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By Sam Perry
The Chitwood family didn’t know whether they were Kentuckians or Tennesseans. They had papers, signed and sealed by a Kentucky judge, saying that they owned land on the headwaters of Roaring Paunch Creek, which was in Kentucky. So, logic would have it that they were, truly, members of that community of citizens that had separated from Virginia in 1789. Yet, in spite of evidence to the contrary, some people were telling them that they were, actually, living in Tennessee. And, they were confused. Not that they had anything against Tennessee, of course. They just wanted to know what to call themselves.
The Chitwoods had come to Kentucky from North Carolina right after the United States government had bought out the Cherokee Indians by paying off Chief Doublehead under the table, and, beginning in 1813, had filed for patents under the Tellico Land Grants provision. Among them, they had acquired more than a thousand acres of land. Most of it was fit for nothing but growing trees, but there was enough good bottomland to provide a decent living for all of them. They liked where they were living, and the thought of having to leave was not something any of them wanted to contemplate.
None of the Chitwood men were educated in the ways of politics, but they were smart enough to know that, if it turned out that they were Tennesseans, instead of Kentuckians, there was a distinct possibility that some sharp lawyer might try to take their holdings away from them. Admittedly, there was little likelihood of that happening. After all, there were seven of them and all of them knew how to use the long barreled squirrel rifles they had brought with them from Carolina.
The Chitwood family’s dilemma was one that was shared by many who lived in uncertainty along the Kentucky and Tennessee boundary in the early years of the nineteenth century. The Commonwealth of Kentucky had entered the Federal union in 1792 and Tennessee had done the same four years later, but the matter of defining the boundary line between the two remained unresolved.
During the colonial era, Virginia and North Carolina had agreed that the boundary between them would be 36 degrees, 30 minutes. That line of latitude would extend as far west as needed, even into lands yet unexplored by Englishmen. Then, in 1779, as the American Revolution was being waged, and with an eye to the future, Dr. Thomas Walker was hired to supervise a party of surveyors to establish the boundary between the two colonies, to preclude any future confusion about what belonged to whom. The result of Walker’s survey was confusion of the worst sort.
Thomas Walker was a good surveyor, presumably a good physician, and, without doubt, a dedicated public servant, but, by 1779, he was, also, an old man. At age 64, the mountains were steeper for him, the rivers more difficult to cross, and the creaking of the saddle on his horse mimicked the creaking of his bones. Moreover, he had undertaken the task during the winter, a time when all right-thinking persons were huddled around fireplaces, instead of squinting through compasses in the dim light of a cold forest. Those handicaps notwithstanding, however, Walker set about to do the job he was asked to do.
Although Walker was not unfamiliar with the wilderness of Kentucky, having built the first cabin there in 1750, he was unprepared for the physical obstacles that faced him when he reached Cumberland Gap. Wisely, he decided to spend most of his time in camp, on the Kentucky Road, and sent his employees into the wilderness to do the hard work. After admonishing them to remain as true to the 36 degree, 30 minute bearing as possible, he wrapped himself against the harshest winter in Kentucky history and waited for the reports to come in from his subordinates.
The old adage about it being hard to find good help was as true in 1779 as it is today. As the surveyors brought in their reports, Walker, dutifully, reported them. Some were on the mark; some were not. As anyone else would do, when working in sub-zero temperatures, and faced with challenging physical obstacles, the surveyors compensated. Like water following the course of least resistance, they circumnavigated high mountains, followed creeks downstream until they could be crossed, and used open ridgelines to their best advantage. The result was a shaky, vague boundary that, more or less, remained true to the original line established by Walker’s colonial forebears, but it was not an accurate one.
Walker finished the job in1780, collected his pay, and went into retirement at his home in Albemarle County. He left behind a boundary line that was a source of consternation for decades. He also left behind names on the land. In his survey descriptions, names not unfamiliar to McCreary Countians leap off the pages. Big South Fork, Little South Fork, Roaring Paunch Creek, Lynn Camp Creek, Indian Creek, and Beaver Creek are familiar to anyone who studies a modern map of the region. The names are there, primarily, because of Dr. Walker.
By the time families like the Chitwoods had settled within the Big South Fork River region, the blaze marks left by Walker’s surveyors had disappeared under new growth. Nobody knew, with certainty, where the boundary line lay. So, in the spring of 1821, a joint commission of surveyors, representing both Kentucky and Tennessee, began marking a line between the two states that would not fade in time. The commission finished on July 2. However, it was not until 1859 that a final survey was done.
Between January 9 and October 20, 1859, a survey party, led by Austin P. Cox and Benjamin Peebles, retraced the steps of the Walker party, and of the 1821 commission, and marked the boundary between Kentucky and Tennessee, once and for all. This time, there would be no question about where the line lay. It would be well-marked. Every five miles along the boundary, three-foot high stone slabs were erected, beginning at the Mississippi River and ending at Cumberland Gap.
For members of the Chitwood family, the results of the surveys were surprising, to say the least. They had received land from the state of Kentucky, but the surveys revealed that they were, actually, residents of Scott County, Tennessee. Some Kentuckians complained that Tennessee had stolen land from them, but the Chitwoods weren’t alarmed. They had their rail fences and they had their guns, and they were determined to hang onto both.
Eventually, a post office was established on the Chitwood farm and James Chitwood was named postmaster of Chitwood, Tennessee. Family unity and cohesiveness are admirable qualities in any family, but, for many in Scott County who were not Chitwoods, having a post office named Chitwood was taking family identity a bit too far. So, unceremoniously, the name of the post office was changed to Winfield, in honor of the U.S, Army general, for whom the county had also been named. It has been that way ever since.