Andrew Ellicott: The Stargazer Who Defined America


This story, ignored by historians for two hundred years, is about measuring and marking the first southern boundary of the United States as provided for in a treaty with Spain. The new nation, exhausted after her breakaway war with Great Britain now faced another powerful adversary with Spain, whose ambition was to control the people and property in North America as she had done in South America.

After the Revolutionary War, Spain controlled more property on the North American Continent than any other nation which included the old British colonies of East and West Florida, the lower Mississippi River and New Orleans, the huge territory known as Louisiana on the west side of the Mississippi, all the rivers draining into the Gulf of Mexico, and most of what would be California, Arizona, Texas and New Mexico. Spain? How did Spain get so powerful? Here’s how.

With the war over in 1783 , the thirteen British colonies, now established as a confederation of states, occupied only that small part of the North American continent south of the Saint Lawrence River down to Georgia and as far west as the Mississippi River. Exhausted by the war, heavily in debt and still working to design a viable federal government, the young United States paid little attention to Spain as she quietly grew her hegemony. The biggest problem: Spain was stopping all U.S. commerce coming down the Mississippi River and passing through New Orleans to the Gulf of Mexico. Spain was a power to be reckoned with.

For a dozen years Spanish emissaries and U.S. diplomats sparred over the use of the Mississippi River and the exact boundary line between the two nations. Finally, in 1795, both issues were resolved in great detail by the Treaty of Friendship, Limits and Navigation between Spain and the United States – the so-called Pinckney Treaty, aptly named for its chief U.S. negotiator, Thomas Pinckney. The two major provisions of the treaty opened up the Mississippi River for free trade and delineated the boundary line between the six-year-old United States and the Spanish-held territory of East and West Florida. After the new Congress ratified the Pinckney Treaty, President Washington appointed Andrew Ellicott as commissioner for the survey and directed him to organize a team to meet the Spanish survey team in Natchez, a small village with a Spanish fort on the banks of the Mississippi River, and perform the survey of the new boundary.

Washington chose Andrew Ellicott,a second-generation Pennsylvania and the most famous astronomer-surveyor in America. He had no formal education and was self-taught in astronomy, the earth sciences, mechanics and mathematics. The Pennsylvania legislature appointed him to survey all their state boundaries, and he would eventually survey the boundaries of thirteen states, more than anyone in the history of the United States before or since. Elliott was chosen by Washington and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson to survey the ten-square-mile District of Columbia as well as many of the boulevards and squares in the new federal capital. Perhaps his greatest achievement, the subject of this book, was his survey of the first international boundary line of the United States dividing the thirteen states from the property owned by His Catholic Majesty, Charles V of Spain.

This is not a biography of Ellicott, but is a close study of what is unquestionably a major achievement.

His exploits in this monumental United States/Spanish survey of the boundary line provide a stunning record of a critical moment in American history. The dramatic stories of his four-year-long efforts are the stuff of fiction. Here are adventures into unknown territory fraught with physical hazard and personal danger, including encounters with hostile Indians, Spanish spies, and a cast of remarkable characters. Revealed in his letters home, there is also a warm tale of spousal devotion (he addressed his wife as “Dearest of All Earthly Beings”) despite his having a washerwoman as a mistress. The stories of Ellicott’s extraordinary work are peopled with men such as William Dunbar (a brilliant scientist and surveyor who lived in Natchez), Manuel Gayoso (the Spanish governor in Natchez and later New Orleans), Anthony Hutchins (plantation owner, obstructionist and English loyalist), Benjamin Hawkins (a former U.S. senator and agent to the Cherokee Indians), and Thomas Freeman (a rival surveyor who would make life miserable for Ellicott). Appearing in this story as well are officials at the highest level of the U.S. government who oversaw and financed his work.

After Ellicott finished the survey and returned to his home in Philadelphia, the capital of the United States, he spent two years writing his manuscript and creating maps of all the rivers and important places in the unknown southwest territory. In 1803 he published the 450-page Journal of Andrew Ellicottabout his experience, which included a 300-page diary, 150 pages of astronomical observations and mathematical calculations, and the maps he drew of his travels. This book is based on the Journal and hundreds of his letters to and from contemporaries.