Alabama v. Georgia/Opinion of the Court

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Alabama v. Georgia by James Moore Wayne
Opinion of the Court
Court Documents
Case Syllabus
Opinion of the Court

United States Supreme Court

64 U.S. 505


This case involves a question of boundary between the States of Alabama and Georgia.

Alabama claims that its boundary commences on the west side of the Chattahoochee river at a point where it enters the State of Florida; from thence up the river along the low-water mark, on the western side thereof, to the point on Miller's Bend, next above the place where Uchee creek empties into such river; thence in a line to Nickajack, on Tennessee river.

Georgia denies that the line intended by the cession of her western territory to the United States runs along the usual low-water mark of the perennial stream of the Chattahoochee river, but that the State of Georgia's boundary line is a line up the river, on and along its western bank, and that the ownership and jurisdiction of Georgia in the soil of the river extends over to the water-line of the fast western bank, which, with the eastern bank of the river, make the bed of the river.

The difference between the two States must be decided by the construction which this court shall give to the following words of the contract of cession: 'West of a line beginning on the western bank of the Chattahoochee river, where the same crosses the boundary between the United States and Spain, running up the said river and along the western bank thereof.'

In making such construction, it is necessary to keep in mind that there was by the contract of cession a mutual relinquishment of claims by the contracting parties, the United States ceding to Georgia all its right, title, &c., to the territory lying east of that line, and Georgia ceding to the United States all its right and title to the territory west of it.

We believe that the boundary can be satisfactorily determined and run in this suit, from the pleadings of the parties, notwithstanding their difference as to the locality and direction of it on the Chattahoochee river.

Georgia is interrogated in certain particulars in the bill, which the complainant thinks will produce answers illustrative of the right of Alabama to the boundary which is claimed. Georgia answers them separately, having previously given a correct and literal copy of the contract. It is as follows: 'The State of Georgia cedes to the United States all the right, title, and claim, which the said State has to the jurisdiction and soil of the lands situated within the boundaries of the United States south of the State of Tennessee, and west of a line beginning on the western bank of the Chattahoochee river, where the same crosses the boundary line between the United States and Spain; running thence up the said river Chattahoochee, and along the western bank thereof, to the great bend thereof, next above the place where a certain creek or river called Uchee (being the first considerable stream on the western side above the Cussetas and Coweta towns) empties into the said Chattahoochee river; thence in a direct line to Nickajack, on the Tennessee river; thence crossing the said last-mentioned river; and thence running up the said Tennessee river, and along the western bank thereof, to the southern boundary line of the State of Tennessee.'

In answer to the first question, Georgia admits what is alleged in the bill in relation to the definition of the boundaries of the Territory of Alabama by an act of Congress, passed in eighteen hundred and seventeen, and the subsequent grant of admission of the State of Alabama into the Union with the same boundaries in the year eighteen hundred and nineteen; and the conclusion from it is, simply, that the eastern boundary line of Alabama is the western boundary line of Georgia, but that, so far as that line runs along the western bank of the Chattahoochee river, Georgia denies that it runs along the usual or low-water mark; but, on the contrary, Georgia contends that it runs along the western bank at high-water mark, using high-water mark in the sense of the highest water-line of the river's bed; or, in other words, the highest water-line of that bed, where the passage of water is sufficiently frequent to be marked by a difference in soil and vegetable growth.

Georgia also answers affirmatively the other interrogatory in the bill with the same qualification, that what she claims is a right to exercise jurisdiction over all the lands up to the water-line of the western bank of the river's bed.

Georgia also says, that while she regards the description of the banks of the river given in the bill as highly drawn, she admits it to be more applicable to the southern part of the bank than to that part of it sixty or seventy miles above the thirty-first degree of north latitude. It is admitted that in some places the banks are flat, but that in other places, especially in the upper portion of the river, the banks are generally steep and well defined, so much so as to be familiarly known as the 'Bluffs of the Chattahoochee;' and that the banks of the river in a number of places along the dividing line between the two States are low and flat, and that in freshets the water spreads as far as half a mile beyond the line to the west, and in a few places further than the western line of the river's bed, over low lands, which Georgia does not claim to be under its jurisdiction.

These declarations and admissions upon the part of Georgia simplify the controversy, and narrow it to the claim of the respective parties as heretofore set forth.

The contract of cession must be interpreted by the words of it, according to their received meaning and use in the language in which it is written, as that can be collected from judicial opinions concerning the rights of private persons upon rivers, and the writings of publicists in reference to the settlement of controversies between nations and States as to their ownership and jurisdiction on the soil of rivers within their banks and beds. Such authorities are to be found in cases in our own country, and in those of every nation in Europe.

Woolrych defines a river to be a body of flowing water of no specific dimensions-larger than a brook or rivulet, less than a sea-a running stream, pent on each side by walls or banks.

Grotius, ch. 2, 18, says a river that separates two jurisdictions is not to be considered barely as water, but as water confined in such and such banks, and running in such and such channel. Hence, there is water having a bank and a bed, over which the water flows, called its channel, meaning, by the word channel, the place where the river flows, including the whole breadth of the river.

Bouvier says banks of rivers contain the river in its natural channel, where there is the greatest flow of water.

Vattel says that the bed belongs to the owner of the river. It is the running water of a river that makes its bed; for it is that, and that only, which leaves its indelible mark to be readily traced by the eye; and wherever that mark is left, there is the river's bed. It may not be there to-day, but it was there yesterday; and when the occasion comes, it must and will unobstructed-again fill its own natural bed. Again, he says, the owner of a river is entitled to its whole bed, for the bed is a part of the river.

Mr. Justice Story, in Thomas and Hatch, 3 Sumner, 178, defines shores or flats to be the space between the margin of the water at a low stage, and the banks to be what contains it in its greatest flow; Lord Hale defines the term shore to be synonymous with flat, and substitutes the latter for that expression. Mr. Justice Parker does the same, in 6 Mass. Reports, 436, 439.

Chief Justice Marshall says the shore of a river borders on the water's edge; and the rule of law, as declared by the court in 5 Wheat., 379, is, that when a great river is a boundary between two nations or States, if the original property is not in either, and there be no convention about it, each holds to the middle of the stream.

Virginia, in her deed of cession to the United States of the territory northwest of the Ohio, fixed the boundary of that State at low-water mark on the north side of the Ohio; and it remains the limit of that State and Kentucky, as well as of the States adjacent, formed out of that territory. 3 Dana Kentucky Reports, 278, 279; 5 Wheaton, 378; Code of Virginia, 1849, pp. 49, 34; 1 St. Ohio, 62. By compact between Virginia and Kentucky, the navigation is free. A like compact exists between New York and New Jersey, as to the Hudson river and waters of the bay of New York and adjacent waters.

Webster's definition of a bank is a steep declivity rising from a river or lake, considered so when descending, and called acclivity when ascending.

Doctor Johnson defines the word bank to be the earth arising on each side of a water. We say properly the shore of the sea and the bank of a river, brook, or small water. In the writings of our English classics, the two words are more frequently used in those senses; for instance, as when boats and vessels are approaching the shore to communicate with those who are upon the banks.

Bailey, in his edition of the Universal Latin Lexicon of Facciolatus and Forcellinus, says that ripa, the bank of a river, is extremitas terrae quod aqua alluitur et proprie dicitur de flumine; ut litus de mare, nam hoc depressum est declive atque humile, ripa altior fere est praeruptior; and again, ripa recte definitur id quod flumen continet, naturalem vigorem cursus sui tenens.

Notwithstanding that there are differences of expression in the preceding citations, they all concur as to what a river is; what its banks are; that they are distinct from the shore or flat, and as to what constitutes its channel.

With these authorities and the pleadings of this suit in view, all of us reject the low-water mark claimed by Alabama as the line that was intended by the contract of cession between the United States and Georgia. And all of us concur in this conclusion, that by the contract of cession, Georgia ceded to the United States all of her lands west of a line beginning on the western bank of the Chattahoochee river where the same crosses the boundary line between the United States and Spain, running up the said Chattahoochee river and along the western bank thereof.

We also agred and decide that this language implies that there is ownership of soil and jurisdiction in Georgia in the bed of the river Chattahoochee, and that the bed of the river is that portion of its soil which is alternately covered and left bare, as there may be an increase or diminution in the supply of water, and which is adequate to contain it at its average and mean stage during the entire year, without reference to the extraordinary freshets of the winter or spring, or the extreme droughts of the summer or autumn.

The western line of the cession on the Chattahoochee river must be traced on the water-line of the acclivity of the western bank, and along that bank where that is defined; and in such places on the river where the western bank is not defined, it must be continued up the river on the line of its bed, as that is made by the average and mean stage of the water, as that is expressed in the conclusion of the preceding paragraph of this opinion.

By the contract of cession, the navigation of the river is free to both parties.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).