Virginia-Tennessee Boundary

King Charles II ordered in 1665 that the survey marking the new Virginia-North Carolina border along the 36°30' parallel of latitude should extend across the continent. The first set of surveyors started to mark the boundary in 1710, and William Byrd II's famous "dividing line" survey of 1732 stretched inland all the way to the Dan River (peters Creek). In 1749, when Peter Jefferson and Joshua Fry surveyed west from Peters Creek, they drifted north away from the assigned latitude until reaching Steep Rock Creek (east of Damascus) and ending that survey line. The instruments of the day were imperfect, and accounting for the variation of magnetic north required constant refinement as the surveys moved westward.

All those surveys were completed before the state of Tennessee was created in 1796 from the western part of North Carolina. The modern Virginia-Tenneseee boundary line was surveyed originally as a border between North Carolina and Virginia. Tennessee officials were not involved then, because there was no State of Tenneesee. (The land south of southwestern Virginia could have become the State of Franklin in 1784, if those counties had been able to obtain congressional support for that brief political initiative.)

Beginning in 1772, Virginia began creating individual counties in its southwestern corner as the population increased. In 1779, thirty years after Fry and Jefferson had stopped at Steep Rock Creek, Virginia and North Carolina started to extend their common boundary to the west. The extension of the state boundary line was needed because settlers began to occupy the land, and wanted to know whether they were in Virginia or North Carolina.

modern counties/cities along Tennessee-Virginia border
modern counties/cities along Tennessee-Virginia border
By 1802, when the Compromise Line was surveyed that now serves as the VA-TN border, there were three counties on the southeastern edge of Virginia -
Grayson, Washington, and Lee County. Since then, Scott County has been added, and Bristol has become an independent city.
Source: National Atlas

Knowing the location of the southern border of Virginia in the 1770's was essential for those planning to purchase land. Surveys had to be completed by authorized county surveyors, and filed in the appropriate county courthouse. Virginia was also determined to define the border in order to exert control over its territory, after blocking efforts of land speculators to purchase whatever rights the Cherokees had to the land between the Kentucky and Cumberland rivers (in the 1775 Treaty of Sycamore Shoals/Treaty of Watauga) and then create a new colony of Transylvania.

In 1779 Virginia and North Carolina appointed surveyors and commissioners to mark their joint boundary once again. Virginia was represented by Dr. Thomas Walker and General Daniel Smith, while Colonel Richard Henderson William Bailey Smith, and John Williams represented North Carolina. Walker is often cited as the first European to "discover" the Cumberland Gap in 1750, and he was also active in the Loyal Land Company with its claims to 800,000 acres in western Virginia. Henderson was the prime mover behind the Transylvania effort, through which he had hoped to acquire title to 20 million acres. (Virginia and North Carolina each ended up giving him 200,000 acres to eliminate his claims and "quiet title" to the land grants issued by those states.)

presumed NC-VA border, 1779
presumed NC-VA border, 1779 (assuming a straight line...)
Source: History of the South Carolina cession, and the Northern boundary of Tennessee by William Robertson Garrett (p.2)

The boundary survey in 1779-80 reached from the end of the Fry/Jefferson survey all the way to the Tennessee River. According to a later lawsuit,1 the Virginia and Carolina surveyors started in agreement, defining the latitude of 36 degrees 30 minutes to be a little over one mile south of where Fry and Jefferson had stopped their survey at Steep Rock Creek. However, after 45 miles, the surveyors reached Carters Valley (near modern-day Kingsport, Tennessee). There, the North Carolinians concluded that the line being surveyed was located two miles to the south of 36 degrees 30 minutes.

Walker and the Virginia surveyors kept blazing a line to thew west. In hopes of resolving the disagreement, the North Carolinia members plus a Virginia commissioner (General Daniel Smith) moved north two miles and surveyed back towards Steep Rock Creek. However, Smith concluded halfway back that the original line was correct, so he rejoined Walker. The North Carolina surveyors and commissioners marked a separate "Henderson Line" from Steep Rock Creek to Cumberland Mountain, and went home.

There is a two-mile gap between the Henderson Line on the south and the Walker Line on the north, between Steep Rock Creek and Cumberland Gap. This created a "gore" of territory where authority was unclear and (not surprisingly) neither state could collect taxes effectively. Virginia and North Carolina split the difference by surveying the Compromise Line of 1802, located halfway between the Henderson and Walker lines2

Walker, Smith and the Virginia surveyors kept surveying west beyond the Cumberland Gap, all the way to the Mississippi River. At Deer Fork, 124 miles west of their starting point at Steep Rock Creek, the Virginians skipped ahead 109 miles to the Cumberland River. There they determined through astronomical observations the latitude of 36 degrees 30 minutes, and surveyed 41 more miles west to the Tenneessee River. At the river, they ended up being over ten miles north of the desired 36 degrees 30 minutes.

The debate about how to resolve the disputed Virginia-North Carolina boundary continued after Kentucky and Tennessee became independent states. Kentucky had lost territory to Tenneessee due to the errors in the Walker Line. In 1820, Kentucky accepted the Walker Line as its boundary, but Tennessee gave Kentucky title to all the vacant land between 36 degrees 30 minutes and the Walker Line. The two states also agreed to move the boundary south to the 36 degree, 30 minute parallel between the Teneessee-Mississippi rivers in order to even out the impact.3

In theory, the Virginia-Tennessee border would match the 36°30' parallel of latitude. In determining property boundaries for taxation, elections, and land transfers, the border was based on "on the ground" marks and monuments - physical indications on the ground, such as blazes on trees or stones placed into the earth - that were made by the surveyors. Pioneer surveyors dragged iron chains west from the Atlantic Ocean, cutting a path through the natural vegetation and documenting the bearings/distances between monuments. When push came to shove in legal disputes, the monuments set on the ground were almost always defined as the property boundaries, no matter what documents may have said were supposed to be the dividing lines between colonies/states... so the ability of Global Positioning System (GPS) technology to define the 36 degree, 30 minute parallel more accurately is irrelevant.

The southern boundary line of Virginia with Tennessee has curves and notches. The reasons for the shifts in the Virginia-Tennessee border are not clear. Suppositions include the effect on instruments of iron deposits in the Iron Mountains, in addition to the traditional tales about hard-drinking surveyors losing their sense of direction and strong-willed landowners convincing the surveyors to avoid cutting through pre-existing parcel boundaries. One author concluded that many of the explanations for the adjustments were just made-up tales, and the most likely reason is that landowners requested boundary adjustments in order to keep their property in one state or the other. In his opinion, the large notch between North Carolina and Bristol was:5

probably is due to the fact that the land there is of little value and very rough; also the commissioners considered that they had discretion in the matter, and possibly followed Byrd in the way of accommodating the inhabitants

Joshua Fry and Peter Jefferson map
how Fry and Jefferson displayed the Tennessee-Virginia border
Source: Library of Congress, Joshua Fry and Peter Jefferson map

In 1802, Virginia and Tennessee agreed to survey a compromise line. Each state would be given half the territory between the Henderson Line and the Walker Line. Commissioners for Virginia were Joseph Martin, Creed Taylor, and Peter Johnston. Commissioners for Tennessee were General John Sevier, Moses Fisk, and General Joseph Rutledge, and surveyors were Brice Martin and Nathan Markland.6

The compromise survey ran from Whitetop Mountain to Cumberland Gap. Martin and Markland marked blazes in a diamond patterndiamond blaze of 1802 survey, so that survey is known as the "diamond line" At Virginia's southwestern tip, the boundary with Kentucky is based on the Walker Line. The Virginia/Tennessee boundary is located further south, because the two states used the 1802 compromise between the Walker/Henderson lines.7

how the Virginia/Tennessee and Virginia/Kentucky boundaries are not aligned at Cumberland Gap
how the Virginia/Tennessee and Virginia/Kentucky boundaries are not aligned at Cumberland Gap
Source: Microsoft Research Maps)

Virginia tried to re-open the question of the boundary line location in 1858, 1870, and then again in 1887. Tennessee stuck to the 1802 survey. In 1893, the Supreme Court ruled in Virginia v. Tennessee:8

The claim of Virginia is that by the charters of the English sovereigns, under which the colonies of Virginia and North Carolina were formed, the boundary line between them was intended and declared to be a line running due west from a point on the Atlantic Ocean on the parallel of latitude 36 degrees and 30 minutes north, and that the State of Tennessee, having been created out of the territory formerly constituting a part of North Carolina, the same boundary line continued between her and Virginia, and the contention of Virginia is that the boundary line claimed by Tennessee does not follow this parallel of latitude, but varies from it by running too far north, so as to unjustly include a strip of land about one hundred and thirteen miles in length and varying from two to eight miles in width, over which she asserts and unlawfully exercises sovereign jurisdiction.

On the other hand, the claim of Tennessee is that the boundary line, as declared in the English charters, between the colonies of Virginia and North Carolina, was run and established by commissioners appointed by Virginia and Tennessee after they became states of the Union, by Virginia in 1800, and by Tennessee in 1801, and that the line they established was subsequently approved in 1803 by the legislative action of both states, and has been recognized and acted upon as the true and real boundary between them ever since, until the commencement of this suit, a period of over eighty-five years, and the contention of Tennessee is that the line thus established and acted upon is not open to contestation as to its correctness at this day, but is to be held and adjudged to be the real and true boundary line between the states, even though some deviations from the line of the parallel of latitude thirty-six degrees and thirty minutes north may have been made by the commissioners in the measurement and demarcation of the line.

Tennessee won the case. The Supreme Court ruled that the line on the ground that had been the basis for election districts, tax collections, and real estate records was the boundary, no matter what the charter said. Virginia had benefitted from such reasoning in its dispute with Maryland over the low-water mark being the boundary along the Potomac River, and Virginia lost its claim to land in Tennessee by the same rationale:

A boundary line between states or provinces which has been run out, located, and marked upon the earth, and afterwards recognized and acquiesced in by the parties for a long course of years, is conclusive.

Tennessee-Virginia Border
Tennessee-Virginia border, with notch east of Bristol
Source: National Atlas

The court case did clarify the mysterious notch in the boundary between North Carolina and Bristol. When the 1802 line was resurveyed in 1901, the commissioners (who also served as the surveyors, in order to minimize cost) explored east and west of the notch. They looked for blazes on trees, in case the "compromise" surveyors had marked straight lines in the field in 1802, but then their final report had altered the location of the lines for some reason. The 1901 surveyors were able to find the distinctive diamond blazes from 1802, plus others remaining from an 1858 survey, on the zig-zag border. No marks were found on trees east or west of the notch, indicating the 1802 surveyors had intentionally altered the line and the mapped boundaries reflected their field work.9

Burnt Hill, starting point for the compromise diamond line surveyed in 1802
Burnt Hill, eastern starting point for the compromise "diamond line" surveyed in 1802
Source: USGS 1:24,000 topgraphic quadrangle, downloaded from NC OneMap)

The court case documented that the 1901 surveyors were confident that the 1802 effort had started from Burnt Hill. Defining that corner of Virginia/Tennessee was apparently the first compromise of that survey. Though the 1802 survey report says they started "on the summit of the mountain generally known as the White Top mountain," the line actually began on Burnt Hill, halfway between the top of White Top mountain and the Walker Line to the south.

Virginia did manage to convince Tennessee to make one adjustment in 1901. The 1802 line ran through Bristol, which had developed on both sides of the state boundary. (The Virginia side was originally the community of Goodson.) The state line was moved, in a bi-state agreement ratified by the US Congress, from the sidewalk on the northern side of the main street to the middle of the street.

This occurred after the "Water Works War of 1889." That dispute was triggered by a Tennessee-based water company trying to extend its lines to serve customers in Virginia, and a Virginia-based officer arrested the company president as he was working on the project. The Virginia-based utility then tried to construct its own pipeline down Main Street. Sheriffs from both Tennessee and Virginia brought their deputies to the scene, and the Tennessee sheriff raised a posse comitatus of several hundred volunteers. Though violence was a real possibility, the "war" ended in a scene worthy of a Charlie Chaplin comedy episode. The Tennessee sheriff tried to serve a warrant on the Virginia officer who had arrested the president of the Tennessee company. The officer squirmed away, fell into the pipeline ditch - and the sheriff fell in on top of him. Another officer defused the situation, inviting them both to get up and go home until the lawyers could sort it out. 10.

Cumberland Gap



1. US Supreme Court, Poole v. Fleeger, in United States Supreme Court reports Volume 9, pp.690-694, published by Lawyers Co-operative Publishing Company, (last checked August 19, 2009)
2. Redd, John, "Reminiscences of western Virginia, 1770-1790," Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. VII, No. 1, 1899, p. 242 (last checked August 19, 2009)
3. US Supreme Court, Poole v. Fleeger, p. 694
4. "Royal Colonial Boundary of 1665," American Society of Civil Engineers, (last checked August 17, 2009)
5. Marshall, Park. "The Boundary Lines of Tennessee published in "The Resources of Tennessee," Tennessee Geological Survey, v. 7, 1918, pp.90-108 (last checked August 26, 2009)
6. Whitney, Henry D., Land Laws of Tennessee (1891), p. 634 (last checked October 23, 2004)
7. Van Zandt, Franklin K., Boundaries of the United States and the Several States, p.110 Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1976.
8.US Supreme Court, Virginia v. Tennessee, 148 U. S. 503, (1893) (last checked August 17, 2009)
9. Tennessee v. Virginia, 190 U.S. 64 (1903) (last checked August 17, 2009)
10. Taylor, Oliver, Historic Sullivan: a history of Sullivan County, Tennessee, King Printing Co., Bristol TN, 1909, pp.244-246, (last checked August 26, 2009)

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