Virginia-North Carolina Boundary

When English colonists first attempted to settle in North America, they arrived in what is now Roanoke Island in North Carolina. Those first settlers discovered the area was known as "Wingandacoa" by the current residents1 - but the English soon decided to call the place Virginia, after the supposedly "virgin" Queen Elizabeth.

Originally, all of modern-day North Carolina was included in Virginia in the three different colonial charters granted for the original colony. When the new colony of North Carolina was created and granted to eight Lords Proprietors - Earl of Clarendon (Edward Hyde), Duke of Albemarle (George Monck), William Craven, John Berkeley, William Berkeley, Anthony Ashley-Cooper (later the Earl of Shaftesbury), George Carteret, and John Colleton) in 1663, the southern edge of Virginia/northern boundary of North Carolina was defined at the latitude of 36 degrees north.2

That boundary was revised in a new 1665 charter to 36 degrees 30 minutes, about 35 miles further north. Moving the border a half-degree to the north gave the Carolinians control over the earliest settlers who had already occupied lands on Albemarle Sound, and eliminated potential conflict over control of shipping through that body of water. (This revision was comparable to the Second Charter of Virginia in 1609, which gave the London Company complete control over the Chesapeake Bay and eliminated any confusion regarding the rights granted to the Plymouth Company in the First Charter of 1606.)

northeastern corner of North Carolina, 1770
northeastern corner of North Carolina, 1770
Source: Library of Congress, A compleat map of North-Carolina from an actual survey

The land south of the Elizabeth River in Virginia and north of Albemarle Sound was relatively inaccessible. There was no easy water access to ship tobacco or other products from that area to the Hampton Roads, so Virginia settlement expanded to the north up the York, Rappahannock and Potomac rivers. In North Carolina, shipping was severely constrained by the lack of reliable passages through the barrier islands. The border region was a backwater, where settlers (including runaway slaves) eked out a meager subsistence living from the land and the hogs they raised.

In 1699, a border dispute involving Crow Island in Albemarle Sound triggered multiple letters between the Carolina and Virginia governors. A Virginia resident had obtained an order from a Princess Anne court regarding a lawsuit against a Carolina resident, then used Virginia officials to seize property in Carolina. Carolina officials in turn took a deputy sheriff from Virginia into custody, claiming that officials from Princess Anne County (now the City of Virginia Beach, Virginia) were ignoring not only the border but even the legitimate existence of Carolina as a separate colony.3

Crow Island in modern Currituck County, North Carolina
Crow Island in modern Currituck County, North Carolina
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), Geographic Names Information System

In 1700, the Board of Trade advised the governor of Virginia4

We have considered all you write and the papers you refer to, relating to the fixing of the boundaries between Virginia and North Carolina... take care that those who have settled any lands in those confines upon Virginia Patents be protected against the people of Carolina and that you assert his Maj. right against their encroachments and suffer no innovation therein untill those Boundaries come to be finally settled & determined

During the following decade, the Virginia and Carolina governments wrote reports to the Board of Trade that resemble the complaints of young children, asking an adult to resolve their conflict. Virginia even sponsored a secret survey to determine if the mouth of the Meherrin River was at 36 degrees 30 minutes, and how locating the line would affect existing property owners.5

In 1710, the governors of Virginia and Carolina appointed surveyors (plus members of the gentry to serve as commissioners, who would represent each colony's interests during the surveys) to mark the northern boundary line. That line was defined clearly in the 1665 Carolina charter:6

the north end of Currituck river or inlet, upon a strait westerly line to Wyonoak creek, which lies within or about the degrees of thirty-six and thirty minutes, northern latitude; and so west, in a direct line, as far as the South-Seas

However, the 1710 attempt to survey and mark the Virginia-Carolina boundary was a complete failure. The commissioners agreed on nothing, so no useful boundary lines were surveyed. From the Virginia point of view, all the blame could be assigned to one North Carolina official, Edward Moseley, who served as both a surveyor and a commissioner. Moseley "started all the captious Arguments and Exceptions that could be."7

The Virginia commissioners accused the Carolinians of deliberately sabotaging the survey effort, interefering in testimony regarding the historic location of "Wyonoak" creek and lying about the availablity of instruments. The Virginia commissioners surmised that Moseley claimed property that might be in Virginia, and the other North Carolina commissioner (John Lawson) would lose some surveying business if the line was marked.8

Based on testimony by local residents, the Virginia commissioners decided that the creek known as Weyanoak or Weycocon, not the Nottoway River, was the location identified in the 1665 charter. Carolina flatly disagreed, claiming the Native Americans for whom the Weyanoak was named had moved around. Failure to determine the boundary left the border region as a "no man's land." Officials were not clear who was authorized to enforce the law, and settlers found it convenient to avoid paying taxes to either colony.

territory most affected by disputed location of Wicocon (now Wiccacon) vs. Nottoway rivers
territory most affected by disputed location of Wicocon (now Wiccacon) vs. Nottoway rivers
Source: National Atlas

In 1728, the colonial governors of Virginia and North Carolina agreed to survey the boundary again. That effort started at the Atlantic Ocean, and surveyors went westward until reaching the edge of European settlement at the Dan River. William Byrd II wrote about the experience, starting with the challenge of defining the starting point at:9

the north end of Coratuck inlet, due west to Weyanoke creek, lying within or about the degree of thirty-six and thirty minutes of northern latitude, and from thence west, in a direct line, as far as the South sea

...this boundary was well known at the time the charter was granted, but in a long course of years Weyanoke creek lost its name, so that it became a controversy where it lay. Some ancient persons in Virginia affirmed it was the same with Wicocon, and others again in Carolina were as positive it was Nottoway river.

In the mean time, the people on the frontiers entered for land, and took out patents by guess, either from the king or the lords proprietors. But the crown was like to be the loser by this uncertainty, because the terms both of taking up and seating land were easier much in Carolina. The yearly taxes to the public were likewise there less burthensome, which laid Virginia under a plain disadvantage.

This consideration put that government upon entering into measures with North Carolina, to terminate the dispute, and settle a certain boundary between the two colonies. All the difficulty was, to find out which was truly Weyanoke creek. The difference was too considerable to be given up by either side, there being a territory of fifteen miles betwixt the two streams in controversy.

NC/VA boundary - start of Dividing Line survey, 1728
NC/VA boundary - start of "Dividing Line" survey, 1728
Source: USGS Digital Raster Graphic (DRG) for 1:24,000 scale topographic map, Knotts Island VA-NC
downloaded from GIS Spatial Data Server at Radford University

The surveyors and commissioners started in February, 1728 at the Atlantic Ocean, at what is now the southeastern corner of Virginia's False Cape State Park. After debating whether to use a high dune or a sand spit as the point of beginning, they drove a cedar post into the sand, adjusted their compasses three degrees to account for the variation between managentic and true north, and started west across the marshes and islands.

At times, according to Byrd, the surveyors walked in mud up to their news, and struggled to find a place to camp overnight where the swampy ground "made a fitter lodging for tadpoles than men." The professional surveyors and their chainmen took the physical difficulties as a challenge, and competed to be the first to march through the uncharted Dismal Swamp. The commissioners chose to bypass that part of the survey and travelled around the edge to the other side. It took several days for the surveyors to emerge, starving and exhausted from the crossing of the Dissmal.

In 1720, two North Carolinians had reported to the Board of Trade in London regarding the local population:10

this place is the receptacle of all the vagabouns & runaways of the main land of America for which reason and for their entertaining Pirates they are justly contemned by their neighbours, for which reason and that they may be under good Government and be made usefull to the rest of his Majesty's Collonys it would be proper to joyn the same again to Virginia

In 1728, William Byrd II also found little reason to respect the inhabitants, commenting:11

they are devoured by mosquitoes all the summer, and have agues every spring and fall, which corrupt all the juices of their bodies, give them a cadaverous complexion, and besides a lazy, creeping habit, which they never get rid of.

The land in the southeastern corner of Virginia/northeastern corner of North Carolina was productive, but inaccessible to shipping from Europe due to the barrier islands. Byrd commented on both the geography and how the survey would impact the landowners:12

It would be a valuable tract of land in any country but North Carolina, where, for want of navigation and commerce, the best estate affords little more than a coarse subsistence...

The line cut two or three plantations, leaving part of them in Virginia, and part of them in Carolina. This was a case that happened frequently, to the great inconvenience of the owners, who were therefore obliged to take out two patents and pay for a new survey in each government...

The line cut William Spight's plantation in two, leaving little more than his dwelling house and orchard in Virginia. Sundry other plantations were split in the same unlucky manner, which made the owners accountable to both governments. Wherever we passed we constantly found the borderers laid it to heart if their land was taken into Virginia: they chose much rather to belong to Carolina, where they pay no tribute, either to God or to Caesar. Another reason was, that the government there is so loose, and the laws are so feebly executed, that, like those in the neighbourhood of Sidon formerly, every one does just what seems good in his own eyes.

After reaching the Blackwater and Nottoway rivers, it was clear that the key 1710 claim by the Virginia commissioners was not correct. The Nottoway River would be the "Wyonoak creek" referenced in the 1665 charter, not the Wiccacon River that flowed into the Chowan River much further south.

According to the instructions issued by governors Spottswood and Eden in 1716 for the resolution of the boundary issue, after encountering the Blavkwater River the surveyors moved half a mile south to the confluence with the Nottoway River (the start of the Chowan River) and then began surveying straight to the west again. The confluence was identified as being at 36 degrees 30.5 minutes - slightly north of the line defined in the 1665 charter. As a result, North Carolina received a small amount of additional land as the survey headed west again, because the instructions from the governors directed that the surveyors use specific natural features rather than the mathematical lines of latitude to mark the border.

After completing over 70 miles of surveying to the Meherrin River,13 the party took a break between April-September 1728. According to William Byrd II's description of the September-October survey effort, on good days they could mark 7-8 miles of surveyed line... but on other days covered only 4 miles.

Nottoway River, 1752
Nottoway River, 1752
Source: Library of Congress, A new & accurate map of the provinces of North & South Carolina, Georgia &c. Drawn from late surveys and regulated by astronl. observatns

The Carolina commissioners and surveyors participated for only two weeks in the Fall, 1728 effort. By that time, they claimed to have extended the survey well beyond existing settlement, but the Virginians felt settlement would soon extend to the region. Over the protests of the Carolininians, the Virginians continued the survey - even after they ran out of liqour, which appeared to have been a major element in keeping everyone mellow despite the rough conditions. At the Dan River, they finally spotted the Blue Ridge in the distance.

They crossed Matrimony Creek ("called so by an unfortunate married man, because it was exceedingly noisy and impetuous"),14 and pushed on until they ran out of forage for the horses and wild game for the men. By October 26, 1728, the surveyors' had made their last blaze, on a red oak near Peters Creek (a tributary of the Dan River in modern Patrick County).

According to their calculations, the expedition had travelled 237 miles west from the cedar post planted at the starting point on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, and 64 miles past the point where the Carolina commissioners had left.15

Byrd's party considered returning home by traveling north to the headwaters of the James River, in part to determine if the Sharantow (Shenandoah) stretched south all the way to the Roanoke River and if a lake was at the headwaters of the Roanoke, Sheandoah, and "another wide branch of Mississippi" (the New River). The food shortage convinced them to return along the survey line they had just marked, taking the now-known path rather than exploring the unknown.16

note that watershed divide separating headwaters of Roanoke Riverfrom New River is poorly understood (modern Blacksburg area marked by red X)
note that watershed divide separating headwaters of Roanoke River from New River is poorly understood (modern Blacksburg area marked by red X)
Source: Library of Congress, A map of the British and French dominions in North America, with the roads, distances, limits, and extent of the settlements

Byrd was so impressed by the quality of the land along the border, he soon obtained a grant and had William Mayo, one of the Virginia surveyors in 1728, mark the limits of his 20,000 acres where the Dan River crosses into Virginia. (Mayo also was one of the surveyors in 1736 for the Fairfax Grant, and Byrd was one of the colony's commissioners for that effort.)

Byrd's grant on Dan River
Byrd's grant on Dan River
Source: William Byrd II, The Westover manuscripts: containing the history of the dividing line betwixt Virginia and North Carolina:
A journey to the land of Eden, A.D. 1736: and A progress to the mines
(p. 121)

In 1749, Joshua Fry and Peter Jefferson extended the surveyed boundary 90 miles further to the west (with William Churton and Daniel Weldon representing North Carolina). They started at Peters Creek, where William Byrd had stopped his survey of the "dividing line" 20 years earlier. The 1749 survey stopped at Steep Rock Creek, southeast of modern-day Damascus about two miles from the Holston River. No "Steep Rock Creek" appears on modern maps or in the USGS Geographic Names Information System,. Apparently the surveyors moved past modern day Big Horse Creek, which drains into the New River, and stopped on what is now the watershed divide of the New and Holston rivers.

Fry-Jefferson map - eastern section of VA/NC boundary
Virginia-North Carolina boundary, from Atlantic Ocean to Peters Creek
and showing notch where boundary line was adjusted at Nottoway River in 1728
Fry-Jefferson map - western section of VA/NC boundary
Virginia-North Carolina boundary, as extended west to near the Holston River (near modern-day Damascus, Virginia)
Fry-Jefferson credit to 1728 surveyors
Source: Library of Congress, A map of the most inhabited part of Virginia containing the whole province of Maryland with part of Pensilvania, New Jersey and North Carolina.
(drawn by Joshua Fry & Peter Jefferson in 1751)

Steep Rock Creek
Fry-Jefferson credit to 1749 surveyors
Where the 1749 survey stopped, at Steep Rock Creek

After later surveys, the northwest corner of Tennessee-Virginia ended up out of alignment with the North Carolina-Virginia corner. The Tennessee-Virginia boundary is north of the North Carolina-Virginia corner, which was the end point of the Fry-Jefferson Line survey in 1749 and the starting point of the Walker Line survey in 1779-80. The current Tennessee-Virginia boundary starts on Burnt Hill near Green Cove Creek (a tributary of the the Laurel Fork that drains into the South Fork of the Holston River).

modern North Carolina-Virginia-Tenessee border
modern North Carolina-Virginia-Tennessee border
Source: USGS, Digital Raster Graphic (DRG) of Grayson 7.5 minute topo quad,
downloaded from University of Virginia Library Virginia Gazetteer



1. The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation. Vol. XIII. America. Part II, by Richard Hakluyt, 1589, See also discussion by Karen Reeds of the first name of Virginia in VA-HIST listserver, 13 February 2009,;RZSo8A;20090213045256-0500 (last checked June 19, 2009)
2. Charter of Carolina, March 24, 1663, (last checked August 19, 2009)
3. Letter from Henderson Walker to Francis Nicholson (July 28, 1699), from "Colonial and State Records of North Carolina," (last checked August 19, 2009)
4. Letter from the Board of Trade of England to Francis Nicholson [Extract] (January 4, 1700), from "Colonial and State Records of North Carolina," (last checked August 19, 2009)
5. Minutes of the Virginia Governor's Council, June 26, 1705, from "Colonial and State Records of North Carolina," (last checked August 19, 2009)
6. Charter of Carolina (June 30, 1665), (last checked August 19, 2009)
7. Minutes of the Virginia Governor's Council, October 24, 1710, from "Colonial and State Records of North Carolina," (last checked August 19, 2009)
8. Journal of Philip Ludwell and Nathaniel Harrison during the survey of the North Carolina/Virginia boundary, pp.739-746, 1710 from "Colonial and State Records of North Carolina," (last checked August 19, 2009)
9. Byrd, William II, The Westover Manuscripts: Containing the History of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina; A Journey to the Land of Eden, A. D. 1733; and A Progress to the Mines. Written from 1728 to 1736, and Now First Published, p.8, (last checked August 19, 2009)
10. Report by Joseph Boone and John Barnwell concerning the North Carolina boundaries (November 23, 1720), from "Colonial and State Records of North Carolina," checked August 19, 2009)
11. Byrd, p.23 (last checked August 19, 2009)
12. Byrd, p.16-17, p.31 (last checked August 19, 2009)
13. "Virginia and North Carolina Boundary Line,", Surveyors Historical Society, January 1994 (last checked August 19, 2009)
14. Byrd, William II, p.56 (last checked August 19, 2009)
15. "Virginia and North Carolina Boundary Line,", Surveyors Historical Society, January 1994 (last checked August 19, 2009)
16. Byrd, p.63 (last checked August 19, 2009)

North Carolina
Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), National Geophysical Data Center (NGDC)

Boundaries and Charters of Virginia
Virginia Places