Trails, Wagon Roads, and City Streets

Atlanta's Ancient Trails

Mapping Atlanta's Early Trails

Sources of Information


Tommy H Jones, 2018



In January 1821, representatives of the Creek Nation signed the first Treaty of Indian Springs, ceding to the federal government millions of acres between the Ocmulgee and Chattahoochee Rivers. Encompassing the future sites of the City of Atlanta and its suburbs to the south and east, the ceded territory was quickly organized into five large counties, out of which dozens of smaller counties have been created. Surveyors, working under contract with the State, platted the land into districts that were to be “nine miles square, as near as practicable,” and into land lots of 202½ acres, or a little over half mile square. The districts and land lots remain the foundation of any description of real estate today, while the arbitrary lines on plats have left their mark in the landscape: North Avenue, West Peachtree Street, Eighth Street, and Northside Drive are but a few of Atlanta’s thoroughfares that run along land-lot lines.

For the Seventeenth District, which encompasses what are now the City of Atlanta north of a line along Eighth Street as well as most of Sandy Springs, the State survey in 1821 left an extraordinary level of detail beyond land-lot boundaries, creeks, and boundary trees. Peachtree and River Roads, which were then but a few years old, and the Hightower and Sand Town Trails, which had been in use for centuries were delineated, but also dozens of secondary trails, or paths as they were sometimes called. Some may not have been of ancient origin, 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 the surrounding districts, including the Fourteenth District, encompassing most of the city south of Eighth Street, and the Thirteenth and Eighteenth Districts, encompassing western DeKalb County.

Few if any of these trails have been corroborated by archaeological evidence, but historical documentation, especially the state land surveys, describes an elaborate network of trails. A comparison of that with the streets and highways that developed in the second quarter of the nineteenth century suggests that an important part of Atlanta’s present pattern of streets and highways—including much of Peachtree Road and some, but not all, of Peachtree Street—evolved out of ancient trails.

Direct correlation of a trail with a modern roadway is sometimes hampered by the limitations of a chain-measured survey of wooded, hilly terrain, where it might be difficult to obtain the level lines that were critical to accurate results. This sometimes lead to errors that might later require a corrected plat. Direct correlation of trails to modern thoroughfares might also be made more difficult because of the inability of the surveyor, who was only running boundary lines, to see the entire length of a trail’s route through a land lot, and irregularities in a trail’s route may sometimes have been inadvertently eliminated in drafting the final plat.

The routes of foot paths and trails were not immutable either; fallen trees or flooding from a beaver dam, for example, might precipitate permanent rerouting of a trail. Finally, the narrow, sometimes meandering routes of the simple footpaths have been overwritten, as it were, by wagon roads and city streets many times wider so there is but the ghost of the ancient foot path remaining today. 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 this land 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)