On June 29, 1977, an altercation between Georgia law enforcement officers and a South Carolina shrimp boat captain attracted national press and rekindled a controversy that would not be resolved until 1990. South Carolina and Georgia disagreed over the exact location of the boundary in the lower Savannah River, as well as ownership of several islands in that region. At stake in this border dispute was not only tax dollars but also potentially millions of dollars in federal aid. A 1976 amendment to the Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972 allowed grants and loans to coastal states to offset damage expected from the production of offshore oil. This appeal for federal aid forced South Carolina and Georgia to settle a border dispute that had been simmering for two centuries.
Since Georgia’s chartering in 1733, the boundary for the southernmost tip of South Carolina had been in constant question. The original boundaries for Carolina stretched as far south as the St. Mary’s River, in Florida, and westward to the Pacific Ocean. Georgia’s founding charter established the colony as bounding Savannah’s “northern stream” south to the Altamaha’s “southern stream.” During the 1750s South Carolina and Georgia, as well as Spain, laid claim to lands along the Altamaha River. In 1763, at the end of the Seven Years’ War, the St. Mary’s River became Georgia’s southern boundary opposite the new British colony of East Florida.
Border controversies continued, and three commissioners from each state met in Beaufort on April 28, 1787, “to establish and permanently fix a Boundary between the two states.” Charles Pinckney, Andrew Pickens, and Pierce Butler represented South Carolina in this convention; John Houstoun, James Habersham, and Lachlan McIntosh represented Georgia. The Treaty of Beaufort was ratified with the following provisions: the Savannah River served as the common boundary with navigation “equally free to the citizens of both States”; the area of land between the Tugaloo and Keowee Rivers (roughly modern Oconee County) was guaranteed to South Carolina; and all of the islands in the Savannah River belonged to Georgia.
Uncertainties remained, as shifting sands and waters contributed to an enormous amount of morphological change in the lower Savannah region, affecting several strips of land including Barnwell Island, Jones Island, and Oyster Bed Island. Also, between 1855 and 1900 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other organizations significantly altered the lower region of the Savannah River to ensure safe navigation for deep-draft vessels. As boundary questions continued between the two states, a 1922 U.S. Supreme Court ruling placed the line at the Savannah “midway between the main banks of the river.” On June 25, 1990, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of South Carolina and awarded ownership of most of the islands in the Savannah, adding three thousand acres of land and seven thousand acres of water to the Palmetto State.
De Vorsey, Louis, Jr. The Georgia–South Carolina Boundary: A Problem in Historical Geography. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1982.
Georgia v. South Carolina, 497 U.S. 376 (1990).