Atlanta's Ancient Trails

The 1821 Land Survey

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Tommy H Jones 2019



In January 1821, representatives of the Creek Nation signed the first Treaty of Indian Springs ceding to the federal government some 4.3 million acres of Creek territory, including the present City of Atlanta and its suburbs to the south and east. Organized into five large counties, the land was platted into land districts that were to be “nine miles square, as near as practicable”; each district was then surveyed into land lots of 202½ acres, a little over half mile square. Although the district and land-lot lines were arbitrary lines on maps, they would leave their mark on the landscape nonetheless. North Avenue, West Peachtree Street, Eighth Street, and Northside Drive are but a few of Atlanta’s streets that were laid out along land-lot lines.

In addition to survey lines and boundary markers, the plats show streams and rivers and sometimes important roads or trails, including the entire route of the original Peachtree Road, which was opened in 1814. For the Seventeenth District, which encompasses what are now the City of Atlanta north of an east-west line along Eighth Street and most of Sandy Springs, the State’s surveyor, John Thompson Terrell (1798–1864), left an extraordinary level of detail beyond the usual land-lot boundaries and creeks. The plats that he drew for each land lot in the district 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. On the district plat, Thompson delineated the Peachtree and River Roads, both of which were opened during the War of 1812, as well as the ancient Sand Town Trail and the trail between Standing Peachtree and Stone Mountain.

On the plats that he drew for each of the district’s 268 land lots, Thompson also included dozens of secondary trails, or “paths” as they were sometimes called. That is a level of detail not found in the State’s surveys of any of the surrounding districts, including the Fourteenth District, which encompasses most of the city south of Eighth Street; indeed, early trail systems were rarely mapped at the local level at all. Some of the trail segments may have led to individual farms, but many were the sort of interconnecting routes of travel common wherever there is human settlement.

The network of trails mapped by Terrell in 1821 is an early imprint on Atlanta’s palimpsest and a reminder that humans have always walked, “veining the earth with paths visible and invisible, symmetrical or meandering” as one author put it. Long before European contact, early people had created an elaborate system of paths crisscrossing eastern North America, some following tracks worn by buffalo and other megafauna through eons of use prior to the arrival of humans toward the end of the last ice age. [1]

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)

1. Thomas Clark quoted in Robert Macfarlane, The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot (New York: Penguin Books, 2012), 13. Louis DeVorsey, "Indian Trails," New Georgia Encyclopedia, accessed 5 April 2014. On the ubiquity and character of early trails, see William Edward Meyer, "Indian Trails of the Southeast," Forty-second Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian, 1924-1925 (Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1928), 739, 743.

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Atlanta's Ancient Trails