The shortest distance between point A and point B is a straight line, but not, apparently, when it comes to surveying a state border.
Recently stories about the efforts to resurvey the boundary between North and South Carolina have made the news, mainly because the committee in charge of the project is surveying they area around Charlotte, probably the most populated area near the border. In the course of their work, they’ve discovered that in places, the border isn’t where everyone thought it was. About ninety-three properties have been affected so far by the change in the state line.
So why are we going to all this trouble? Because the original surveyors often did not have the benefit of reliable compasses, let alone GPS, and they used whatever they could to mark the boundary as they went, including posts and marks on trees, most of which no longer exist. The uncertainty surrounding the location of the border makes knowing the exact boundaries of tax, fire and school districts difficult if not impossible.
If you spend any time in the southern part of Mecklenburg County, you know the border is not a simple affair. In some places, you can go not only south to reach South Carolina, but east, west, or even north. And sometimes the shortest route between two places in one state passes through the other.
But why is the boundary so complicated? The odd zig-zag in the border between the two states doesn’t seem to make much sense. After all, it’s not that hard to draw a straight line, and it seems that’s exactly what they intended to do, almost three hundred years ago when they first started surveying the boundary.
When it was decided in 1720 to divide the province of Carolina into two parts, the original decree stated that the border would start thirty miles south of the mouth of the Cape Fear River and continue northwest until it met the 35th parallel, at which point it would continue due west until, presumably, the Pacific Ocean.
Sounds simple. It turns out it wasn’t. Surveying began in 1735, by separate teams appointed by both colonies. They encountered a harsh wilderness of thick forests and muddy swamps, and to make matters worse, the team from South Carolina was never paid, so they quit only months into the job and nowhere near the 35th parallel. A second surveying team had to be hired. In 1737, they finally reached the Pee Dee River and the marker placed there to indicate the 35th parallel, but no more work was done until 1764 when the surveyors proceeded due west as instructed.
Still pretty simple, right? Not really. A provision was made that when the line reached “Catawba Town,” the settlement of the Catawba Indians, the boundary would be adjusted if necessary so their land would not be divided between the two colonies, but remain entirely in South Carolina. In 1772, the surveying team finally reached this part of the border, and they discovered the adjustment was in fact necessary. Consequently, the border takes an abrupt turn north at the southwest corner of what is now Union County. Today this boundary is known as the “Old North Corner” and is marked by a stone placed there in 1813, after a further adjustment.
So far, so good. No more surprises. Except that there were. The rest of the strange zig-zag still requires an explanation. It seems the original surveyors in 1737 made a bit of a mistake. What they though was the 35th parallel was twelve miles south of the actual 35th parallel, depriving South Carolina of hundreds of square miles it was rightfully entitled to. So rather than return the line to the 35th parallel after going around the settlement of the Catawba Indians, the surveyors followed the course of the Catawba River north to the confluence of the river’s north and south forks, a spot roughly twelve miles north of the 35th parallel. From there they continued westward. It was a conscious choice meant to compensate South Carolina for the land it lost because of the mistakes made earlier.
And, now, more than two hundred years later, we’re still correcting those mistakes.