Boundary Line

December 27, 2010

Take out a map of Kentucky with the counties identified.

Going west to east, proceed across our southern line to Simpson County, Kentucky.  There, in the otherwise straight boundary, you will see a tiny gig which cuts down into Tennessee like an inverted triangle.  I’ve wondered about that oddity in our southern boundary all my life.

I’ve heard lots of stories about it.  One is that there was a wealthy plantation owner in Kentucky who wanted all of his land to remain in Kentucky.  So, when they came to survey the boundary, he put a barrel of hard cider underneath a tree on the southern tip and told the surveyors if they would survey out to that point and back as part of their work, they could have the cider.

I never really believed that story.

Now I know what happened.  Sometimes truth is more interesting than fiction.  And sometimes it’s not very interesting at all.  In the case of the gig—it’s the latter.

As in Kentucky's case, boundaries sometimes occur by nothing more than chance and/or mistake.

The deviation in the straight line was caused simply by faulty surveying equipment.  According to compilation of the historic surveys and reports by James W. Sames, III, “there was a heavy iron deposit in that area which threw off the reading of the compass.”

So much for that.

What about the variation in the boundary line of the Jackson Purchase from the rest of the state?  The Jackson Purchase is that far western part of Kentucky west of the Tennessee River.  That portion did not become a part of Kentucky until 1818 after a negotiated purchase of the land by Governor Isaac  Shelby and General Andrew Jackson from the Chickasaw Indians.  Thus, it is called the “Jackson Purchase.”  The rest of Kentucky had been carved out of Virginia into a state in 1792.

I’d also heard some stories about the deviation in the southern line of the Jackson Purchase.  One was that the surveyors started from the Mississippi River going east instead of from Virginia going west, and—oops—the lines didn’t match up.  Too bad Tennessee.

This account is basically correct.  But the rest of the story is both complicated and interesting.

In 1779, with the War of Independence in full throttle, the expectant states of Virginia and North Carolina had their western boundaries surveyed to the Tennessee River.  It was a joint effort with Dr. Thomas Walker and Daniel Smith chosen by Virginia, and Colonel Richard Henderson and William Smith selected by North Carolina.  The accepted latitude was to be 36-30.  Almost from the start, the two groups grumbled and complained with each other until finally the line was established across the two states.  It was known as the Walker line.  Almost from the outset, it was believed that the line was in error and should have been further south—which would have put about 2,500 more square miles of territory into Kentucky.

These critics were proven right when—forty years later using better surveying equipment and techniques—the Jackson Purchase line was surveyed out from the Mississippi River to the Tennessee River.  The Walker line was off by 9 miles.  Surveyors of the Purchase line were Robert Alexander and Luke Munsell.

Needless to say, this created quite a controversy between the states of Kentucky and Tennessee. Kentucky wanted those nine miles.  Trying to be good neighbors, the two states negotiated the discrepancy until a compromise was reached in 1820.  In retrospect, it appears that Kentucky “got taken to the cleaners.”  Tennessee agreed to the more southern Kentucky line across the Jackson Purchase, and Kentucky agreed to the more northern Walker line across the rest of the state.  There seems little dispute today that the Alexander-Munsell of the Jackson Purchase line would have stood up in a court of law, causing it to run from the Tennessee River to Virginia.  In other words, Kentucky ceded 2,500 square miles of territory to the Volunteer state.

A survey in process

Still got that map?  Draw a straight line from Kentucky’s southern boundary west of the Tennessee River across the rest of the state.  In that so called compromise, we gave Tennessee the cities of Clarksville, Springfield, and Kingsport.

And they still insist on beating up on us in football.  No gratitude at all.

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