SURVEYORS ERROR IN DRAWING 'WALKER LINE' KEPT TENNESSEE, KENTUCKY AT ODDS FOR MANY YEARS
By Dallas Bogan
Reprinted with Permission from Dallas Bogan. This article was published in the LaFollette Press.
Tennessee and Kentucky were in dispute over the northern boundary line for many years. The parallel of latitude of 36 degrees and 30 minutes north was made an extension of the boundary line between the colonies of Virginia and North Carolina, and on that parallel this projected line was the line dividing Kentucky from Tennessee.
The legislature of Virginia, in 1779, named Dr. Thomas Walker and Daniel Smith on the part of the State, and North Carolina named Col. Richard Henderson and William Bailey Smith as members of a joint commission to run an extension of this line into the West where it had never been run between those States. The territories of Kentucky and Tennessee were included in those parts.
The committee members of the two states differed in their individual opinions and they divided. The commissioners of Virginia then declared independence on the proposed line and ran what was known to be Walker's line to the Tennessee River. Not allowing for the variation of the needle, they averted toward the north, and as a result the Tennessee River was reached about 17 miles north of the true latitude line.
Finding that the surveyors had made a mistake, Kentucky, in the opening years of the 19th Century, sought a correction of the line and tried to reclaim the long, narrow strip held by Tennessee under the Walker survey. West of the Tennessee River the line had not been run and Kentucky was less embarrassed.
Kentucky refused to accept the line run by Walker. Tennessee enacted through the legislature in 1803, 1815 and 1817 and urged Kentucky to accept this. Kentucky did exhibit a somewhat reasonable compromise in 1816 by adopting the Walker line, only if a true line between the Tennessee and the Mississippi Rivers could be jointly approved. Tennessee's time limit to respond was one year. The Tennessee legislature failed to comply in 1817, but proposed that a mutual commission compliantly proceed on the Walker survey.
Kentucky was irritated to the point of vigorously stating, the following year, that the "true" line of 36 degrees 30 minutes was her south boundary. She sent her commissioners, in 1819, Alexander and Munsell, to locate and mark that line. Tennessee was vehemently alarmed at losing the original property. The newly surveyed line would put Clarksville in Kentucky.
Tennessee, now greatly disturbed at losing some valuable land, became more concerned with the facts. The Tennessee legislature, in 1819, stated in general terms that until adjustments be made she would not permit any locations of entries be made north of the line run during the present year by commissioners of Kentucky (Alexander and Munsell) west of the Tennessee River. Gov. McKinn stated that: "If the line recently run by the State of Kentucky between the rivers Tennessee and Mississippi should be in the true latitude, it must and ought in justice to stand." This effort was made to hold the much larger strip east of the Tennessee River.
The legislature named two of Tennessee's ablest lawyers, Felix Grundy, who had been chief justice of Kentucky and later represented Tennessee in the United States Senate and in the Cabinet, and Wm. L. Brown, who was later a supreme judge of the State.
Kentucky named John J. Crittenden, later Senator and cabinet member, and Robert Trimble, who had served on the bench of the Court of Appeals and was later a justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. These two Commonwealths had sent the foremost-qualified men in the history of the country to settle the treaty.
On February 4, 1820, the two sides compromised which gave Kentucky the true latitude line as the north boundary of West Tennessee, and to Tennessee the old Virginia line of the Walker and Smith east of the Tennessee River.
Significant parts of the boundary remained uncertain until a resurvey was completed in 1859.