The recent deadly long-path tornadoes in the Southeast reminded me of the “Great Hurricane” that crossed central Georgia on April 5, 1804. Until the 1830s, Georgians referred to tornadoes as hurricanes. A true hurricane did visit the Georgia coast in 1804, but it struck five months later in September.
In 1804, Georgia was sparsely settled especially in its inland areas. The western three-fifths of what became Georgia was held by small numbers of Native Americans. The question asking if a tree falling in the woods makes a sound if no individual is there to hear it certainly applies here. There were few witnesses to the great storm of April 1804; but it was documented more thoroughly than many storms a century later because of an unusual undertaking on the Georgia frontier over the next three years. The Georgia land lotteries began in 1805.
The Georgia Archives has the records from the lotteries including individual plats, district surveys, and the field notes compiled by the surveyors. The Georgia Archives has a special section of its website called the Virtual Vault for collections with images. If you click on the icon for the Virtual Vault and go to the Virtual Vault Home, you will see a list of collections. The pertinent ones for this discussion are District Plats of Survey and District Survey Field Notebooks. Clicking on either will bring up a search page. For the district plats, choose the option to search Baldwin County and a district. Districts with tornado damage are 2, 9, 10, and 11 as you can see in the map below.
Original Baldwin County contained several modern counties, but the tornado of 1804 moved across the parts that today are Jones (districts 11, 10, and 9) and Baldwin (district 2). Today, Milledgeville is in the eastern part of District one. The surveyor for that district did not include tornado damage, but it is doubtful that a tornado well over a mile wide would have stopped at the district line.
District plats provide precise evidence of the path of the 1804 storm. In the example below from the 10th district of original Baldwin County, the Surveyor [Reuben Langston] three years later was still able to show the “Traces of the Hurricane of 5th April 1804.”
Individual plats also showed the damage. Lot 28 of the second district [surveyed in July 1804] has the following wording on it, “Wholely within the ravages of the Hurricane 5th April 1804.”
Tract 21 of the eleventh district when surveyed in 1807 had the surveyor’s notation “in Hurricane” for about 40% of the lot. Several of the district plats show a path well over a mile wide at several points.
In 1802, the Creeks ceded an area west of the Oconee River in middle Georgia. In 1806, a second cession took the western “boundary” of Georgia to the Ocmulgee River. The initial land lottery in which Georgia distributed lands to “fortunate drawers” took place in 1805, and a second was held in 1807. To prepare for the lotteries that had been authorized in 1803, the Surveyor General sent surveyors to lay out 202½ acre lots (45 chains on a side) in original Baldwin and Wilkinson counties. The lots were organized into districts, and the district surveyors prepared individual plats for lots as well as district plats.
When the surveyors began their work in the summer of 1804, the scars of the April 5th tornado were still fresh. Unfortunately, field notes have not survived for the portions of Original Baldwin County crossed by the “hurricane.” As the rest of Georgia was surveyed and lotteries were conducted, the field notes mentioned hurricanes. District 5 of Original Early County has “traces of Hurricane” on lots 7, 8, 9, 29, 30, 31, 52, 53, and 68 in Joel Walker’s 1819 Field Notes. The surveyor for the 20th district of Muscogee, John G. Bostick, referred to an “old hurricane” in January 1827, but the storms mentioned in the 1819 notes and the 1827 notes do not appear to match the 1804 tornado. The long time between the initial lottery and the last one in 1832 makes it impossible to tell much about the track of the 1804 tornado through western Georgia although that didn’t stop one twentieth-century author from speculating about the path. John H. Goff in an 1964 article in the Georgia Review (vol. 18: 224-235) which was reprinted in his Placenames of Georgia (pp. 459-470) made the case for uniqueness of the 1804 storm. He called the 1804 storm “surely one of the greatest, if not actually the greatest storm that has visited the state in historical times,” and he stated that there “are records to show that this tornado passed all the way across the state. . . .” He presented a number of reports of damage along a statewide path, but we know now that early reports of tornado paths covering hundreds of miles are usually not correct. The early press reports in the April 2011 tornado outbreak mentioned a tornado on the ground from Mississippi to North Carolina. Later aerial and ground surveillance showed distinct breaks in the path.
Goff cited the observations of the commission surveying the Alabama/Georgia border in 1826. The evidence Goff cited was not convincing. The chairperson of the commission marking the boundary wrote Governor Troup that they had found the remains of the great storm that visited Sparta in 1804; but when they later discovered another path (3/4 mile wide), the chief surveyor of the commission, Edward Lloyd Thomas, wrote his opinion that this second track belonged to the storm which visited Milledgeville and Augusta in 1804. Goff undermined his own conclusion when he noted that Colonel Benjamin Hawkins in 1798 had reported numerous tornado paths near both locations. Goff does mention that various individuals reported that the path of the “old hurricane” could be followed for many years.
There is no doubt that on April 5, 1804 one or more supercell storms passed across middle Georgia with considerable damage resulting from the tornado or tornadoes that occurred. We have newspaper accounts from Augusta and Savannah in the more heavily settled part of Georgia to confirm that the storm passed to the north of Augusta and continued well into South Carolina. The Augusta Chronicle on April 7th reported the deaths of three women in one house and many persons severely wounded along with much damage to property. The storm was accompanied by hail “said to measure from 9 to 10 ½ inches in circumference.” The issue of April 21st enumerated the horrendous damage in Edgefield district in South Carolina from the “hurricane.” A Savannah paper from April 14th told its readers that they had traced the storm as far back as Hancock County and that it had passed through Warren County before crossing the Savannah River just above Augusta (Columbian Museum and Savannah Advertiser).
The accounts from the eastern part of Georgia are consistent, but Goff’s evidence from western Georgia is not reliable. There were not enough observers to document the path of a storm west of the Ocmulgee River. He also made a mistake in trying to show a longer path to the west. Goff noted that the “hurricane entered old Baldwin near the mouth of Falling Creek on the Ocmulgee.” He described the path near Falling Creek as “narrow and concentrated.” The plats drawn by the surveyor William Watson in 1807 show clearly that the storm first touched down inside original Baldwin County and did not cross the Ocmulgee as Goff indicated. In the district plat, the storm damage first appears in land lot 119 (marked with the arrow); and the initial path is narrow.
I have included a copy of the individual plat for lot 119 to show how the surveyor showed the initial touchdown in Baldwin County.
Goff’s article on Hurricane Placenames contains a large number of places throughout Georgia that had the name hurricane. He explained the common use in early Georgia of the term hurricane for what we now call a tornado. [I have seen official documents as late as 1936 calling a tornado a hurricane.] Most of these place names were not in coastal Georgia as one would expect. Instead these places are all over the state far from the usual damage path of hurricanes. Goff noted the tendency of surveyors giving the name hurricane to streams in tornado damaged areas. Surveyors had to come up with names and some used the same names over and over. For example, in the district 10 plat excerpt below, there is a Hurricane Branch flowing to the upper right out of the tornado damaged path.
Note: The district plats are all online in the Virtual Vault on the Georgia Archives website. They make up RG 3-3-24, Surveyor General, Survey Records – District Plats of Survey, 1805-1832. Individual plats are on file at the Archives in RG 3-3-26, Surveyor General, Survey Records – Headright and Lottery Loose Plat File, 1783-1909. District Survey Field Notebooks are also in the Virtual Vault. They make up RG 3-3-25, Surveyor General, Survey Records – Field Note Books, 1805-1832. The Augusta and Savannah newspapers are on microfilm at the Georgia Archives.