Georgia Commentary


Georgia Atlas of Historical County Boundaries


John H. Long, Editor; Peggy Tuck Sinko, Associate Editor; Robert Will, Historical Compiler; John Ford, Historical Compiler; Douglas Knox, Book Digitizing Director; Emily Kelley, Digital Compiler; Peter Siczewicz, ArcIMS Interactive Map Designer


Copyright The Newberry Library 2010






In addition to the state’s session laws and constitutions—the standard authoritative sources for each state’s county creations and changes—the Office of the Secretary of State in Georgia has produced a number of historical research aids and copies of original sources that were important to the success of the research and compilation of Georgia data for the Atlas of Historical County Boundaries. Foremost is Georgia Counties: Their Changing Boundaries, compiled by Pat Bryant in 1977 and revised by Ingrid Shields in 1983. The county-by-county lists of the gains and losses of territory from other counties, together with dates of change and citations to the legal authorities for the changes, provided a standard against which atlas staff checked their research in the Georgia laws and other sources.


Next to Bryant’s compilation of boundary laws, the most valuable sources were electronic materials available through the Internet. The Office of the Secretary of State has digitized and posted to the Internet a mass of primary source material under the rubric “Georgia’s Virtual Vault: Digital Treasures from the Georgia Archives” ( The most useful sets of data from this collection were “County Maps” (manuscript maps, nearly all from official surveys in the late 1860s), “Historical Maps” (early printed maps of the state), and “District Plats of Survey” (manuscript plots of the original land lot surveys). An additional trove of historical material in electronic form is available through the Digital Library of Georgia, particularly “GeogiaInfo” (, put out by the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia. Most useful was the section on “Georgia Maps,” especially the subset called the “Historical Atlas of Georgia Counties.” This digital “atlas” provided maps showing each county and its vicinity excerpted from printed maps of Georgia published in different years from the 1770s into the 2000s; the listing of those maps in the citations and bibliography of this Alas of Historical County Boundaries follows the style used to identify them in “GeorgiaInfo.”



Dating Changes 1881-2000


In 1877 Georgia adopted a new constitution that included a provision prohibiting future alterations of county lines without a general law to control the process. A general boundary law went into effect in 1881, replacing the practice of legislating each boundary change with a general requirement that affected counties must agree among themselves on any line changes; such agreement would be sufficient to modify their mutual boundary. Unfortunately, that general law (still in effect in 2010) did not require the counties involved in the locally arranged boundary changes to report their results to the state government. From then on there was no systematic, centralized, authoritative record of changes in Georgia’s county network, and it proved impractical to ascertain the precise date of every change that could be found.


Atlas staff dealt with that situation by comparing each county as it was in 1881 to its shape and location on later, more modern maps, including official state road maps, the federal maps used as bases for compilation, the maps in the state’s online historical atlas, and the large-scale individual county maps that the project was able to acquire from the county surveyors’ offices. If the modern map retained the shape from 1881, that indicated there had been no change.  If there was a difference, a review of available maps usually uncovered a brief period—the years between maps that displayed different versions of the boundary—when the change was most likely to have occurred. The change was then dated as having happened “by” the end of that period, that is the publication year for the map that first showed the change.  Judging from the many differences between Hudgins’ Map of Georgia (1915) and the Georgia State Highway Department’s “Official 1952 Georgia Highway Map,” nearly forty counties experienced mappable boundary changes between 1915 and 1952; all those changes had to be dated ”by 31 December 1952”.



Comparing Descriptions of Changes


Whenever a reader finds that a description of change in this atlas disagrees with Pat Bryant’s Georgia Counties, the source of that disagreement most likely will be the difference between a detailed mapping of the boundary description and the stated intention of the law. Many county boundary laws open with a statement of the intended result of the law. As happened in every other state of the Union, those statements occasionally were rendered incomplete or inaccurate by various factors, including clerical errors and geographic ignorance among Georgia’s lawmakers, due chiefly to a lack of reliable, detailed maps for reference when composing boundary descriptions. The verbal boundary description in the law is the authoritative version of a county boundary, even if it does not accomplish the law’s stated intention. Anyone trying to summarize the impact of a law (e.g., A gained from B and C) either must rely upon the law’s statement of its anticipated effect or must examine detailed maps of the boundary before and after the change. Because Pat Bryant did not plot the boundary lines detailed in the laws she compiled for Georgia Counties: Their Changing Boundaries lines—and because she had no before-and-after maps, her principal recourse was the statements of purpose in the laws. As a result, for any given boundary event, this project’s description of a change may not match the one in Georgia Counties. For example, the law that created Fanin County on 21 January 1854 said the new county was being formed from Gilmer and Union and did not mention Murray, from which Fanin initially took its westernmost range of land lots. Lacking any alternative source, Bryant’s book echoes the law and credits territorial contributions from Gilmer and Union only, whereas this atlas says that all three counties contributed to Fanin’s creation.



Georgia’s Land Surveys


Starting with the two parcels of land ceded by the Indians to the national government in 1802 and shortly thereafter transferred to the state, Georgia inaugurated a system of organizing and surveying the land before distributing it to settlers through a lottery. (Lotteries were held in seven different years during the period 1803-1832; they accounted for about two thirds of the state, roughly all land west of the Oconee River.) Georgia created a small number of large, named counties within each land cession, then divided those counties into numbered land districts and further subdivided the districts into square land lots. The numbers identifying lots were repeated from district to district; in like fashion, the numbers identifying districts in one county were repeated for districts in the next county. Although comparable in principle to the Public Land Survey System (PLSS) employed by the federal government to organize and distribute the land it acquired from the Indians outside the original thirteen states, Georgia’s system lacked uniformity in details. There was notable variation from one cession to another in the sizes, shapes, and orientations of the districts and, to a lesser extent, in the sizes of the land lots. Nonetheless, it should be no surprise that, over time, the lawmakers who created and refined the county network in the land-lottery region based more and more of their boundary descriptions on the land lots and their districts, similar to the way boundary makers in areas organized under the PLSS described their counties.


Until very recently, there was no state-wide map or other comprehensive representation of the land districts and lots; that made it difficult to map the boundary changes specified in the session laws. This project sent requests for land lot maps to all the counties west of the Oconee River, and a large majority of those counties obliged with large-scale maps from their surveyors. It appeared that digitizing would be at least as difficult as plotting the historical lines until March 2010, not long after digitizing had commenced, when the Newberry Library acquired “Georgia Land Lots”—that is, a donated copy of rGa and Associates’ recently finished cartographic database of all Georgia land lots and districts—to use as a reference base for digitizing the old county lines. Without the generosity of rGa and the counties that furnished maps, compiling and digitizing Georgia’s historical counties would have been nigh impossible.