Alabama: Commentary

Alabama Atlas of Historical County Boundaries

John H. Long, Editor; Peggy Tuck Sinko, Associate Editor and Historical Compiler; Douglas Knox, Digital Project Editor; Emily Kelley, Research Associate; Laura Rico-Beck, GIS Specialist and Digital Compiler; Peter Siczewicz, ArcIMS Interactive Map Designer; Robert Will, Cartographic Assistant

Copyright The Newberry Library 2007

Before Statehood

At various times throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the area that became the state of Alabama fell under the jurisdiction of France, Spain, and Great Britain and her colonies. Following the end of the American Revolution, competing authorities laid claim to parts of Alabama, although this often did not equate with actual control. Until 1802, Georgia claimed all of present Alabama and Mississippi north of 31 degrees north latitude based on its colonial charter. Great Britain had ceded East and West Florida to Spain following the end of the American Revolution, and Spain claimed most of the United States territory east of the Mississippi River and south of the Tennessee and Hiwassee Rivers, an area that included present Alabama and Mississippi. For the next thirty years, the United States, the state of Georgia, and Spain sparred for control and each party took advantage of ambiguous boundary descriptions and imprecise geographical knowledge to further their claims. Spain actually controlled the area south of 31 degrees north latitude as part of Spanish West Florida until April 1813 when the United States captured the city of Mobile from Spain, effectively extending U.S. control over the area.

Georgia took steps to secure its claim to that part of present Alabama and Mississippi north of 31 degrees. In 1784 a group of land speculators from Tennessee and North Carolina attempted to create a Georgia county along the north side of the Tennessee River, near Muscle Shoals, in what later became Alabama. They petitioned the Georgia legislature requesting the creation of this county, which they proposed to call Houston (not to be confused with the present Alabama and Georgia counties of the same name). The legislature did not create the county as requested, but authorized the appointment of seven commissioners to "ascertain the Quantity, Quality and Circumstances of the aforesaid lands," and to grant warrants of survey. The unauthorized county of Houston sent a representative to the Georgia legislature in an attempt to legitimize the county, but he was not seated, and in August 1786 a bill to create Houston County was defeated by a vote of twenty-three to twenty-six. However, in 1785 Georgia did create Bourbon County along the Mississippi River in present Mississippi; Bourbon County lasted only three years.

On 7 April 1798 the United States created Mississippi Territory to cover the area south of a line running from the mouth of the Yazoo River to the Chattachoochee River, west of the Chattachoochee River, north of 31 degrees north latitude, and east of the Mississippi River. On 24 April 1802 Georgia ceded its claims to the territory south of Tennessee, and that area was added to Mississippi Territory on 27 March 1804. From that date until 3 March 1817, most of Alabama was part of Mississippi Territory; a number of early Alabama counties were created by Mississippi Territory. To further complicate matters, from 1804 to 1812 Orleans Territory, which became the state of Louisiana, claimed part of Spanish West Florida and created its own counties in the portions of present Alabama and Mississippi controlled by Spain.

Alabama’s County Boundaries

While many Alabama county lines run on Federal Land Survey lines and can be drawn with great precision, surveying errors also played a part in establishing county boundary lines. One example is a portion of the Cherokee-Calhoun boundary that does not match the legal description. First described in 1832 when Benton County (now Calhoun) was created, the boundary was supposed to run due east to the Georgia state line but the surveyor apparently ran it somewhat south of east, and the line continues to follow that southeasterly course today.

A number of Alabama county boundary changes could not be conclusively documented. For example, when Crenshaw County was created in 1866, an entire 36-square-mile township of Montgomery County was assigned to Crenshaw, but all evidence indicates that this provision of Crenshaw's creation was never implemented and that the area actually remained a part of Montgomery County. A similar case is found along the Pike-Bullock line where boundary descriptions from various laws do not precisely describe the accepted present-day boundary. One of the most puzzling situations involves a three-square-mile area of Walker County along the Tuscaloosa line. This territory was a part of Tuscaloosa at its creation in 1818, but through 1926 both counties assessed taxes there. Even with the assistance of present county officials it was not possible to establish precisely when and by what authority this area shifted to Walker, although the change may date from a badly flawed 1850 law annexing three one-square-mile sections located in the middle of Tuscaloosa County to Walker.

In a couple of instances it has been necessary to date a change based on its appearance on a contemporary map. For instance, around the turn of the century a small section of the Wilcox-Clarke line was changed from its previous course along an old Indian boundary line to run on land survey lines. Maps of the 1880s and 1890s show the boundary following the Indian line, and the annual Rand McNally commercial atlases also show the Indian boundary until the 1902 edition, when the present line first appears. The change to the modern line is thus dated 1901, although it has not been possible to document the exact time and circumstances of the change.

Alabama boundary law has a special term, “liners,” for those people who live on or near a county boundary line. Although people like liners are found in the county boundary descriptions of many states, in Alabama they appear with remarkable frequency; in 1895 the legislature formally defined them and spelled out procedures for handling their requests for boundary changes (Ala. Acts 1894, bien. sess., no. 199/p. 346). Named liners first appear in legislation in the 1840s. Legislation for liners generally took the form of local relief acts, introduced on behalf of one or more named individuals who wished to establish residence in a particular county. The reasons behind such requests can only be surmised:some changes made it easier for people to fulfill community obligations, such as militia duty or road work, other changes may have saved people from having to cross a difficult river or mountain range to reach the county seat, and in other cases the change may have served the convenience of taxpayers and tax collectors alike by consolidating property in a single county.

Legislation concerning liners varied. In some cases individuals were made citizens of a particular county but the county line was not shifted; in other cases individuals were made citizens of one county but paid taxes in the adjoining county; and in still other cases the boundary line was actually changed. Only those acts that actually altered the boundary line are included in this work. In the few cases when liners' property or homes could not be identified, the chronology indicates "location unknown."

Local histories sometimes were very useful for identifying places and people in Alabama, including liners. Among the most helpful publications were Marilyn Davis Barefield's compilations of Alabama federal land office records. Alabama often used individual residences to delineate county boundary lines. Locating the property of individuals who lived 100 or 150 years ago is frequently unfeasible; Barefield's volumes made it possible to identify dozens of past property owners and to draw historical boundary lines with a much higher degree of accuracy than could otherwise have been achieved.

No doubt a certain amount of influence was required to persuade a legislator to introduce such a piece of liner legislation, and it should be no surprise that liners often were local officials, justices of the peace, and major property owners. One interesting case involved H. J. Springfield, a scalawag elected to the state legislature in 1868 from St. Clair County. After the election, someone discovered that Springfield, who resided with his brother Thomas M. Springfield, actually lived over the line in Etowah County. On 17 December 1868 the legislature passed an act "that the boundary line between the counties of Etowah and St. Clair, be changed, so as to include Thomas M. Springfield as a citizen of St. Clair county." Rather than deny H. J. Springfield his seat, the legislature simply shifted the county boundary line, effectively moving him into the correct legislative district.

The disruption and disarray that characterized post–Civil War politics in Alabama, as various factions vied for control of the state government, affected the state's county boundaries. The 1866–1867 legislature created Baine, Colbert, and Jones Counties, but in November 1867 the constitutional convention abolished all three. Political fortunes soon shifted, and each county was revived in identical or similar form. In 1868 Sanford was created with the same territory as Jones, while Etowah was created in the same general area as Baine. Colbert, named for two Chickasaw Indian brothers, was re-created in 1870.

Alabama also provides the unique instance of a murder case nullifying a county boundary line change. In 1903 Calhoun County gained a little territory from Cleburne County; legislators voting for the change were unaware that this reduced Cleburne County to less than five hundred square miles, required by the state constitution as the minimum area for a county. In December 1905 William Kline was arrested for murdering John Phillips in the area that had recently been added to Calhoun County, a crime for which he was subsequently found guilty and sentenced to twenty-five years in prison. Kline appealed the case to the Alabama Supreme Court on the grounds that he was tried in the wrong court since the boundary change was illegal. The Supreme Court agreed (Kline v. The State, Ala. Reports, 146:1), and declared the boundary change unconstitutional and void and remanded the case to the Circuit Court of Calhoun County. Records indicate that the Calhoun County Sheriff was sent to find Kline and take him to Cleburne County for a new hearing, but the sources are silent regarding the final disposition of the case.