NOTE: The following paper was created for the 1999 class by Karl R. Phillips, and reflects both effective research and effective "packaging" of the information.
It is posted here with permission from the author.

Karl R. Phillips

Geography of Virginia GEOG 380
Project #1
Professor Grymes

How Virginia Got Its Boundaries


            How Virginia Got Its Boundaries is a survey essay that covers the period 1600 to 1867. This paper provides a brief summary of Virginia’s political geographic development. It explains how, when, and to some degree why Virginia’s boundaries were established.

            Virginia was the first of the thirteen original states to be founded and settled. The Old Dominion was initially created as a huge geographic political entity. It was generally the tradition of the English during the colonial period to establish large geographic units, and then to subsequently sub-divide them into smaller more manageable units. This two-phase process was conducted in order to establish legal claims to maximum territory. As areas were settled the large territories were subdivided for a variety of reasons. One was to suit the particular needs of the local inhabitants, as in the cases of Connecticut, Rhode Island, Plymouth, and Delaware. In others colonies a group or individual sold off large tracts of land to raise funds for colonial efforts. In 1622, the Council for New England sold the tract of land between the Merrimack and Kennebec Rivers to Ferdinando Gorges and Captain John Mason. This tract became the colony of Maine. The Puritans used the proceeds from that sale to fund the settlements of Salem and Boston. The western portion of Maine was sliced off in 1629 and became New Hampshire. There were also some consolidations. Maine was acquired by Massachusetts in 1643, Plymouth in 1691.

            Maryland, Pennsylvania, Carolina, New York, and New Jersey were proprietary grants. These were generous land grants issued to individuals by the English monarch to satisfy debts, or as personal favors to friends or relatives, (the Duke of York was the brother of King Charles II, later became King James II). Carolina was eventually partitioned as the economic interests of Charleston and the Albemarle diverged. Georgia was carved out of South Carolina to serve as a buffer between the strategic port of Charleston and the Spanish in Florida.

            Virginia was the mother of the colonies. Each of the other original colonies was directly or indirectly carved out of Virginia. It was the first territory to be claimed by England in North America. At its maximum extent, Virginia encompassed most of what is now the United States, as well as portions of Canada and Mexico.


The Founding of Virginia


            When Sir Walter Raleigh founded the first English settlement on Roanoke Island, there was no Virginia. There was only America. The English had gradually settled Newfoundland as a fishing community starting in the 1550’s. This island was chartered as a colony in 1585, the same year that Roanoke Island was first settled. The Spanish had established Saint Augustine, Florida in 1565 as a strategic outpost to protect Spain’s Caribbean empire from English privateers. Between Newfoundland and Spanish Florida was a vast unsettled territory. Raleigh named this area Virginia an honor to Queen Elizabeth, (the Virgin Queen), with whom he sought favors. For many years thereafter the vast temperate region of North America was referred to as Virginia. It had no boundaries, and no government.

The failure of Roanoke Island was a financial disaster for Queen Elizabeth. She refused to invest further in colonial enterprises. Virginia remained in name only. It would have to wait for a new monarch before colonization would become a reality. That monarch was King James I, Elizabeth’s successor. In 1606, he chartered two joint stock companies for the purpose of establishing colonies in Virginia. Each was granted a tract of land extending along the Atlantic coast, and extending inland for 100 miles. The Virginia Company of London was granted a southern tract from Cape Fear to Long Island Sound, (34° to 41° North Latitude). The Virginia Company of Plymouth was granted a northern tract extending from Assateague Island to Passamaquoddy Bay, Maine, (38° to 45° North Latitude). The New Jersey/Delaware area comprised a three-degree overlap. Each company was prohibited from establishing any settlements within one hundred miles of any existing settlements founded by the other company. The English were a maritime people accustomed to navigating by the stars. Latitude was relatively easy to determine and was used extensively for the purposes of land partition in the new world.


Virginia grants 1606


            In 1607 two settlements were established in “Virginia”. The London Company founded Jamestown in the Chesapeake Bay area. The Plymouth Company established the Popham Colony at the mouth of the Kennebec River in what is now Maine. After a fierce winter the Popham settlement was abandoned. Thereafter the Plymouth Company floundered and was eventually dissolved. Jamestown did not fare much better. There was at least one attempt to abandon the settlement. With the failure of Popham all efforts were directed toward Jamestown despite appalling death rates and chronic financial losses.

            In 1609, King James offered the London Company a generous incentive. He granted the company a charter making Virginia a province of England, with a hefty land grant to boot. This new grant extended as far south as Cape Fear, (34th Parallel), and north to Barnegat Bay, New Jersey, (40th Parallel). Although this grant did not extend as far north as the original grant of 1606, the London Company was given clear title to the entire tract. Gone was the restriction of establishing settlements within 100 miles of the Plymouth Company towns. Also, the new grant extended all the way across the continent to the Pacific Ocean. The southern boundary extended due westward. The northern boundary extended in a northwesterly direction. The grant of 1609 placed most of the present day United States, as well as much of present-day western Canada within the legal bounds of Virginia. This grant encouraged the stockholders to invest still more treasure into the venture, and Jamestown managed to barely survive.


Virginia Grants, 1609 and 1611


            By 1611, it seemed that Jamestown was a failure. Virtually every settler died within a few years of arriving in the colony. After four years, no gold or precious gems were discovered. No crops or animals were found that could be exported back to Europe for a profit. The discouraged investors were about to give up on Jamestown. King James was determined to establish English power in the new world however. He offered the London Company one more incentive. A third grant was issued to the London Company. The 1611 grant was similar to the 1609 grant. It also extended “from sea to sea”, but the southern boundary was relocated at the 29th Parallel. Most of what is now the southern United States, as well as northern Mexico was placed in Virginia. The island of Bermuda was also included in the 1611 grant. At that time, there were more settlers on Bermuda than Jamestown. The third grant was enough of an incentive to keep the investors interested. By 1617, tobacco was starting to generate enough profit to insure the survival of the colony. Jamestown began to flourish and served as the capital of Virginia until 1699. The period from 1611-1620 represented the greatest territorial extent of Virginia during its four-century history.


Reductions during the Colonial Period


            For thirteen years, Virginia was the only English colony on the North American continent. All efforts of colonization were focused on Jamestown. By 1619 the settlement had a good chance of surviving. The first slaves were introduced that year, as well as the first shipload of English maidens. The London Company created the House of Burgesses to provide some measure of self-government. These events induced still further colonization. It was then possible for the English crown to begin expanding the empire to other parts of the continent.

            Religious strife had troubled England since Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church in 1528. The Puritan movement began to threaten the monarchy as it challenged the traditions of the Anglican Church. In 1620, King James decided to establish a new colony in America for the Puritans. Several Puritan leaders were receptive to the idea. A Council for New England was established with the expressed purpose of establishing a new colony that would be owned and administered by Puritans. The Council was issued a royal grant of all lands in America that lay between the 40th and 48th Parallels. This new grant fixed Virginia’s northern border at the 40th Parallel, from sea to sea. The act of 1620 was the first of many territorial reductions that Virginia would experience.


            In 1632, King Charles I of England issued a grant to Lord Baltimore, for the portion of Virginia that lay north of the Potomac River, and a straight line across the Chesapeake Peninsula at Pocomoke Sound. The Lord Baltimore Grant was chartered as the Colony of Maryland in 1634. The creation of Maryland resulted in a second reduction of Virginia. Disputes concerning the exact boundary of Maryland arose almost immediately. The alignment across the Chesapeake Peninsula was contested first. By 1668, the dispute over the Eastern Shore boundary was resolved. The Potomac boundary also proved troublesome. From the river’s estuary to the mountains the boundary was clear. The controversy centered on the two main forks of the Potomac in the trans-Allegany territory. Maryland claimed the South Fork as the main stream, while Virginia claimed the North Fork. Maryland therefore claimed a considerable piece of what is now West Virginia. This dispute was resolved in Virginia’s favor as part of a special survey that determined the boundaries of the Lord Fairfax Grant in 1746. The Commissioners determined that the North Fork of the Potomac was the main stream and therefore the true boundary between Maryland and Virginia.


Virginia 1634


            A third major reduction occurred in 1663. In that year, King Charles II of England issued a colonial grant for Carolina. It included the portion of Virginia south of the 36th Parallel. Virginia was reduced to a latitudinal band across the continent extending from the 36th to the 40th Parallels, excepting Maryland. Virginia was further reduced two years later when the Carolina-Virginia border was moved northward by half a degree of latitude. This boundary adjustment was made so that all of Albemarle Sound would lie within Carolina. At that time there was no direct communications link between Chesapeake Bay and Albemarle Sound. Travel between settlements on these two water bodies were further hampered by the Great Dismal Swamp, which lies directly between them. It was decided that the swamp itself would make a logical location for a boundary. Latitude 36° 30’ was therefore chosen as the Carolina-Virginia boundary. The reduction of 1665 finalized the northern and southern boundaries of Virginia during the colonial period.


Virginia 1665


            Virginia was directly involved in the French and Indian War. While a captain in the Virginia militia, George Washington, was dispatched to expel the French from Ft. Duquesne in 1753. Based on its colonial grants, Virginia claimed the Ohio Valley. The French were by then active in establishing a series of forts and trading post throughout their Louisiana Colony. In 1753, the Ohio Valley was considered to be part of Louisiana by the French, because the Ohio is a tributary of the Mississippi River. Washington failed to persuade the French to leave. A second expedition in 1754 led to bloodshed, triggering the war. France ultimately lost all of its North American empire. Louisiana was partitioned between Spain and Great Britain right down the Mississippi in 1763.


Virginia 1763


            With the French out of the Ohio Valley, the way was opened for Virginian expansion into that valley. The British monarchy had different plans for the region however. King George III did not wish to see any more bloodshed in Indian territory. The war had been costly in terms of both blood and money. He decided to freeze the frontier at the Allegany Mountains. The Proclamation of 1763 prohibited any further settlement west of the Allegany. This act reduced Virginia once more. The Proclamation generated deep resentment in Virginia and other colonies, sowing the seeds of the coming revolution. Virginia was permitted to expand westward in the years following the Proclamation of 1763, however. The crown recognized the fact that most of the territory to the west of Virginia’s mountains were by then vacant of Indians. In 1769, the Vandalia Company was established. Its tract occupied what is now West Virginia and southwestern Pennsylvania. Since Virginia chartered Vandalia, the colony effectively extended its territory westward to the Big Sandy and Ohio Rivers. The creation of the Transylvania Company in 1775 extended Virginia as far west as the Kentucky River.


Virginia 1775


The Revolution Affects Virginia’s Boundaries


            The Colony of Quebec was established by Great Britain as part of the Proclamation of 1763. The French-speaking colony was initially limited to the St. Lawrence valley. In 1774, Parliament enacted the Quebec Act, greatly enlarging the territory of Quebec to include the entire Great Lakes Basin and the Ohio Valley north of the River. Though the Quebecois were by then British subjects, the colonists along the Atlantic seaboard still considered them to be adversaries. They bristled with resentment that their old enemies once again controlled the highly coveted Ohio Valley. The fact that their own government had mandated the handover of a vast and valuable territory to the Quebecois was indeed a bitter pill to swallow. Nowhere was that bitterness felt more than in Virginia. The passage of the Quebec Act was the catalyst that prompted the convention of the First Continental Congress in 1774.

            When the Second Continental Congress ratified the Declaration of Independence in 1776, it called upon the thirteen original states to draft new constitutions. Virginia quickly adopted a constitution, and took advantage of the opportunity to reclaim some of its lost territory. Virginia extended its claims westward to the Mississippi River, and northward to the southern limits of the Hudson Bay Company, (Rupert’s Land). This claim encompassed most of the territory that had been granted to Quebec just two years before. The brilliant campaign of 1778, led by George Rogers Clark secured the Ohio Valley for Virginia, as well as for the United States.

            During the subsequent peace negotiations, John Adams insisted that the Mississippi River be recognized as the western boundary of the United States. Not wishing that the trans-Allegany region fall into French or Spanish hands, Britain conceded. In return, the United States was forced to relinquish all claims north of the Great Lakes. Virginia was bound to accept Lake Superior as its northern boundary, but was still left with a territory as large as Texas and California combined. Virginia, always the largest of the thirteen colonies had established itself as the largest of the thirteen states.

            But pressure was mounting against Virginia with regard to its vast territorial claims. Maryland refused to ratify the Articles of Confederation until the states with large western land claims surrendered them to the new national government. In 1781, New York ceded all of its claims west of Lake Ontario to the United States. The Virginia Assembly voted to cede at least some of its western territory to the United States, once Congress had established a process for creating new states in the region. Satisfied with these actions, Maryland ratified the Articles of Confederation. The United States then had a new government.

            One of the major challenges facing the new government was resolving several territorial disputes between the states. Virginia claimed southwestern Pennsylvania as part of its Vandalia annexation. The issue was submitted to Congress for arbitration. Virginia accepted the ruling that went in favor of Pennsylvania. The Mason-Dixon Line was accepted as Virginia’s northern boundary from Maryland’s western boundary, as far west as the western boundary of Pennsylvania.


Virginia 1783


            With peace secured in 1783, the Confederation Congress set about developing a method of establishing new states in the west. A program of western development was outlined, based on a plan put forth by Thomas Jefferson. Virginia took the next step by ceding all of its territory north and west of the Ohio River to the United States in 1784. The greatly reduced commonwealth encompassed what are now the states of Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky. The Virginia cession was followed by cessions made by North Carolina in 1784, Massachusetts in 1786, Connecticut and South Carolina in 1787, Connecticut, (Western Reserve), in 1800, and Georgia in 1802. Following the Connecticut cession of 1787, Congress enacted the Northwest Ordinance, establishing the Territory Northwest of the River Ohio. Comprising the area that had been ceded to the United States by Virginia in 1784, the Northwest Territory was the first federal territory ever to be established by the United States. The states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and part of Minnesota were eventually created from this area.


Virginia 1787


            At the outbreak of the American Revolution, large numbers of Virginia settlers began migrating through the Cumberland Gap into what is now Kentucky. In 1776, Virginia organized a new Kentucky County, encompassing the area of the present day state. By 1789, Kentucky County had been subdivided into nine new counties, none of which was called Kentucky. Collectively, these nine counties were known as the Kentucky District of Virginia. A new society was rapidly emerging in this frontier backcountry. Geographic isolation, and economic orientation to the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers spawned a statehood movement in the region. The Virginia General Assembly voted to grant Kentucky statehood in 1789. Congress passed an enabling act in 1791, and Kentucky entered the union the following year. Virginia was reduced to the area of the present states of Virginia and West Virginia. The Cumberland Mountains and Big Sandy and Ohio Rivers then formed the western boundary of Virginia.

            Virginia also voted to grant the new federal government a one hundred square mile tract of land on the Potomac River for the Federal City in 1789. In 1791, President Washington issued a proclamation establishing the boundaries of the Territory of Columbia. Thirty-one square miles of Virginia were included within the capital territory. In 1801, the territory was redesignated as the District of Columbia. The Virginia portion was organized into a county named Alexandria. (The Maryland portion was organized as Washington County). In 1846, Abraham Lincoln was elected to Congress from Illinois on a campaign plank that called for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia. The slave holding residents of Alexandria feared that Lincoln’s proposal would be approved. They organized a referendum calling for the retrocession of Alexandria County back to Virginia. The referendum passed, and Congress gave its consent. Alexandria County now consists of Arlington County and part of the City of Alexandria. Congress abolished the slave trade in the District of Columbia as part of the Compromise of 1850. President Lincoln abolished slavery entirely in the District during the Civil War.


Virginia 1792


The Admission of West Virginia

            The final chapter of the evolution of Virginia’s boundaries involves West Virginia. Only four states were created directly from existing states: Vermont from New York in 1791, Kentucky from Virginia in 1792, Maine from Massachusetts in 1820, and West Virginia from Virginia in 1863. Like Kentucky, the residents of western Virginia were geographically isolated from Richmond and economically oriented to the Ohio Valley. The narrow shaded valleys of the trans-Allegany region precluded large plantations and discouraged slavery. The eastern plantation powers refused to invest the state treasury in western internal improvements, which inhibited economic development. They also refused to establish a public school system. The western counties were unable to change the situation in Richmond, because the reapportionment process favored counties with large slave populations. Slaves were counted as whole people for the purposes of apportioning the legislature, but of course they could not vote. Thus the western counties were at a terrible political disadvantage. They could do virtually nothing to change their economic situation. This unfavorable condition led to a statehood movement as early as the 1820’s.

            When Virginia seceded from the union in 1861, most of the delegates to the secession convention who represented western counties voted against secession. These delegates held their own convention in Wheeling. They established a restored government of Virginia. The restored government elected a governor, two US senators, and three US representatives. Wheeling was selected to serve as the provisional capital. Congress and President Lincoln recognized this government, and hoped to make it a model for other Confederate states seeking readmission after a union victory. The restored government, now controlled by western Virginians, took advantage of the unique political situation to create a new state. They voted to grant the western counties the right to establish a state called Kanawha in 1862. A constitutional convention changed the name of the proposed state to West Virginia. It also provided for slavery. This provision was included to gain the support of several western counties that had voted in favor of secession. Congress objected to the slavery provision. A second convention was held which modified the original constitution. This new charter provided for the gradual abolition of slavery.


Virginia 1867


            Fixing the boundaries for the new state was difficult. Indeed, settling on the boundaries was the most challenging issue facing the state’s founders, even more so than slavery. The new state had to balance the desire for political cohesion against those of security in light of the ongoing war, which was being waged in and around western Virginia. Of grave importance was the need to keep the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad within union hands. This vital rail link was the only direct railway connecting Washington with the western states. There was the possibility that the Confederacy might win the war, and the north wanted to be sure that the B&O remained within the United States after a peace had been negotiated, should that be necessary. It was decided therefore, that the Potomac counties as far east as the Harper’s Ferry crossing be included within the new state. Other counties were included because they controlled key mountain passes through the Allegany. Some counties were given the option of joining the new state. In the end Congress approved of a state consisting of 48 counties. Jefferson, Berkeley, and Frederick Counties were given the option of joining the new state after Confederate control had ended. West Virginia entered the Union in 1863. Following referendums in 1866, Jefferson and Berkeley Counties were transferred to West Virginia, effective in 1867. Frederick County never held a referendum. The transfer of the two eastern panhandle counties, represents the final boundary adjustment in Virginia’s history.


            Virginia was the first of the thirteen original colonies to be established. It experienced both expansion and contraction throughout its history. Once claiming most of the United States, Virginia has been gradually reduced to a medium-sized state. It is now roughly triangularly shaped. Virginia is bounded on the north by Maryland and the District of Columbia, on the west by West Virginia, on the southwest by Kentucky, and on the south by Tennessee and North Carolina. The Atlantic Ocean, rivers, mountains, and a parallel of latitude form its boundaries. Virginia is a state of varied topography. It encompasses a coastal plain that is flooded by the Chesapeake Bay. It includes part of the Piedmont upland, several parallel linear mountain ranges, and an elevated plateau. Rivers flowing to the east, north, south and west drain Virginia. It straddles both the Atlantic and Mississippi watersheds. The Old Dominion encompasses these varied physiographic provinces because its boundaries delineate a territory whose history is rich in the American experience. Virginia can be compared to a pie that has been gradually cut down through its four-century period of evolution.


The Penguin Atlas of North American History to 1870, McEvedy, Penguin Books 1988
Boundaries of the United States and the Several States, Professional Paper 909, US Geological Survey, 1976
The Cartography of North America 1500-1800, Portinaro & Knirsch, Crescent Books, 1987
Virginia Places