Laying Out 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.
Thomas FreemanThomas 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.