James Camak started his career as a professor at University of Georgia, left to make a fortune in banking, and went on to become president of Georgia’s first railroad company, a respected newspaper editor, a professor at University of Georgia (again!), and a Trustee of the college. One thing he was not though, was an accurate surveyor. In 1818, early in his career, he was appointed by the state to help survey the boundary line between Georgia and Tennessee. He botched the job. Twice.
When the State of Tennessee was created by an act of Congress in 1796, the state’s southern boundary (and thus the corresponding northern boundary of Georgia, already a state for eight years) was decreed to be the 35th degree of North latitude. At the time, the western boundary of Georgia was the Mississippi River.
In 1802, partly as a result of political maneuvers following the Yazoo Land Fraud, Georgia gave up all possession of what was then known as the Mississippi Territory (currently the States of Alabama and Mississippi). The Articles of Agreement and Cession described the new western boundary of Georgia to be, in part, “…thence in a direct line to Nickajack, on the Tennessee River; thence crossing the said last mentioned river, and thence…along the western bank thereof to the southern boundary of the State of Tennessee.”
On June 1, 1818, James Camak, who was then teaching mathematics at the University of Georgia in Athens, joined with James Gaines, a mathematician hired by Tennessee, to survey the line between the two states. The survey began at a stone, two feet tall, that supposedly marked the corner of the states of Georgia and Alabama and on the 35th parallel, the southern boundary of the state of Tennessee. The stone was described as being “one mile and twenty-eight poles from the south bank of the Tennessee River, due south from near the center of the old Indian town of Nick jack”.
The accepted method of the day was to calculate one’s position on the surface of the Earth by observing specific heavenly bodies at specific times of day and comparing their positions in the sky with published tables called ephemerides.
The survey results were only as good as the charts being used, as well as the apparatus employed. Camak expressed doubts about his astronomical tables, stating they “were not such as I could have wished them to be”.
To compound that problem, the governor had refused Camak’s requests for a ‘Zenith Sector,’ a state-of-the-art surveying instrument, so they were making do with a nautical sextant. Sextants, being primarily for marine use, only get you close to your destination.
The zenith sector, the tool Camak wanted to use, but didn’t. It pointed straight and directly overhead. A telescope rotated on a pivot and allowed astronomers to measure the zenith distances (the angle between the star and the highest point in the sky) of celestial bodies. This also necessitated aligning the instrument in the meridian (a line through the poles). Since the graduated scale was so low to the ground, the astronomer usually had to lie on his back or a special reclined seat in order to effectively make observations with the zenith sector.
The first session placed them anywhere from 11 miles north to 11 miles south of the target line. Wisely, the group decided to dispense with that particular instrument and all calculations to date. Camak observed for 10 more days and nights, finally to arrive at the conclusion to place the corner stone “…one mile and 7 chains [about 5700 feet] from the Tennessee River and about one quarter of a mile south of Nickajack Cave.”
Only 26 days after they had begun, the survey party ended their task atop Unicoe Mountain, 110 miles east of the point of beginning. On July 13, 1818 Camak, along with appointed representatives of both states, met in Milledgeville, GA to certify the survey as correct.
Eight years later, after new observations for latitude had been taken, Camak ran the line again and discovered his original line was almost one mile south of the true 35th parallel in several places.
He again made ten days of celestial observations. This time, he determined that the northwest corner of Georgia was marked 37.9 chains (about 2500 feet) south of the 35th parallel. So that year, the “Camak Stone” was pulled up and moved north to its current, and still inaccurate, location.
If his original placement had been as accurate as we now could make it using GPS, the State of Georgia would include a section of the Tennessee River and the Nickajack Reservoir.
No one in Georgia seemed to care about the location of the border for more than 70 years. But the rapid growth of the rebuilt Atlanta changed all that. Because of typographical errors in a book of mathematical tabulations and use of the wrong measuring tools, the nearly infinite supply of water in the Tennessee River was not available to the citizens of Georgia. Atlanta depends upon Lake Lanier and the Chattahoochee River for its water, while the Tennessee River flows just out of reach with 15 times greater flow than the Chattahoochee.
Starting in 1887, the Georgia legislature began raising the border issue in the form of resolutions. In 1905, 1915, 1922, 1941, 1947, 1971, and again just last year, the state called for discussions between Tennessee and Georgia to resolve boundary issues.
Each time Tennessee did little or nothing to achieve any change. In 1947 Georgia went so far as to form a borderline committee and authorized it to look into the matter and the Attorney General of Georgia to bring suit to the Supreme Court if the committee could not resolve the dispute. Yet the border remained the same.
The long-held legal principle is simple, says modern day border expert Louis DeVorsey: The decisive fact is not where surveyors meant to draw the line — it’s where people have accepted the line to be over time.
“It’s where people adjusted their lives to,” said the retired University of Georgia geography professor.
Savage Historical Surveys at bit.ly/3B72lT