The North Carolina - Virginia Border Surveys - 1709 to 1780

The North Carolina - Virginia boundary line had remained unsurveyed while a dispute raged around it for more than forty years. The survey was fraught with many problems, ranging from the inherent hazards the wilderness contained to the conflicting politics within the Virginia Council and the intercolonial jealousy of Virginia and North Carolina, which appeared to be unsurmountable.

In 1709, the governors of both North Carolina and Virginia appointed commissioners to settle this boundary. North Carolina appointed Edward Moseley and John Lawson; but Lawson left his deputy, Colonel William Maine, to act for him. In 1710, these commissioners met Philip Ludwell and Nathaniel Harrison, commissioners from Virginia, but the Carolina commissioners insisted that the surveying instruments used by the Virginians were not to be trusted, and the meeting broke up without having accomplished anything except the charge from the Virginians that Moseley did not want the line run because he was trading in disputed lands.

When the commissioners from these two colonies did meet again in March of 1728, it was found that the Carolina commissioners had been right in 1710 as to the inaccuracy of the Virginia instruments, and the Virginians frankly admitted it.

On the 27th of February, 1728, William Byrd, Will Dandridge, and Richard Fitzwilliam, as commissioners from Virginia, met Edward Moseley, Christopher Gale, William Little, and John Lovick, as commissioners from North Carolina, at Currituck Inlet, and began the survey on the 27th day of March, and continued it till the weather got "warm enough to give life and vigor to the rattlesnakes" in the beginning of April, when they stopped till September 20, when the survey was renewed; and after going a certain distance beyond their own inhabitants the North Carolina commissioners refused to proceed further, and protested against the Virginia commissioners proceeding further with it.

In this they were joined by Fitzwilliam of Virginia. This protest was in writing and was delivered on October 6th, when they had proceeded 170 miles to the southern branch of the Roanoke River 'and near 50 miles without inhabitants,' which they thought would be far enough for a long time. To this the two remaining Virginia commissioners, Byrd and Dandridge, sent a written answer, to the effect that their order was to run the line 'as far towards the mountains as they could;' they thought they should go as far as possible so that 'His Majesty's subjects may as soon as possible extend themselves to that natural barrier, as they are certain to do in a few years;' and thought it strange that the North Carolina commissioners should stop 'within two or three days after Mr. Mayo had entered with them near 2,000 acres within five miles of the place where they left off.'

The North Carolina commissioners, accompanied by Fitzwilliam of Virginia, left on October 8th; but Byrd and Dandridge continued alone, crossing Matrimony creek, "so called from being a little noisy," and saw a little mountain five miles to the northwest "which we named the Wart."

On the 25th of October they came in plain sight of the mountains, and on the 26th, they reached a rivulet which "the traders say is a branch of the Cape Fear." Here they stopped. This was Peters creek in what is now Stokes County. It was on this trip that Mr. Byrd discovered extraordinary virtues in bear meat. This point was on the northern boundary of that part of old Surry which is now Stokes county.

A glance at the map will show a break in the line between Virginia and North Carolina where it crosses the Chowan River. This is thus accounted for: Governors Eden of North Carolina and Spottswood of Virginia met at Nansemond and agreed to set the compass on the north shore of the Currituck River or inlet and run due west; and if it "cutt Chowan River between the mouths of Nottoway and Wiccons creeks, it shall Continue on the same course towards the mountains; but it it "cutts Chowan river to the southward of Wiccons creek, it shall continue up the middle of Chowan river to the mouth of Wiccons creek, and from thence run due west." It did this; and the survey of 1728 was not an attempt to ascertain and mark the parallel of 36° - 30', but "an attempt to run a line between certain natural objects . . . regardless of that line and agreed upon as a compromise by the governors of the two States."

Thus, so far as the Colonial Records show, ended the first survey of the dividing line between North Carolina and Virginia, which one of the Virginia commissioners has immortalized by his matchless account, which, however, was not given to the world until 1901, when it was most attractively published by Doubleday, Page & Co., after careful editing by John Spencer Bassett.

But Colonel William Byrd does not content himself in his "Writings" with the insinuation that the North Carolina commissioners and Mr. Mayo had lost interest immediately after having entered 2,000 acres of land within five miles of the end of their survey. He goes further and charges that, including Mr. Fitzwilliam, one of the Virginia commissioners, "they had stuck by us as long as our good liquor lasted, and were so kind to us as to drink our good Journey to the Mountains in the last Bottle we had left!" He also insinuates that Fitzwilliam left because he was also a judge of the Williamsburg, Virginia Court, and hoped to draw double pay while Byrd and Dandridge continued to run the line after his return. But in this he exultantly records the fact that Fitzwilliam utterly failed.

William Byrd estimated that surveying the border between North Carolina and Virginia in 1728 covered a distance of over 230 miles and would require sixteen weeks to complete, including the time required to assemble the party, and for travel to and from the boundary lines. The surveyors normally worked six days a week, beginning their day at eight or nine in the morning and continuing till near dark.

The Virginia surveyors were paid at a rate of 1 pound sterling or 20 shillings per day. Virginia’s share of the expedition’s cost was just under £1,000 sterling, whereas in comparison the Mason and Dixon survey of over 200 miles of the east-west boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland took nearly five years with 1,737 days spent in the field and cost the proprietors over £3,500 sterling. These two surveying projects of roughly comparable distance were actually miles apart in surveying techniques, time spent, cost, and nature of terrain measured. The difference was due to the fact that the northern boundary passed through some of the most valuable real estate in America, while the southern one was drawn through sand marsh and swamp of a barely inhabitable region of poor land and to woods of a self-explored mountain wilderness.

The most important and hazardous part of the 1728 expedition was carrying the boundary line directly through fifteen miles of the Dismal Swamp. When contemplated in 1711, it had been considered to be impossible to cross the swamp, and other means were being sought. In 1728, the North Carolina commissioners still thought the swamp to be impassable and considered a similar plan. Three surveyors, however, Mayo, Irvine and Swann, and twelve assistants carrying instruments, bedding, and provisions for eight days ventured to enter the barrier of reeds that were twelve-feet tall and vicious “Bamboo briers,” where the ground was “so spongy that the prints of our feet were instantly filled with water.”

The commissioners turned back and circled the swamp area and waited anxiously on the west side for the surveying party to emerge. It was a long and anxious period. On the sixth day without news guns were fired but there were no answering shots to be heard. It was not until the ninth day, when the commissioners had just about given up all hope, that the surveyors came straggling out to report that the direct route of the line through the Dismal Swamp was fifteen miles, of which ten had been surveyed. Another ten days were required to complete the last five miles. Five and one-half days had been required to survey the first twenty-one miles, including one spot where beaver dams and otter holes had made it impossible to run a direct line “but the surveyors were content to make a traverse.”

The surveyors worked under the most difficult conditions, as noted by William Byrd. In his account of the "Journey to the Land of Eden," in his "History of the Dividing Line," he wrote “...I think I ought to do Justice not only to the uncommon Skill, but also to the Courage and Indefatigable Industry of Maj.r Mayo and two of the other Surveyors, employ’d in this long and difficult Task. Neither the unexpected Distance, nor the Danger of being doubly Starved by Hunger and excessive Cold, could in the least discourage them from going thro’ with their Work, tho’ at one time they were almost reduced to the hard necessity of cutting up the most useless Person among them, Mr. [John] Savage, in order to Support and save the lives of the rest. But Providence prevented that dreadfull Blow by an unexpected Supply another way, and so the Blind Surveyor escapt.”

An official map was prepared and signed and dated on October 26, 1728, the day following its completion. Sometimes as much as eleven miles were surveyed in one day, and it was usual to complete only five to eight miles daily. William Byrd’s two narratives of the expedition are filled with information about the hazards that the men faced while measuring land in remote areas, but they are written from the indirect and impersonal view of a commissioner who had been given the report rather than in the words of the surveyor in the field. Byrd worried constantly about the well-being of the men and sympathized with their hardships, but from his post of relative ease at the base camp; while Thomas Lewis, weary of body, sat down by the campfire each night after return to camp to pen an account in 1746 while working on the Fairfax Line.

In October of 1749, the line between North Carolina and Virginia was extended from Peters Creek, where it had ended in 1728 - which point is now in Stokes County-ninety miles to the westward of Steep Rock Creek, crossing "a large branch of the Mississippi [New River], which runs between the ledges of the mountains" as Governor Johnston remarked - "and nobody ever drempt of before." William Churton and Daniel Weldon were the commissioners on the part of North Carolina, and Joshua Fry and Peter Jefferson on the part of Virginia. "It so happens, however, that no record of this survey has been preserved, and we are today without evidence, save from tradition, to ascertain the location of our boundary for ninety miles.

This extension carried the line to within about two miles east of the Holston River; and we know from the statute of 1779 providing for its further extension from that point upon the latitude of 36° - 30' that it had been run considerably south of that latitude from Peters Creek to Pond mountain, from which point it had, apparently without rhyme or reason, been run in a northeastwardly direction to the top of White Top mountain, about three miles north of its former course, and from there carried to Steep Rock creek, near the Holston River, in a due west course. The proverbial still-house, said to have been on White Top, is also said to have caused this aberration; but the probability is that the commissioners had a more substantial reason than that.

In 1779, North Carolina passed an Act reciting that as, "the inhabitants of this State and of the Commonwealth of Virginia have settled themselves further westwardly than the boundary between the two States hath hitherto been extended, it becomes expedient in order to prevent disputes among such settlers that the same should be now further extended and marked." To that end Orandates-improperly spelled in the Revised Statutes of 1837, Vol. ii, p. 82, "Oroondates" - Davie, John Williams Caswell, James Kerr, William Bailey Smith and Richard Henderson should be the commissioners on the part of North Carolina to meet similar commissioners from Virginia to still further extend it. But it was expressly provided that they should begin where the commissioners of 1749 had left off, and first ascertain if it be in latitude 36° - 30', "and if it be found to be truly in" that latitude, then they were "to run from thence due west to the Tennessee or the Ohio river; or if it be found not truly in that latitude, then to run from said place, due north or due south, into the said latitude, and thence due west to the said Tennessee or Ohio river, correcting the said course at due intervals by astronomical observations." (Colonial Records. Vol. iv, p. 13.)

Richard Henderson was appointed on the part of North Carolina, and Dr. Thomas Walker on that of Virginia, to run this line, and they began their task in the spring of 1780; and on the last day of March of that year Col. Richard Henderson met the Donelson party on its way from the Watauga settlements to settle at the French Lick, in the bend of the Cumberland. (Roosevelt, Vol. iii, p. 242.) But nine years before, in 1771, Anthony Bledsoe, one of the newcomers to the Watauga settlement, being a practical surveyor, and not being certain that that settlement was wholly within the borders of Virginia, extended the line of 1749 from its end near the Holston River far enough to the west to satisfy himself that the new settlement on the Watauga was in North Carolina.


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