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 4.3 million acres of tribal land that included what is now metropolitan Atlanta southeast of the Chattahoochee River. Five large counties were organized, and in early spring, the State began surveying the land into districts that were intended to be about nine miles square. For each district, the state contracted with a surveyor who was instructed

to take as accurately as possible the meanders of all water courses which shall form natural boundaries to any of the surveys; to note in field books to be kept by them respectively, the names of the corner and station trees which shall be marked and numbered under the direction of the surveyor general ; also all rivers, creeks, and other water courses which may be touched upon or crossed, in running any of the lines aforesaid; transcripts of which field books, after being compared with the originals by the surveyor general, and certified and signed on every page by the surveyor returning the same, shall be deposited in the surveyor general’s office. [1]

The interpretation and execution of those instructions varied widely, with some district and land-lot plats of survey, including those that encompass downtown Atlanta and areas south, showing no trails where it is certain that trails existed. None were more meticulous than John Thompson Terrell (1798–1864), who was contracted by the State to survey the Seventeenth District and plat it into land lots of 202½ acres, which are about a half square mile. With him were two “chain bearers,” who carried the 66-foot-long chain that was used for measurements and were identified in Terrell’s field notes as Benjamin Hyde, William McCurley, James Goodwin, and Micajah Goodwin (probably 1805–1870). It is not clear which, if any of them, might have worked the entire survey, and beyond noting that the Goodwins were early settlers in Gwinnett and DeKalb counties, no other biographical data has been located. [2]

Figure 1. Part of the first page of the surveyor’s field notebook when he began his survey in July 1821. (Records of the Surveyor General, Georgia Archives)

On 18 July 1821, Terrell commenced his survey at a “chestnut post” at the district’s southeast corner, which is near the present corner of Virginia Avenue and Rosedale Road in northeast Atlanta. Over that summer and into the fall, they walked the district, which encompasses what is now the City of Atlanta north of a line along Eighth Street as well as all of Sandy Springs. This survey formed the basis for the State’s fourth land lottery held in December of that year.

The plats that Thompson drew for each land lot noted even the most minor streams and branches; most of the larger waterways were given names that continue to be used today, including Utoy, Proctor, Peachtree, and Clear Creeks. Land-lot lines and corners were sometimes marked by rocks, but more typically they were marked by blazes on trees, which were noted on the plats and convey some sense of the temperate forest through which Thompson and his chain bearers made their way.

Most importantly, in platting the land lots, Thompson went to the trouble of delineating not only the few major trails in the area but, most significantly, dozens of secondary trails as well. Why he did so is uncertain. The legislation authorizing the 1821 survey does not mention roads or trails, although that for the first state surveys in the 1790s did as did surveys in Ohio and elsewhere in the early nineteenth century.

Figure 2. Thompson's plat for Land Lot 61 delineating "Peachtree Road" as it ran northeast between what are now Mathieson and and Highland Drives NE at the heart of the Buckhead business district. (Records of Surveyer General, Georgia Archives

After the debacle of their civil war in 1813, most of the Creek had withdrawn further down the Chattahoochee River valley, and that may have left some local trails badly overgrown and so were overlooked in the survey. Some of the smaller, less traveled trails may have led to individual farms and a few may even have been the result of squatters, but many of them were part of the interconnecting local routes of travel common in every community. 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, and such historical documentation for a local network of trails is almost never found elsewhere either.

In and around what is now the north side of the City of Atlanta, routes of travel were always limited by the necessity of crossing Peachtree Creek, which runs east and west across the city about four miles north of downtown and is a substantial stream most of the year. The Peachtree Trail’s crossing was at Standing Peachtree, just above the confluence of Peachtree and Nancy Creeks, where a log foot bridge over the creek was likely maintained from an early date. The creek could also be forded at two or three points around and just east of what is now Howell Mill Road as well as around the confluence of the creek’s two branches between Piedmont Road and Lindbergh Drive. There may have been other fords that could be used in the summer and fall when the water level of the creek was low.

Notes to Annotated District Plat of Survey

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. Some of these trails would provide the framework around which rural roads and city streets developed after white re-settlement of the area began in the 1820s. The present analysis suggests that, of about forty-seven trail segments delineated in the 1821 land-lot surveys for the Seventeenth District, the routes of over two dozen persist in whole or in part in the routes of modern city streets and roads.

Figure 2. Annotated district plat of survey for the Seventeenth District of what was originally Henry, later DeKalb, and now Fulton County. The plat, which encompasses what is now the City of Atlanta north of Eighth Street as well as Sandy Springs, has been annotated to delineate the trails, paths, and roads depicted in the survey records from 1821. The solid red lines indicate the routes of Peachtree and River Roads and area trails that were delineated on the district plat. The lighter red, dashed lines are the trails or paths noted in the individual land-lot surveys. (Annotations by Tommy H Jones, 2014)


1. At the northern end of the Seventeenth District, the objective of the trails was mostly the fords in the Chattahoochee River below modern Roswell. Terrell’s plats delineate a short stretch of the Hightower Trail where it crossed the river at Shallow Ford, three quarters of a mile downstream from the present Roswell Road Bridge. The trails shown on the land-lot plats indicate a second ford a little over half a mile downstream from Shallow Ford, and a third a half mile or so further downstream, both sites now flooded by Bull Sluice Lake. One historian of the area has suggested that the Shallow Ford was suitable for people and livestock but not for wagons, and that during the historical period, wagons tended to use the downstream fords. When a covered bridge was built just upstream from the present Roswell Road Bridge around 1840, Shallow Ford was mostly abandoned, but at least one of the lower fords remained in active use. Roads to all three fords were recorded by Union cartographers in 1864, but the 1895 USGS map shows only the western-most ford. All of the fords were flooded after construction of Morgan Falls Dam in 1904.

2. One of the few trails delineated in the northern half of the district followed the high ground between Long Island and Nancy Creeks for nearly five miles before disappearing in Land Lot 200. It was part of a longer trail that left Peachtree Road west of Duluth and generally followed the course of Spalding Drive, Mount Vernon Road and Highway, Glenridge Drive west of Johnson Ferry Road, Roswell Road between Glenridge and Mt. Paran Roads, and the latter to its intersection with Randall Mill Road. Terrell did not show the continuation of the trail to the southwest from there, but the remainder of Mt. Paran Road and at least part of Ridgewood Road are likely to trace much of the rest of the trail’s route. Although this trail was a way to get to Standing Peachtree, it may also have led to the river fords upstream from Peachtree Creek.

3. A shortcut to Standing Peachtree from the northeast diverged in a westerly direction from Peachtree Road a short distance north of Dresden Drive in Brookhaven. No modern streets or roads in Brookhaven correspond to this trail, but Old Ivy Rd west of Ga. 400 and Habersham Road between Piedmont and W. Paces Ferry Roads closely follow its track. Where Habersham Road now takes a sharp turn to the south at Knollwood Drive, the trail apparently continued to the southwest and connected to the original Peachtree Road, now W. Paces Ferry Road, more or less in front of the Governor’s Mansion.

4. This trail segment left Peachtree Road near its intersection with N. Druid Hills Road and traced an arc a few hundred yards north of Peachtree Road, rejoining it just west of Lenox Square. The trail would have passed near the springhead of a small tributary to Nancy Creek which may have been useful as a watering place for man and beast. This may be one of those trail segments that the road builders in 1814 bypassed for higher ground.

5. This intersection of two trails is more or less where Peachtree and W. Paces Ferry Roads intersect today. (Roswell Road was not built until the 1850s.) The trail to the southeast most likely would have led to the ford in Peachtree Creek near the Piedmont Road Bridge; in the 1820s a road from Decatur to Paces Ferry used this same ford. The trail to the southwest is generally the route of the modern Peachtree Road north of St. Phillips Cathedral, where it turned west, eventually connecting with trails leading to the fords in Peachtree Creek near Howell Mill Road.

6. The trail delineated here led to a ford in Peachtree Creek just downstream from where Howell Mill Road crosses today. It generally followed Arden Road between W. Paces Ferry Road and Northside Drive, and then Castlewood Drive and Dover Road, and Howell Mill Road to the ford. Although not shown in the 1821 survey, Arden Road west of Northside Drive led to a second ford located about a quarter mile upstream from the Howell Mill ford. There was a third ford further upstream on the east side of the creek’s horseshoe bend which seems to correspond with the “Rocky Ford” referenced in some early deeds. All three fords are documented in maps compiled by the US Army for its Civil War atlas.

7. Westminster School and I-75 were built over the intersection of trails in Land Lot 197, making interpretation difficult, but they either connected with or were a continuation of #4 and represent four different crossing points on Nancy Creek. Their main destination was Peachtree Trail and the village of Standing Peachtree, which was mostly on the south side of Peachtree Creek, but these trails also led to the river fords which were north of the creek. Between Nancy Creek and the river, parts of several modern roadways generally follow the routes of the 1821 trails, including most of Margaret Mitchell and Nancy Creek Drives, the northern half of Ridgewood Road, Old Plantation Road, W. Paces Ferry Road west of Nancy Creek, and perhaps Howell Mill Road north of Moores Mill Road.

8. Terrell delineated the intersection of these trails on the district plat of survey but not on the plat for Land Lot 231, probably because it was the built-up heart of Standing Peachtree. The earthen mound on which grew the legendary peach tree stood near the center of this land lot.

9. Peachtree Battle and Peachtree Hills Avenues are reminiscent of this trail’s route connecting north-south roads at the fords near Howell Mill Road and those upstream near the forks of the creek. This trail utilized Rocky Ford mentioned in #10 and at least part of it had been replaced by a road by the time Army engineers drew their maps in the 1860s. Three or four short spurs suggest that there may have been connecting trails that had disappeared before 1821.

10. Historical sources document another important ford three air miles farther to the east of those at Howell Mill Road and a few hundred yards downstream from today’s Piedmont Road Bridge. In 1825 the county authorized a new road and bridge that crossed Peachtree Creek just east of its confluence with Clear Creek. In between, where Peachtree Road now crosses Peachtree Creek, marshy terrain, including a “lagoon” where E. D. Rivers School is now located, made for a difficult crossing. Terrell showed trails crossing Peachtree Creek only at Standing Peachtree and at the fords around Howell Mill Road, which is not to say that there was nowhere else where the creek could be crossed, only that elsewhere would have been either more difficult or removed from any of the main directions of travel. In 1847 the Colliers and other subscribers constructed the first bridge where Peachtree Road now crosses the creek, and by then may have already established the modern route of Peachtree Road between West Wesley Road and the creek. Both roads run in part along surveyed land-lot lines.

11. The route of the longer trail segment here is similar to that of Shady Valley Drive. Prior to construction of I-85, it was a continuation of what is now Cheshire Bridge Road. There may have been a ford in the creek near where Cheshire Bridge was built after the Civil War. The shorter trail segment cannot be associated with present streets.

12. In northeast Atlanta, Terrell’s plat of Land Lot 3 suggests that Johnson Road NE, which today begins in DeKalb County just east of the county line, follows an older trail which forked north from the Stone Mountain Trail just west of the present intersection of Rock Springs Road and North Highland Avenue.

13. Terrell mapped the trail between Stone Mountain and Standing Peachtree on the district plat, and as noted earlier, much of its route can still be found in the routes of modern streets and roads. Less clear is the trail that is shown on the district plat map for the Seventeenth District leaving the Stone Mountain Trail in what is now Druid Hills and continuing southwest across the southeast side of Piedmont Park and into Midtown near what is now the intersection of Eighth Street and Argonne Avenue. In surveying the Seventeenth District, Terrell thought it important enough to delineate it on the district map itself, where he labeled it “Sand Town Path.” Although none of the surveyors of the surrounding land districts noted any part of the Sand Town Trail, some have taken Terrell’s as the trail’s main route. It seems improbable, however, that the main route of travel to Sand Town would not have kept to the high ground through Decatur and downtown Atlanta along which MARTA’s East Line runs today, a route that would avoid all creek crossings and is also the most direct route to the site of Sand Town from what is now downtown Decatur. Most likely, Terrell recorded one of a braid of roads leading to Sand Town.

14. This trail would have intersected Terrell’s “Sand Town Path” somewhere in downtown Atlanta. The northern part of this trail is marked today by DeFoors Ferry Road south of Collier Road and by Howell Mill Road as it passes between the two city reservoirs just north of Huff Road. The blocks of Hemphill Avenue south of Tenth Street appear to coincide with the southern part of this trail.

15. The intersection of the trails from Rocky Ford and the other creek fords with the Stone Mountain Trail was near the present intersection of DeFoors Ferry and Bohler Roads; the former road traces the Stone Mountain Trail, while the latter had its beginnings in one of the trails from the fords.

16. One of the trails converging on Standing Peachtree from the southeast ran across the top of a ridge in what is now the west side of Crest Lawn Cemetery. Later the route of the Old Marietta Road, it offers excellent views to the northwest to the site of Standing Peachtree and the river. To the southeast, it converged with the trail that tracked east from the River Road south of Standing Peachtree.

17. Leading southwest from Standing Peachtree was the River Road, which was most likely created at least in part out of an older Indian trail between Standing Peachtree and Sand Town. As noted above, Terrell’s survey shows the original road following the northern part of today’s Bolton Road and continuing south approximating the route of Parrott Avenue in Whittier Mill Village. By the time the River Road disappears from Terrell’s district plat near the southwest corner of the Seventeenth District, it was running very close to the river. Cochran Road, which runs along the river in south Fulton County may trace an Indian trail that ran south from Sand Town. Evidence for a trail between those two segments and most of the site of Sand Town itself have been obliterated by development along Fulton Industrial Boulevard.

18. The modern intersection of Hollywood Road and Felker Ward Street marks this trail intersection. The route of the trail to the east is obscured by Inman Yards, and the route of Hollwood Road to the south varied depending where it crossed Proctor Creek.

19. The northern part of this trail was lost to the Western & Atlantic and Inman Yards but its route might still be traced by parts of Perry Boulevard and Marietta Street as far as Ashby Street, which is where Terrell’s survey ends. From there it would have continued to the southeast, probably passing through downtown Atlanta.

20. Johnson Road NW [sic] approximates the route of this trail.

21. Travel in this area followed different routes, depending on where Proctor Creek could be crossed. Parts of Hollywood and Hightower Roads correspond to these trails.

22. The part of this trail’s route on the north side of Proctor Creek has been completely overwritten by modern development; south of the creek the trail’s route is traced by Northwest Drive, which parallels a small tributary of Proctor Creek west of James Jackson Parkway.

23. Construction of I-285 has obscured the route of this trail, except perhaps for Nash Road and part of Bolton Road south of Proctor Creek. Its destination was probably Sand Town.




1. Charles J. Kappler, "Treaty with the Creek, 1805," Indian Affairs: Laws and Treaties, 85-86; Augustin Smith Clayton, A Compilation of the Laws of the State of Georgia: Passed by the Legislature Since the Political Year 1800, to the Year 1810, Inclusive . . . . (Augusta, GA: Adams & Du Duyckinck, 1812), 291.

2. Record Group 003-03-024, Surveyor General -- Survey Records -- District Plats, and Record Group 003-03-025, Surveyor General -- Survey Records -- Field Notebooks are available online at Georgia Archives Virtual Vault.. Plats of individual land lots are on microfilm at Georgia Archives.



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