the tip of Buchanan County marks the Kentucky-Virginia-West Virginia border
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), Wharncliffe, WV-VA-KY 7.5-minute topographical quadrangle map (2014)
The Virginia-Kentucky state boundary involved less conflict and less debate than the other boundaries that now exist between Virginia and North Carolina, Tennessee, Maryland, and the District of Columbia.
As European settlers migrated west, the Virginia General Assembly created new counties with local courthouses where surveys and land deeds were recorded, and where local judges resolved disputes. Virginia's General Assembly created the county of Kentucky in 1772. It was later divided into multiple counties as population grew. In 1792, Virginia supported Kentucky's entrance into the Federal union as an independent state, with exterior boundaries unchanged since Kentucky County was formed in 1772.
When Kentucky joined the United States in 1792, the land had been occupied by humans for 15,000 years ago. Virginia's claim to the land was based on a document signed in England, the Second Charter issued to the Virginia Company by James II in 1609. That charter granted to the colony of Virginia a swath of land extending from sea to sea, west and northwest, ad it ignored the pre-existing claims of the current residents on the land.
The Appalachian Plateau was used primarily by Cherokee and Shawnee when the Virginia colonists began to carve out farms west of the Blue Ridge. The Iroquois also traveled south through the region from New York, typically on short-term raids against the Cherokee and other Native American groups.
In negotiations to redefine the western edge of legitimate colonial settlement after King George III issued the Proclamation of 1763, the Iroquois sought compensation before relinquishing their rights to the land south of the Ohio River and west to the Tennessee River. That Iroquois claim was based on the right of conquest over the Shawnee.
Though that claim was highly questionable, the British paid the Iroquois to extinguish whatever rights the Iroquois possessed in the 1768 Treaty of Fort Stanwix. Separate negotiations with the Cherokee in 1768 resulted in the Treaty of Hard Labor, and 1770 negotiations produced the Treaty of Lochaber. In neither treaty did the Cherokee formally cede their claims to Kentucky, though an informal arrangement in 1770 allowed colonial settlement east of the Kentucky River.
When the Cherokee relinquished their claim to Kentucky in the 1775 Treaty of Sycamore Shoals, they warned Richard Henderson and his Transylvania Company that they were purchasing a "a dark and bloody ground" with conflicts still remaining over ownership.
Colonial exploration into far western Virginia was triggered by land speculators. They obtained large land grants from the king, then sought to survey and sell parcels to the growing population in the colonies. The gentry of Virginia and Pennsylvania coerced their colonial governments and Native Americans into making land speculation "legal," then sponsored expeditions to explore, hype, and sell western lands.
In 1749, the Loyal Land Company obtained a grant from the Governor's Council to 800,000 acres on the Appalachian Plateau, including much of what would become Kentucky. That land speculation syndicate was composed of members of the gentry who enough substantial clout in Williamsburg to get the governor's authorization for "free land." The Greenbrier Company had set the example in 1745, when it obtained a grant for 100,000 acres in the Greebrier Valley of modern-day West Virginia.
The Ohio Company also obtained a different land grant in 1749. The Ohio Company authorization was for 500,000 acres, with 300,000 acres contingent upon settling 100 families within seven years). The Ohio Company grant was for lands near the forks of the Ohio River, further north from the lands desired by the Loyal Land Company. The leaders of the Loyal Land Company were concentrated in the Piedmont, while the gentry in the Ohio Company were largely from the Northern Neck.
The first colonial explorers into the Appalachian Plateau left little indication of their presence. The first documentation of a crossing through the Cumberland Gap was the 1750 journal of Dr. Thomas Walker, a key member of the Loyal Land Company.
Walker was exploring across the mountains to determine what areas to advertise, survey and sell. The grant to the Loyal Land Company came at no cost, but required lands to be surveyed within four years. The syndicate would gain revenue only if settlers purchased individual parcels. Walker also was identifying possible routes that would be used to cross the mountains, which is why he examined Cumberland Gap.
The Ohio Company efforts to build a fort at the headwaters of the Ohio River were blocked when French troops moved into the area, seized the "Forks of the Ohio," and constructed Fort Duquesne (later the site of Pittsburgh). The Virginia response led by George Washington triggered the French and Indian War. Tense fighting with Native American tribes during that war delayed colonial efforts to occupy lands west of the Atlantic Ocean-Gulf of Mexico watershed divide.
In 1763, the Treaty of Paris that ended the French and Indian War also defined the Mississippi River to be far western edge of Virginia. The colony no longer stretched from "from sea to sea" because, in that treaty, the English accepted the Spanish claim to lands west of the Mississippi River.
Between 1745-1770, Augusta County included all the land claimed by Virginia that was west of the Blue Ridge. The eastern edge of Augusta County extended along the crest of the Blue Ridge, south of the Fairfax Grant line, to the North Carolina border. The western boundary extended all the way west to the Pacific Ocean until 1763, when the Treaty of Paris ending the French and Indian War established the Mississippi River as the edge.
The lands that later became the Commonwealth of Kentucky were just a small part of Virginia's largest political jurisdiction. Augusta County had been created initially in 1738, then organized officially in 1745, to provide the services of local government. The long hunters and fur traders west of the Allegheny Front required minimal support for documenting land claims or rsolving disputes in court, an undefined western border was not a problem.
By 1770, enough people had followed the paths south of the Shenandoah Valley to justify creating a new local government, and Augusta County was split to create Botetourt County. The population growth continued to the southwest, and in 1772 Fincastle County was created out of Botetourt County.
The new Fincastle County was huge. Boundaries were defined by a line that ran from the Ohio River up the New River to "Culbertson's creek" (perhaps the mouth of the Greenbrier River in West Virginia), then east across Giles County to roughly I-81 (near Exit 118 to Virginia Tech), then west of Radford though Floyd County to the crest of the Blue Ridge, on south to the North Carolina border, and then west to the Mississippi River.1
British leaders struggling to pay for the recent war thought it was time to rein in the Virginia settlers and minimize the costs of protecting colonists in the backcountry. Officials in London determined that English settlement should be restricted to the Atlantic Ocean watersheds, while an Indian Reserve should be established west of the colonists. King George III issued the Proclamation of 1763, banning settlement west of the Appalachians in order to mininmize conflicts in the borderlands.
This ban, and the concurrent opening of West Florida (the Natchez territory in Mississippi) to settlement, was expected to minimize disputes over territory with the Iroquois, Shawnee, Cherokee, and other tribes. Fewer disputes would, at least in theory, minimize the military costs for protecting English settlements.
There was a different perspective in Williamsburg. Lord Dunmore, though the royal governor of Virginia, was more than willing to ignore the restrictions in the Proclamation of 1763, the 1768 treaties of Fort Stanwix and Hard Labor, and even the 1774 transfer of Virginia's western lands to the province of Quebec.
In 1773, Dunmore overruled objections from Fincastle County officials and approved private surveys for land claims at the obviously-valuable but far-away Falls of the Ohio River (now Louisville). He also declared that military warrants, which entitled officers and soldiers who fought in the French and Indian War to land grants, could be filed anywhere in Virginia.
In addition to helping make Kentucky more attractive by facilitating land claims, Dunmore initiated a war with the Shawnee. Lord Dunmore's War culminated in the Shawnee defeat at the Battle of Point Pleasant, and the Treaty of Camp Charlotte forced the Shawnee to cede their claims to territory south of the Ohio River. A year later when Cherokee signed the Treaty of Sycamore Shoals to cede their claim to the area, Dragging Canoe described the territory as a "dark and bloody ground" due to the hostilities based on overlapping claims.2
In 1775, Lord Dunmore was forced out of office. He fled Williamsburg as the colony joined what became the American Revolution. Virginia officials faced the same choices as the British officials: how much should be invested in protecting the scattered settlements on the edge of settlement?
The rebel leaders in Williamsburg were reluctant to supply arms and ammunition to the frontier settlers west of Cumberland Gap. When George Rogers Clark arrived in Williamsburg and requested supplies, his request was initially rejected. He complained "if a country were not worth protecting, it was not worth claiming," and Governor Patrick Henry quickly provided the requested lead and powder.3
In 1776, the General Assembly divided Fincastle County to create Washington, Montgomery, and Kentucky counties. The name Fincastle disappeared, since it honored the family of Lord Dunmore at a time when he had fled from the developing American Revolution in Williamsburg.
The straight line of the Virginia-North Carolina boundary and the twisted boundaries of two natural features - the Big Sandy River and the Cumberland Mountains - were used to define the edges of the new county called Kentucky:4
In 1780, Kentucky County was subdivided into Jefferson, Lincoln, and Fayette counties.
Being west of the Allegheny Front was key to the development of Kentucky. Settlers crossed through Cumberland Gap to obtain cheap land, and that land was used for farming. Surplus agricultural products, including deerskins, lumber, and corn converted into whiskey, was floated down the Sandy, Kentucky, and Cumberland rivers to Ohio River and then down the Mississippi River to market at New Orleans.
In contrast, Virginia's leaders living east of the Appalachians remained focused on trade via rivers that connected to the Chesapeake Bay. Georgee Washington feared that the United States would lose support of western settlers unless new transportation infrastructure could bring their products across the mountains to port cities on the Atlantic seaboard. Washington personally supported the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal to facilitate the connection between west and east via the Potomac River.
Virginia's leaders also supported construction of a canal on the James River, drawing trade from the Ohio River to Richmond. Virginia's western lands in the upper Ohio River and Kanawha River watersheds could be connected by roads and canals to Fall Line ports.
Further south, it was a different challenge. A road or canal from the Cumberland Gap to a Virginia port was clearly not feasible. The costs to carry heavy freight by horse-drawn wagon for 350-400 miles to Richmond, including a crossing of the Blue Ridge, were too high for farmers to make a profit. The only feasible option was to float freight down the rivers, and in Kentucky the rivers float west to the Mississippi River.
in the late 1700's, there was no realistic way to construct a canal or road to carry Kentucky's agricultural products through Cumberland Gap to a port on the Atlantic seaboard
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
The General Assembly created additional counties as population increased in the far western corner of the state, but made few investments in the Kentucky country. The legislature was unresponsive to requests to fund roads and canals west of the Allegheny Front that would send agricultural goods down the Mississippi River, rather than to a port in Virginia.
Virginia even gave away its lands north of the Ohio River, ceding the Northwest Territory to the new Continental Congress. Retaining Virginia's claim to the far western lands would have required funding for defense against Native Americans and the British in Canada, and for transportation projects that would not bring trade to Alexandria, Fredericksburg, Richmond, or Petersburg.
Settlers in Kentucky County, on the western side of the Cumberland Mountains, saw few benefits from remaining part of Virginia. Rather than pay taxes to a legislature in Richmond that would not support trade to New Orleans, and might not respond to raids from Shawnee living north of the Ohio River, it made more sense to convert the Kentucky region into an independent state. There was even a possibility it could become part of a new colony/state of Transylvania, proposed by a land speculator who purchased land rights from the Cherokees in the 1775 Treaty of Sycamore Shoals.
There were 10 conventions in Kentucky between 1784-1792, that debated the details and future organization of government. in 1792, the US Congress made Kentucky the second new state to enter the Federal union. Kentucky was a state that supported slavery, and its admission balanced the addition of Vermont in the north.5
As part of the deal to support the creation of a new Commonwealth of Kentucky, Virginia reserved lands between the Green and Cumberland rivers for honoring warrants for military service in the French and Indian War. That reservation was in addition to the Virginia Military Reserve north of the Ohio River in the Northwest Territory.
Virginia awarded land bounties to recruit soldiers, and reserved land within Kentucky as well as Ohio for land claims of veterans
Source: Kentucky Secretary of State, Neal Hammon Series of Maps - Virginia's Western Counties, 1780
Before agreeing to the establishment of a new state, Virginia used its claims to the Northwest Territory as a bargaining chip to ensure the state retained control over the Kentucky district.
State officials were concerned that the new national government might declare pre-existing claims void and force people with Virgina-authorized land claims to repurchase their land, since the traditional Virginia pattern of transferring land to private ownership was inefficient and created excessive legal confusion. The promise of a future voluntary cession of lands north of the Ohio River kept the Continental Congress from interfering with Virginia's management of Kentucky south of that river.
In the cession of the Northwest Territory, Virginia carefully defined its boundary as the low water mark on the northern shore of the Ohio River - not the middle of the river. That left Virginia in control of traffic on the entire Ohio River, just as Maryland had established title to the entire Potomac River.
When Kentucky became an independent state, it inherited the claim of control to the the low water mark on the northern shore of the Ohio River. The General Assembly also determined in the legislation authorizing Kentucky independence that6
Thomas Jefferson suggested that the boundaries of Kentucky should be part of his plan for creating new states out of western lands, starting at the mouth of the Kanawha River. Virginia was the largest state, both in population and acreage, in the new Federal government. Even after the separation of Kentucky, he felt that Virginia would be too large and unable to govern effectively all the territory that it would retain.
all of Kentucky was once a county in Virginia
Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), National Geophysical Data Center (NGDC)
Jefferson believed that democratically-elected leaders could not effectively manage large geographic areas, that governments dominated by business interests along the Atlantic seaboard would not be sensitive to concerns of farmers located west of the Alleghenies, and that governments would be more representative of the voters' interests if the Northwest Territory was subdivided into small states. His proposal for Kentucky's boundaries was intended less to benefit the new state and more to improve government in Virginia's remaining western lands.7
Thomas Jefferson proposed shrinking the size of Virginia, dividing Kentucky in half, and creating many small states out of the western lands acquired in 1783
Source: Manifest Destiny - Shaping America's Culture and Borders
To mark the boundary in 1799, Kentucky and Virginia followed the time-honored process used for defining Virginia's boundaries: each state appointed commissioners and surveyors. At the time, all the land on the northeastern side of the Big Sandy/Tug Fork rivers was still Virginia; West Virginia was not created until 1863.
northern tip of VA-KY survey line (note that Virginia retained rights to the far shore of the Tug Fork, and West Virginia inherited those rights to the entire river)
Source: USGS, Digital Raster Graphic (DRG) of Wharncliffe 7.5 minute topo quad, downloaded from GIS Spatial Data Server at Radford University
They followed the Big Sandy/Tug Fork upstream to a point they defined as the intersection of the crest of Cumberland Mountain. They also surveyed northeast along the crest of Cumberland Mountain, starting from "seven pines and two black oaks" on the Walker Line (which was Virginia's definition of its border with Tennessee, in 1799).
The commissioners and surveyors traced the mountain ridge northeastward. They cut away from the Cumberland River/Powell River watershed divide (the Tennessee Valley Divide) and moved to the crest of Pine Mountain, southwest of the current Pound, Virginia. The commissioners and surveyors followed the ridge of Pine Mountain to the Russell Fork. At the current location of Breaks Interstate Park there is a clear gash in Pine Mountain there, cut by the Russell Fork - a tributary of Levisa Fork, which is a tributary of the Big Sandy River, which runs into the Ohio River near Ashland, Kentucky.
the Russell Fork cuts through Pine Mountain at Breaks Interstate Park
the Pound Fork flows into the Russell Fork before flowing across the Kentucky-Virginia border like the Levisa (Louisa) Fork, while the Tug Fork defines the the Kentucky-West Virginia and Kentucky-Virginia borders
Source: Library of Congress, Colton's map of the southern states (1861)
At the Russell Fork, the surveyors quit trying to follow natural features. Instead of zig-zagging across the rugged landscape to define the watershed boundary, they marked a 45-degree line straight line northeast to Tug Fork, another tributary of the Big Sandy River.8
at the Russell Fork, the VA-KY line stops tracing the watershed boundary and becomes a straight line to Tug Fork
Source: USGS, Digital Raster Graphic (DRG) of Elkhorn City KY-VA 7.5 minute topo quad,
downloaded from Kentucky Geological Survey
In 1776, the Virginia General Assembly defined the "main or north easterly branch" of the Tug Fork as the Kentucky County line. When it came time to determine which stream qualified as the "main or north easterly branch" to serve as the boundary between the states of Kentucky and Virginia, the surveyors and their commissioners made a judgment call.
According to one report, the commissioners and surveyors met at the confluence of the Tug and Levisa forks of the Big Sandy River on October 13, 1799. Discussions that evening were mellowed by strong drink, and they agreed that the Tug Fork was the larger tributary and thus the main branch. The officials of each state planned to sign documents to that effect the next morning.
The starting point of the Big Sandy River, the confluence of the Levisa Fork and Tug Fork, is now the location of Louisa (Kentucky) and Fort Gay (West Virginia). The 1799 meeting of commissioners determined the Virginia-Kentucky boundary met in 1799,
That night a major rainstorm caused the Levisa Fork to rise, and in the morning it rather than the Tug Fork appeared to be "main or north easterly branch." Despite the physical change, on October 14 the "true Kentuckians and Virginians agreed to ratify while sober, what they had agreed while drunk" and the Tug Fork was defined as the boundary line.9
the yellow on the map shows how much of Kentucky would have been placed in Virginia (now West Virginia) if the Levisa Fork had been chosen as the "main or north easterly branch" of the Big Sandy River
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
shape of Virginia after 1790 (when Kentucky became an independent state) until 1863 (when West Virginia was created)
Source: Library of Congress, New map of Virginia (1861)
after the Civil War, Virginia added Dickinson County on its side of the Virginia-Kentucky border (as defined by the Cumberland Mountains)
Source: Library of Congress, Lloyd's map of the southern states showing all the railroads, their stations & distances, also the counties, towns, villages, harbors, rivers, and forts.