Andalusia starting point for ‘mound hunt’

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 4, 2009

More than 35 professional surveyors and engineers are visiting Andalusia this week to take part in a “hidden treasure” hunt. But in this case, their treasure is literally nothing more than piles of dirt.

The professionals are participating in the Auburn University-sponsored workshop, “Locating the Ellicott Mounds Along the Alabama/ Florida Boundary.” The Ellicott mounds were established in 1799 by Andrew Ellicott and a team of both Spanish and American surveyors, and were used to mark the 31st parallel and show the boundary between Alabama and Spanish-owned Florida.

Some of these dirt mounds lie along the Alabama-Florida border between the Conecuh and the Chattahoochee Rivers, but most of them are unmarked and undocumented. The workshop, which began Thursday and continues today, is an attempt to re-discover some of those mounds.

“The opportunity you have today is the chance to go out to these mounds and say, ‘This is where the U.S. border literally was, in 1799,’” said Dr. Larry Crowley, a member of the civil engineering faculty at Auburn University and one of the seminar instructors.

Crowley, along with fellow seminar instructor Milton Denny, has been researching the Ellicott mound line for years. Early survey maps show the mound’s locations, and Global Positioning Systems and data from the U.S. Geological Survey can be used to determine the precise spots where they can be found. Thursday, at Andalusia City Hall, Crowley and Denny briefed the 35 professionals on the history surrounding the mounds and the task to re-discover them.

“These mounds haven’t been lost,” Crowley said. “We’ve just not been looking in the right spots.”

Crowley explained that, originally, Ellicott’s directions were to clear large amounts of land in order to mark the boundary, but this plan proved tedious and expensive. Instead, dirt mounds were left approximately one mile apart along the 124-mile Alabama-Florida border between the two rivers. Ellicott worked on this marking of the border using little more than a compass, sextant and other 18th century scientific equipment.

“Ellicott suggested following a line based on his compass,” Crowley said. “It turns out that he was only about 200 feet north of where he should have been, which is incredible accuracy considering the equipment he had to work with.”

The professionals who are attending the workshop are split into six crews, each of which is responsible for inspecting two “townships” believed to contain approximately six mounds. They worked all day Thursday and will do the same today.

“Some of the mounds are going to be very obvious,” said Denny, a registered surveyor in seven states and a past-president of the Alabama Society of Professional Land Surveyors. “With others, you might be walking around and say, ‘I don’t see it,’ but then you’ll take a few steps back and discover that you were actually walking on the mound itself. And then, with others, there might not be a mound at all.

“But that’s OK. For us, it’s just as important if it’s not there, because then at least we know.”

Those who are participating in the workshop will receive continuing education units, which are required by most states in order for surveyors to remain licensed. But at the same time, they also look forward to having a little fun during the two-day workshop.

“It’s fun to try and retrace something people did more than 200 years ago,” said Shane Traylor, a surveyor from Eclectic. “It’s weird to think that we’re going to be out there doing the same jobs that they did, back when our country was just getting started.”