By Dale Cox
Neal’s Landing – It is a little known fact that the first scientific observatory in the history of Florida was established in what is now Jackson County in 1799. Florida was still a Spanish possession at that time and the observatory was the result of a joint U.S. and Spanish expedition assigned to determine the exact boundary line dividing the two nations. Spain and the United States had ratified the Treaty of San Lorenzo in 1796 and the treaty established the 31st parallel as the official dividing line between the United States and Spain’s possession, Florida.
The problem was that no one knew exactly where the line ran. To find out, the two countries assigned teams of surveyors to hack their way through the wilderness and mark the new boundary. The U.S. team was headed by Andrew Ellicott, a veteran of the American Revolution. He was the man called on by President George Washington to survey the new District of Columbia (Washington, D.C.). The leader of the Spanish team was Stephen Minor, a Pennsylvania native that had served in the Spanish army during the American Revolution and then settled in what was then Spanish territory at Natchez, Mississippi.
The two men, accompanied by other surveyors and a detachment of Spanish cavalry, started their work on identifying the line in what is now Alabama in 1799. After they determined the starting point, Ellicott and Minor traveled separately by ship to the mouth of the Apalachicola River while the other men of the survey party chopped their way due east through the wilderness, marking the line with a series of mounds of earth known today as "Ellicott Mounds."
Most of the mounds can still be found, but although the surveyors did the best they could with the equipment of the time, the Ellicott Line was incorrectly located for virtually its entire length. The errors were corrected later by surveyors with more modern equipment.
Severely blistered by poison ivy, Ellicott began his trip up the Apalachicola River on July 18, 1799. The wind did not cooperate, however, so he moved his equipment from his ship into a canoe and set off up-stream. Pushing ashore at a Native American village in what is now Calhoun County, he purchased horses and crossed into present-day Jackson County on July 23rd.
Following an old trail along the route of today’s River Road, he made contact with the surveying party on the banks of the Chattahoochee River just north of Irwin’s Mill Creek on July 25, 1799. In his journal he noted that, "The observatory was finished on the 27th, and the instruments unpacked and set up; but the rain continued until the 30th, and prevented any observations from being made until that day."
Ellicott was soon joined by Minor and the two officials spent a total of 28 days at their observatory in Jackson County, conducting astronomical observations to determine what they believed to be the precise location of the 31st parallel. In the process, they also recorded the first known weather observations in the history of Jackson County.
On July 28, 1799, for example, Ellicott noted that the day was "cloudy with rain all day" and that the temperature began at 82 degrees in the morning, but fell to 80 degrees at 10 a.m. On August 20th he reported that the morning began "remarkably fine and clear, wind from the east," but that a severe storm blew up at around 9 a.m. At 1 p.m. he reported a "gust of rain accompanied by large hail stones from the S.W."
The observatory was abandoned on August 23rd and the surveyors moved down to the present site of Chattahoochee in Gadsden County where they continued their work. Their Jackson County observatory, however, was the first known such scientific establishment in Florida.
The site, located on the Chattahoochee River just north of Neal’s Landing, is now overgrown and forgotten, with nothing more than one of Ellicott’s mounds remaining to mark this landmark event in the history of Jackson County, Florida, the United States and Spain.
Editor’s Note – Read more of historian Dale Cox’s notes about the history of Jackson County in the Local History section of our website, www.jacksoncountytimes.net.