Kentucky and Tennessee were once western extensions of the colonies of Virginia and North Carolina. In 1779 it was decided to extend the Virginia-North Carolina border westward to divide the Kentucky and Tennessee territories by using the existing border, which had been set as 36°30” of latitude. This task was assigned to a joint commission made up of two teams of surveyors — Dr. Thomas Walker and Daniel Smith of Virginia and Col. Richard Henderson and William Bailey Smith of North Carolina.
Back in 1749 the Virginia-North Carolina boundary at 36°30” latitude was surveyed from the Atlantic coast to the Cumberland Gap and blazes on trees were placed to mark the boundary and the endpoint of that survey. But when the new teams arrived in 1779 to take over where the last team had left off 30 years before, no one could locate the marked trees. So they established a new start point using their equipment to define the latitude 36°30”.
After going west a number of miles there was a disagreement between the two teams. An error had actually been made at the start point, and it was a few miles north of where it should have been. The teams argued and split up. Walker’s Virginia team proceeded west, going more and more off course and veering to the north. They found it to be too difficult to work in the mountains and so skipped ahead 109 miles to the Cumberland River where they established a new start point, again supposed to be 36°30”, but it was now 17 miles too far north. They continued west to the Tennessee River.
The result was called “Walker’s Line,” and it became the Kentucky-Tennessee border when both states were admitted to the union in the 1790s. But Kentucky refused to accept Walker’s line as the border and in the early 1800s there were many disputes between the two states and legislation passed by both states vying for the contested strip of land. Kentucky wanted it back and wanted to establish 36°30” as the true border, as had originally been intended. Tennessee had the land and wanted to keep it.
This resulted in confusion among the settlers living there. Some settlers born in the disputed area between 1796 and 1826 were uncertain as to which state they were actually born in. The incorrect measurement of Walker’s Line had resulted in Kentucky losing about 2,500 square miles of land
But in 1819 Kentucky commissioned Robert Alexander and Luke Munsell to survey the remainder of the border west from the Tennessee River through ceded Cherokee lands and then to establish the correct Kentucky-Tennessee border at 36°30”. Tennessee would not accept the border correction because it would lose the town of Clarksville. A final agreement was made in 1824. The border would remain at Walker’s line east of the Tennessee River with the correction to 36°30” made west of the Tennessee River. (This explains why Kentucky’s border has a “boot heel”). In addition, Kentucky would retain the right to grant title to the land remaining in the strip while Tennessee would have political and civil jurisdiction over that land. This odd situation led to settlers in that area getting their land grants from Kentucky but then living in Tennessee.
The South of Walker’s Line Patent Series is made up of 4,327 land patents in eight volumes and is housed at the Kentucky State Archives. All of these grants are for the northern Tennessee counties of Campbell, Claiborne, Clay, Fentress, Jackson, Macon, Montgomery, Pickett, Robertson, Scott, Smith, Stewart, and Sumner. These records can be searched at the FamilySearch catalog by entering “Grants south of Walker’s Line” on the catalog search page. These patents cover the years 1797 to 1866.
The Wabash Valley Genealogy Society will hold its monthly public meeting on Monday, September 9, 2019, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. in the Vigo County Public Library. The program for the evening is titled “Finding Dead Ancestors is Easy: Finding the Living Can Be a Challenge!” presented by Dr. Michael Lacopo.