Atlanta's Ancient Trails

Mapping Atlanta's Early Trails

Sources of Information


Tommy H Jones, 2018



In January 1821, the first Treaty of Indian Springs was signed, formalizing cession of some 4.3 million acres of Creek territory to the United States, including the future site of the City of Atlanta and most of its eastern and northern suburbs. Surveyed and platted in the summer and fall of that year, the land was distributed in a State land lottery by year's end. In addition to the survey lines and boundary markers, the plats show streams and rivers and sometimes important roads or trails, including the entire route of the 0riginal Peachtree Road, which had been opened in 1814.

For the land district encompassing what are now the City of Atlanta north of a line along Eighth Street as well as all of Sandy Springs, the State's surveyor, John Thompson Terrell (1798-1864), left an extraordinary level of detail beyond land-lot boundaries and creeks. The plats that he drew for each land lot in the district appear to note even the most minor streams and branches, with most of the larger waterways given names that continue to be used today, including Utoy, Proctor, Peachtree, and Clear Creeks. Most importantly, in platting the land lots, Thompson went to the trouble of delineating not only Peachtree Road, which was then but a few years old, and the Hightower and Sand Town Trails, which had been in use for centuries; but also dozens of secondary trails, or paths as they were also called. Some may have led to individual farms, but many were the sort of interconnecting routes of travel common wherever there is human settlement. That level of detail is not found in the surveys of any of the surrounding districts, including the Fourteenth District which encompasses most of the city south of Eighth Street.

When mapped together, the data in Terrell's land-lot surveys reveal a myriad of trails that suggests something of the many routes of foot travel that were already in existence all across the region in 1821. The major trails would provide the framework around which rural roads and city streets developed after white resettlement of the area began in the 1820s. The imprint of secondary trails, too, lingers on in street patterns here and there about the city. The present analysis suggests that, of about forty-seven distinct trails or trail segments delineated in the 1821 land-lot surveys for the Seventeenth District, the routes of eighteen persist in whole or in part in the modern city's system of streets and roads.

Few if any of these trails have been corroborated by archaeological evidence and may never be. It might be possible to correlate some of them with archaeological sites documented during the course of modern road and utility construction, since many of those projects were documented during the course of compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act, Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, Section 7f of the National Transportation Act, and other state and federal laws and regulations. In spite of the paucity of archaeological documentation, however, historical documentation, especially the state land surveys, describes an elaborate system of trails. And a look at the road system that developed in the second quarter of the nineteenth century leaves little doubt that an important part of Atlanta's system of streets and highways—including much of Peachtree Road and some, but not all, of Peachtree Street—evolved out of ancient trails and paths.

In some instances, correlation between the route of a trail and that of a modern roadway is necessarily imperfect, due in part to the limitations of a chain-measured survey of wooded, hilly terrain, where it might be difficult to obtain the level chain lines that were critical to accurate results. In addition, the surveyor, who was only running boundary lines, could not always see the entire length of a trail's route through a land lot, which was at least a half mile in length. As a result, irregularities in a trail's route may often have been inadvertently eliminated in drafting the final plat. Finally, the narrow, sometimes meandering route of the simple footpath was overwritten, as it were, by wagon road and city street; only the ghost of the ancient path remains today.

John R. Swanton (1873-1958), the noted anthropologist, cautioned, "there is, and always must be, considerable artificiality in the determination of what constitutes a trail, and where a trail begins and ends." The routes of foot paths and trails were not immutable; fallen trees or flooding from a beaver dam, for example, might precipitate permanent rerouting of a trail. Nevertheless the network of trails mapped by Terrrell in 1821 is an early imprint on Atlanta's palimpsest and a reminder that humans have been walking what we call Atlanta for thousands of years.

Copy from microfilm of Thompson's 1821 plat of Land Lots 2 and 3, Seventeenth District, encompassing part of what is now Morningside and Lenox Park. (Records of the Surveyor General, Georgia Archives)

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Atlanta's Ancient Trails