When we think of American states going to battle with each other, our minds are immediately transported to the dark days of the American Civil War; however, long before the bloody tides of war ever reached Gettysburg or Appomattox, blood was being shed in the Appalachian Mountains as two Southern States fought for an unassuming 12-mile stretch of mountain real estate.
The origins of this long forgotten conflict — called Walton War — between the states of Georgia and North Carolina can be traced to the early days of the 1700s, when King George II separated Georgia from the Carolina colony, using the Savanah River as the east-west border and the 35th parallel as the north-south border.
Unlike farther east, where the land was mostly flat and relatively easy to transverse, surveyors tasked with separating Georgia from Carolina along the 35th latitude discovered the mountainous and rocky terrain to be far more difficult to accurately divide.
Surveying difficulties, along with a vaguely described gift of mountainous land to the State of Georgia from the United States, in exchange for Georgia relinquishing control over what would become Alabama and Mississippi, resulted in a small piece of land which came to be known as “Orphan Strip”. This wilderness territory near the borders of Northeastern Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina was no wider than twelve miles and was difficult for the flat land governments of any of the three states to reach with any real for of solid government.
Initially, none of the three states desired the land, which led to its name and soon, the lawless area came to be considered a no-man’s land as the lack of a sovereign state government proved to be an invitation for illicit and nefarious actions.
With no rightful claimant, the United States federal government eventually began to administer the area and soon handed the territory over to the Cherokee; however, the Cherokee did not retain ownership of the land for very long as they returned to the orphaned territory back to the federal government in 1798 in the Treaty of Tellico — in exchange for ceding this territory back to the United States, as well as a handful of other stipulations, the federal government agreed to offer a one-time payment of $5,000 and an annual payment of $1,000.
According to the Encyclopedia of North Carolina, in 1800 a group of settlers commissioned Congress so that South Carolina might accept the small territory; unfortunately, for the settlers of the area who desired order, the territory’s wild and hazardous reputation had preceded it and South Carolina officials refused to accept the settlers’ offer, not desiring to be responsible for the headache of administering the unruly territory.
Despite no state government claiming the land or overseeing its settlers and the region’s hazardous reputation, scores of pioneers moved into the region from both Carolinas and Georgia — many of whom claimed overlapping deeds that had been issued by both North Carolina and Georgia state governments as their lawful right to possess land in the territory.
Carolana, writes, “In this ‘Orphan Strip’ about twelve miles wide, settlers far removed from any state authority held community meetings for their own well being. Thinking that they were within the state of Georgia, the area’s approximately 760 white and 40 black residents petitioned that state for protection. The state of Georgia responded by creating Walton County in 1803, however the citizens of Buncombe County in North Carolina realized what was taking place and they strongly objected to this. They denied the validity of the Georgia land grants, demanded taxes and militia service of the residents, and protested the suspected presence of unlawful land speculators.”
Though many of the details as to what happened next have been lost to history, with each side of the conflict advancing its own narrative, what is largely accepted by all is that the coming years became even more dangerous for residents in this no man’s land.
The situation climaxed in December 1804 after many of the residents who claimed North Carolina citizenship refused to pay taxes to Georgia officials. Acting on behalf of the Georgia government, the officers pressured citizens to pay these taxes, which sparked a series of confrontations along the frontier.
With some residents of the Orphan Strip claiming loyalty to Georgia, while others claimed loyalty to North Carolina, violence ensued and multiple houses were burned and supporters of each side were said to have threated and carried out violence upon their neighbors.
On December 14, 1804, John Hafner, a North Carolina constable, was killed after being hit in the head with a musket, by Samuel McAdams, a Georgia official.
As news of the North Carolina state official being killed reached the state’s capital, North Carolina’s governor ordered the state’s militia to pursue the Georgia officials and arrest them for the death of Hafner.
Militiamen from North Carolina captured ten of the Georgia officials and brought them to Morganton, North Carolina, where they would be tried for the murder of the North Carolina constable; however, all ten prisoners managed to escape and flee the territory back into Georgia before the trial had begun.
The appearance of North Carolina’s militia in the territory solidified the state’s claim to Orphan Strip and though Georgia continued to protest what they saw as North Carolina’s illegal occupation of their territory, the Atlanta government took no additional action to pursue their claim by force and ultimately conceded their rights to the territory shortly after the War of 1812.
Interestingly, the issue of where exactly Georgia’s northern border should be has never fully been settled or laid to rest in the 243 years the United States has existed.
In 1971, the two states briefly revisited the issue when a Georgia legislative panel declared that the state did in fact have authority over part of the old Orphan Strip. North Carolina legislators responded by authorizing the governor to mobilize the National Guard to defend the area, but no troops were ever mobilized and the matter was soon allowed to drop again, with no change to any boundaries.
Farther to the west, along Georgia’s border with Tennessee, modern technology has revealed that the marked boundary between the two states is approximately 5,500 ft. south of the legally mandated 35th Parallell.
This means that about 30,000 residents and part of the city of Chattanooga should be in Georgia (based upon the original legal description of the boundary) rather than in Tennessee. More importantly than the additional residents, however, is the fact that moving the border just a half-mile north would provide Georgia with access to the Tennessee River, which flows just feet from the current state line — this would allow the residents of an ever expanding City of Atlanta reliable access to fresh water.
In 2019, both houses of Georgia’s legislature passed a bill (HR 51) that would “pursue negotiations to establish the state’s ‘true boundary lines’.”
Though the chances of bloodshed and a second battle between Georgia and its northern neighbors is extremely unlikely, the legislation highlights the reality that even after all these years, the dispute has not been resolved and probably will not for many years to come.
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