembers. All of this came at a time when funding from the U.S. Treasury was becoming rather scarce. Still, pressures from the federal treasury department in Washington, D.C., to get the land surveyed quickly were growing with the government's urgent need for money. Following the War of 1812, Freeman and his crews were maintaining steady progress across much of the South District yet their work was being scrutinized at the U.S. Capitol, particularly by William H. Crawford, secretary of the Treasury. Crawford then appointed John Coffee as a survey general; however, Coffee was only tasked to continue with the surveying of the Northern District of the Mississippi Territory. Initially, Coffee worked out of Huntsville, Ala., where he hired many hands to assist him. The Federal Land Sales Office was then also moved to Huntsville from Nashville.

As more and more lands were being sought by potential buyers, much outcry came due to how vast a region the Mississippi Territory had become. As a result, the Alabama Territory was then ceded from the Mississippi by a congressional act in the year 1817. On Dec. 14, 1819, Alabama officially became a state. John Coffee, with assistance from Freeman, then proceeded to survey the boundary separating Mississippi from Alabama. Freeman then continued his efforts throughout the South District, which included much of Southern Alabama, Mississippi, and lands ceded from the Louisiana Purchase.

One of the major bench marks that Freeman relied upon while surveying the Southern District was the Ellicott Stone. Andrew Ellicott established this point to the north of the Mobile Bay area when he was commissioned by George Washington to represent the United States during the Pinckney Treaty with Spain. This treaty called for the survey of an international boundary between the two countries. The Ellicott Stone marked a point along this boundary as it was surveyed along the 31st parallel. Later, the St. Stephens Meridian was run north of this same point until it reached the Freeman Line. Similar to the Huntsville Meridian, townships were laid out with ranges running east and west of the base line.

While Freeman was enjoying a return visit to Huntsville in 1821, he stopped to stay with his friend Stephen Neal. While at Neal's place, Freeman became very ill and died on Nov. 8, 1821. Freeman was laid to rest at the Neal family plot of the Maple Hill Cemetery in Huntsville where his grave remained unmarked for more than 170 years. In 1999, The Tennessee Valley Society of Professional Land Surveyors, a chapter of the Alabama Society of Professional Land Surveyors, raised money through a golf tournament for the placement of a marker commending Freeman. Today, Freeman is highly respected for his accuracy in the field. Although he used only the basic tools such as a compass and a 33-foot Gunter's chain, many local surveyors believe the accuracy of Freeman's work is comparable to today's work using GPS and EDM instruments.

Another surveyor, Richard W. Anderson, had this monument placed in the Maple Hill Cemetery in memory of his deceased relatives and to perpetuate the Huntsville Meridian that Thomas Freeman positioned.

James Weakley

When John Coffee was appointed to survey the Northern Territory District, he soon hired James Weakley and Ferdinand Sannoner as his clerks. In 1823, Coffee moved his office from Huntsville to Florence, Ala., where he secured more than 1,200 acres. Weakley and Sannoner helped Coffee maintain the land records at this office. On Dec. 14, 1827, a fire destroyed this office and all of the records that had been maintained. Following the death of Coffee in July 1833, Weakley was appointed as the survey general. His first major task was to resurvey much of what Coffee had previously done. As Indians ceded more lands throughout Alabama, Weakley was commissioned to survey throughout the northern and southern region. Weakley was very meticulous with his record-keeping skills and would often draw up plats to send to Washington, D.C., showing his progress. Weakley continued to serve as survey general until his death on Sept. 3, 1856. He is buried at the Maple Hill Cemetery in a family plot.

Celebrating a Working Foundation

Both Freeman and Weakley, notable surveyors for their work establishing the public land surveys of Alabama, faced monumental tasks during their time. As a result of their work, the state today employs a grid system of townships, ranges, sections, section corners, political boundaries and other features. Those of us who work within the surveying profession today are fortunate to have a system with such a great history. This is true for Alabama and the nation as a whole.

Did you enjoy this article? Click here to subscribe to POB

Recent Articles by Bob Baudendistel

You must login or register in order to post a comment.

Multimedia

Videos

Image Galleries

HxGN Live

More than 3,500 attendees from more than 70 countries attended HxGN Live, the annual Hexagon AB user conference, at the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas on June 3-6. About 450 keynotes and panel discussions were held, and several companies from around the world exhibited their geospatial products. Here are a few snapshots from the event.

POB

POB August 2014

2014 August

In the August 2014 issue, POB explores how John McAslan + Partners used 3D modeling to facilitate the update design of King's Cross Station. Also, read how keeping workers safe on a rocky, steeply sloped mountainside requires precise, reliable monitoring.

Table Of Contents Subscribe

Drones

How long until drones will be commonly used in business?
View Results Poll Archive

Point of Beginning Store

M:\General Shared\__AEC Store Katie Z\AEC Store\Images\POB\epubsite\Statues-pic-large.gif
Surveyor Statues

The perfect gift or award for any special occasion.

More Products

Clear Seas Research

Clear Seas ResearchWith access to over one million professionals and more than 60 industry-specific publications, Clear Seas Research offers relevant insights from those who know your industry best. Let us customize a market research solution that exceeds your marketing goals.

Geo Locator

Buyers Guide

The #1 buyers' guide for land surveyors and geomatics professionals. Search listings for software and equipment manufacturers, equipment dealers and professional services. CLICK HERE to view GeoLocator.

STAY CONNECTED

Facebook logo Twitter logo  LinkedIn logo  YouTube logoRPLS small logo

Google +