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|Spanish gave bonus, U.S. slow to pay boundary surveyors on the line|
On May 26, 1798, William Dunbar of Natchez arrived at a point along the Mississippi River a few miles below what is now Fort Adams in southern Wilkinson County and northern East Feliciana Parish.
An astronomer, Dunbar had been named by the Spanish government to represent that country's interest in marking the boundary line to separate the newly-formed Mississippi Territory on the north and Spanish territory of West Florida on the south. The American Boundary Commissioner was Andrew Ellicott, who had arrived earlier and had encamped several miles inland due to high water.
Dunbar said at the time that the Mississippi backwater "over spread the low grounds from 4 to 10 feet in depth."
In part because of this, it had taken some time for Ellicott and Dunbar to locate the 31st parallel, which was the line this new boundary would follow. A road had to be built just to get the equipment to the location.
Said Ellicott: "Our instruments, baggage, etc. were first carted from the Bayou Tunica, to Alston's Lake, into which I had previously taken through the swamp two light skiffs: the articles were then taken by water, up the lake to the point where our road from the hill struck it; and from thence packed on horses to our encampment. The country was so broken, and covered from the tops to the bottoms of the hills, with such high, strong cane, and a variety of lofty timber, that a road from the Bayou Tunica, to our camp, could not be made by our number of hands, in less than a month passable for packhorses."
Not long after Dunbar arrived, the Mississippi returned to its banks. Dunbar said once he learned the "inundation had retired within the margin of the river, it was determined that our company should divide, in order that the portion of the line extending from the high lands to the Mississippi might be completed..."
Since the "moist and swampy soil in the vicinity of the Mississippi" was "considered as hazardous to the health of our Northern friends," Dunbar proposed that Ellicott continue eastward with 50 white laborers. Dunbar, meanwhile, pushed the line through the low grounds westward "to the margin of the Mississippi with the assistance of 2 surveyors, 22 black laborers and a white overseer."
For two days he prepared an encampment, moved supplies and on the morning of August 1 began cutting the line westward, work completed by the end of the month.
Because this was such a big job for both countries, it created employment opportunities for many men in this region. While the Spanish paid their employees well, the top employees for the U.S. work force weren't paid timely, or as well. In fact, Ellicott wrote about economic concerns often, remarking once in his journal that his observatory tent had been worn out by the military back in Natchez.
When U.S. soldiers arrived there with Ellicott in 1797 in anticipation of the change of government from Spanish to American, Ellicott said the military "had no tents." Because his observatory tent was "worn out" by the soldiers, he had to erect a wooden building for his instruments in the wilds along the boundary line.
During the "sickly" spring season, the camps were filled with feverish men. That, coupled with little money and inadequate supplies, made matters worse for the American camp.
"The penny-pinching federal government seemed the enemy to its commission," wrote historian Elizabeth Johns, "woefully inadequate congressional appropriations for the survey personnel found that their stipends could hardly cover their expenses in the area of 'amazingly high living costs.' They envied the Spanish party's superior outfit."
Some of the workers for the Spanish, many of whom were American, actually received a bonus for their labor once the boundary line was marked from east of the Mississippi to the Atlantic Ocean. Ellicott and employees for the United States weren't so lucky.
This difficult financial situation drew the ire of Ellicott, but it embittered one of the young men working for him, 17-year-old John Walker from Natchez. He was the son of a Natchez government clerk named Peter Walker, who worked for the Spanish and then worked for the Americans during Winthrop Sargent's administration.
John Walker got a job on the line for the Americans on the recommendation of Dunbar and excelled. Ellicott was so impressed that he once thought Walker would be a good husband candidate for his daughter. In a letter to his wife -- he addressed her as "My Dear Girl" -- he wrote that he had employed "a fine boy" named Walker, whom "I intend for Polly...to meet."
Walker traveled to Philadelphia with Ellicott after the boundary work was completed, drew many of the maps commissioned as part of the survey and attended school. There, Walker also enjoyed an active social life and dreamed of future success.
He wrote home to his father: "I have a great desire to see the world..."
But with little money, the excitement eventually dimmed.
"Having spent three years and eight months carrying out an important commission for this country under extraordinary difficulty circumstances," wrote Johns, "Ellicott could obtain from the (President John) Adams administration neither audience nor pay for himself or his party. Some of the difficulty stemmed from the government's recent hasty removal from Philadelphia to the new capital of Washington; some was due to the turbulent politics of the presidential election year."
Because of the difficult times economically, Ellicott had to sell his instrument and books to survive.
"By May 1801...," said Johns, "Ellicott had yet to see a penny from the government...and his family was suffering great hardship, in which Walker presumably shared. How embittering then, to learn that the grateful Spanish monarch had not only praised its survey party, but had also given them a bonus of twenty-six thousand dollars to divide among themselves."
When Walker learned that the new American governor back home -- W.C.C. Claiborne -- had replaced his father as court clerk, the resentment grew. Walter eventually returned home where he, his father and his brother earned employment by the Spanish across the river from Natchez in territory still held by Spain.
Walker became the first official surveyor for the Spanish in Concordia and his surveys and property descriptions, written in his beautiful penmanship, can be found on documents housed at the Clerk of Court's office in Vidalia.
Romance apparently never bloomed between Walker and Polly Ellicott. In fact, Walker never married, but he became an outstanding map-maker for the Spanish in Texas and Mexico. After his days in Natchez, he went on to live a mysterious life and spent his final days on this earth in exile in Spain. (That's a future column.)
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