Virginia-Tennessee Boundary

the Tennessee-Virginia border today has evolved from the 36° 30' parallel of latitude defined in 1665 to separate Virginia-North Carolina
the Tennessee-Virginia border today has evolved from the 36° 30' parallel of latitude defined in 1665 to separate Virginia-North Carolina
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

The modern Virginia-Tenneseee boundary line was surveyed originally as a border between North Carolina and Virginia.

Tennessee officials were not involved in making those surveys because there was no State of Tenneesee until 1796, when the western part of North Carolina became a new state. Tennessee officials shaped the Virginia-Tennessee border, starting in 1802, through lawsuits and political compromises.

The first key decision shaping the modern Virginia-Tennessee border was made in 1663, when Charles II granted the Charter of Carolina to reward eight supporters who helped him during the English Civil War. King Charles II initially declared that the Virginia-North Carolina border would run along along the 36° parallel of latitude. In 1665, he modified the charter to grant the new colony control over all of the Albemarle Sound, by moving the boundary north to the 36° 30' parallel.

Surveyors first started to mark a boundary along that 36° 30' parallel in 1710. 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. The instruments of the day were imperfect, and accounting for the variation of magnetic north required constant refinement as the surveys moved westward. Fry and Jefferson stopped at Steep Rock Creek (now Laurel Creek, a tributary of Holston River, east of modern-day Damascus).

the 1749 survey of the Virginia-North Carolina border stopped at Steep Rock Creek (now known as Laurel Creek)
the 1749 survey of the Virginia-North Carolina border stopped at Steep Rock Creek (now known as Laurel Creek)
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)

Laurel Creek (formerly Steep Rock Creek) is east of modern-day Damascus, Virginia
Laurel Creek (formerly Steep Rock Creek) is east of modern-day Damascus, Virginia
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), Geographic Names Information System

Virginia began creating individual counties in its southwestern corner in 1772 as the population increased, with the creation of Fincastle County. For those planning to purchase land in the 1770's, knowing the location of the Virginia-Carolina border was essential. Surveys had to be completed by authorized county surveyors, and filed in the appropriate county courthouse. Settlers wanted to know whether they should use Virginia or North Carolina courts to resolve disputes, and state officials wanted to receive tax revenue from those settlers.

Virginia was also determined to define the border in order to exert control over its territory. Land speculators tried to establish independent governments and then collect revenue from sale of the land claimed by Virginia.

In the 1775 Treaty of Sycamore Shoals/Treaty of Watauga, speculators tried to purchase whatever rights the Cherokees had to the land between the Kentucky and Cumberland rivers and then create the new colony of Transylvania. In 1784, after the American Revolution, several North Carolina counties west of the Blue Ridge petitioned the new Congress to admit them as the State of Franklin, the 14th state. North Carolina regained control and ceded its land claims to the Congress, which established the Southwest Territory in 1790 and then accepted Tennessee into the union in 1796.

Fincastle County was created in 1772
Fincastle County was created in 1772
Source: Library of Virginia, Fincastle County

Virginia was bordered by the Southwestern Territory between 1790-96
Virginia was bordered by the Southwestern Territory between 1790-96
Source: Library of Congress, Map of the state of Kentucky: with the adjoining territories, 1795

Efforts to establish the Virginia-North Carolina boundary were renewed during the American Revolution. Settlers on the western border chose to fight for independence, but made clear that land ownership was a critical issues. 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. At the time, the states of Tennessee and Kentucky had not been created yet.

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.

Both teams had representatives with strong personal agendas. Walker was active in the Loyal Land Company, with 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 in the Kentucky region of Virginia. (Ultimately, Virginia and North Carolina each ended up giving Henderson 200,000 acres to eliminate his claim and "quiet the 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 Virginia-North Carolina boundary survey in 1779-80 started surveying westward at Steep Rock Creek, the western end of the Fry/Jefferson survey that had stopped in 1749. The Virginia and Carolina commissioners/surveyors could not find evidence of that 30-year old survey, but agreed to begin the 1779 survey by defining the latitude of 36° 30' to be a little over one mile south of where Fry and Jefferson had stopped their survey at Steep Rock Creek.

After 45 miles, they 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° 30' and thus giving too much land to Virginia. In their opinion, Walker was trying to establish a claim to territory that belonged to North Carolina.1

Walker and the Virginia surveyors ignored the objections of the North Carolinians and kept blazing the "Walker Line" to the west. In hopes of resolving the disagreement, the North Carolina members - plus one Virginia commissioner, General Daniel Smith - moved north two miles and surveyed back towards Steep Rock Creek. However, Smith concluded halfway back that he had made a mistake and the original line was correct, so he rejoined Walker.

The North Carolina surveyors reached their starting point, started again, and marked a separate "Henderson Line" from Steep Rock Creek to Cumberland Mountain. The North Carolina representatives stopped at Cumberland Mountain and went home, but the Virginia team kept surveying to the west. They went all the way to the Tennessee River.

As a result of the disagreement, the two sets of surveyors created a two-mile gap west of Steep Rock Creek and Cumberland Gap. North Carolina surveyors defined the Henderson Line on the north, while Virginia surveyors marked the Walker Line on the south. In this two-mile "gore" (gap) of unclear ownership, legal authority was unclear and neither state could collect taxes effectively.2

Walker, Smith and the Virginia surveyors kept surveying west beyond the Cumberland Gap. 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 17 miles north of the desired 36° 30' - which would have benefitted North Carolina, had the commissioners/surveyors stayed with the project.3

The debate about how to resolve the disputed Virginia-North Carolina boundary on its western end continued after both Virginia and North Carolina ceded control over that land to the independent states of Kentucky and Tennessee.

Kentucky lost territory to Tenneessee, due to the errors that caused the Walker Line to be located too far north. In 1820, Kentucky accepted the Walker Line as its boundary, but Tennessee gave Kentucky title to all the vacant land between 36° 30' and the Walker Line. The two states also agreed to move the boundary south to the 36° 30' parallel between the Tennessee-Mississippi rivers, to avoid repeating the error created by the Walker Line veering too far north on the eastern side of the Tennessee River.4

the Kentucky-Tennessee border was adjusted west of the Tennessee River to mitigate for errors made by the 1779-80 Walker Line survey
the Kentucky-Tennessee border was adjusted west of the Tennessee River to mitigate for errors made by the 1779-80 Walker Line survey
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

If the 1665 decision by Charles II had been implemented, the Virginia-Tennessee border should match the 36° 30' parallel of latitude. In reality, the border is based on the inadequate expertise and equipment of the 18th Century, followed by lawsuits and political compromises.

The actual boundary is defined by on-the-ground marks and monuments - physical indications such as blazes on trees or stones placed into the earth - that were made by the surveyors. The ability of Global Positioning System (GPS) and Geographic Information System (GIS) technology to define the 36° 30' parallel more accurately is irrelevant in modern land ownership disputes.

Pioneer surveyors dragged iron chains west from the Atlantic Ocean, cutting a path through the natural vegetation and documenting the bearings/distances between monuments. In legal disputes since then, the monuments set on the ground are almost always defined as the property boundaries, no matter what documents may have said were supposed to be the dividing lines between colonies/states.

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 displayed the Tennessee-Virginia border as a straight line
Joshua Fry and Peter Jefferson displayed the Tennessee-Virginia border as a straight line
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

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. The Compromise Line of 1802 ran from Whitetop Mountain to Cumberland Gap. Martin and Markland marked blazes in a diamond pattern, so that 1802 survey is known as the "diamond line."6
diamond blaze of 1802 survey
diamond blaze of 1802 survey

At Virginia's southwestern tip, the boundary with Kentucky is based on the Walker Line. The Virginia/Tennessee boundary is based on the 1802 compromise between the Walker/Henderson lines, so it is located further south - creating a jog at the eastern end of the Tennessee/Kentucky line.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: ESRI, ArcGIS Online)

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 compromise line, so the states ended up settling their boundary through a lawsuit.

Tennessee won the case. 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.

The Supreme Court decision confirmed 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.

The court case did clarify the mysterious notch in the boundary between North Carolina and Virginia at 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 altered the location of the lines in their final report for some unknown reason.

The 1901 surveyors were able to find the distinctive diamond blazes from 1802, plus others remaining from an 1858 survey when Virginia tried to re-open the boundary question. In 1901, no marks were found on trees east or west of the notch that varied from the 1802 surveyors. The zig-zag boundary with a notch in the final 1802 compromise survey reflected the original field work.9

The Supreme 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.

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

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)

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

in 1897, the Holston River had not yet been dammed and flowed freely across the Tennessee-Virginia border
in 1897, the Holston River had not yet been dammed and flowed freely across the Tennessee-Virginia border
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), Bristol 1:250,000 topographic quadrangle (1897)
(from ESRI USGS Historical Topographic Map Explorer)



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. "Surveyors Error In Drawing 'Walker Line' Kept Tennessee, Kentucky At Odds For Many Years," TNGenWeb, (last checked October 4, 2014)
4. US Supreme Court, Poole v. Fleeger, p. 694
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 October 4, 2014)
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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