The modern Virginia-Tennessee boundary line was surveyed originally as a border between North Carolina and Virginia. In theory, it was supposed to be located on the 36° 30' parallel of latitude, defined as the northern border of North Carolina in its 1665 charter.
Tennessee officials were not involved in making the first boundary surveys because there was no State of Tennessee until 1796, when the western part of North Carolina became a new state. Tennessee officials had their greatest impact on the Virginia-Tennessee border in 1802, and then later lawsuits and political compromises created the notches and zig-zags in the boundary.
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 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 1728 stretched inland all the way to the Dan River, stopping at Peters Creek.
In 1749, Peter Jefferson and Joshua Fry surveyed 90 miles west from Peters Creek until stopping at Steep Rock Creek (probably Laurel Creek, a tributary of Holston River east of modern-day Damascus). The western edge of that North Carolina-Virginia colonial boundary line became one point on the Virginia-Tennessee boundary. The rest of the Virginia-Tennessee boundary was defined after Virginia declared independence from England in 1776 and became a state.
the 1749 survey of the Virginia-North Carolina border stopped at Steep Rock Creek (probably modern 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)
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 drifted nearly five miles north of the 36° 30' parallel of latitude; the tilt becomes more obvious the further west one looks today.
The population on the southwestern frontier increased after the French and Indian War. Virginia began creating new counties there in 1770, carving Botetourt out of Augusta County. In 1772, Fincastle County was created out of Botetourt, and in 1776 Fincastle County was divided into Montgomery, Washington, and Kentucky counties. Later partitions after continued population growth created the current county boundaries on Virginia's borders with North Carolina and Tennessee.
For those planning to purchase land on the frontier 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 file their surveys and land warrants in Virginia or North Carolina courts, and which courts would resolve disputes. State officials wanted to receive tax revenue from lands sold to settlers.
Virginia was also determined to define the border in order to exert control over its territory, rather than leave settlers "in a state of nature" without effective government. Land speculators exacerbated the confusion when they tried to establish independent governments and then collect revenue from sale of the land claimed by Virginia.
Fincastle County was created in 1772
Source: Library of Virginia, Fincastle County
Efforts to establish the Virginia-North Carolina boundary were renewed during the American Revolution, despite the disruption of British invasions of Virginia throughthe Chesapeake Bay. A critical number of settlers on the western border of Virginia and North Carolina chose to fight for independence, but they made clear that the new state governments had to reciprocate and ensure opportunities to acquire land. "Land hunger" by settlers on the frontier disprupted relationships with Native American tribes (especially Cheokee and Shawnee), but no American equivalent of the Proclamation of 1763 would be acceptable.
In the 1775 Treaty of Sycamore Shoals, Richard Henderson and other land speculators tried to bypass the colonial governments east of the Blue Ridge. The Transylvania Company purchases whatever rights the Cherokees had to the land between the Kentucky and Cumberland rivers, and then tried to create a 14th colony of Transylvania.
In 1784, after the American Revolution ended, several North Carolina counties west of the Blue Ridge petitioned the new Congress to admit them as the State of Franklin, the 14th state. Congress rejected the proposed State of Franklin. North Carolina regained control and finally ceded its land claims to the Congress, which established the Southwest Territory in 1790 and accepted Tennessee into the union in 1796.
Virginia was bordered by the Southwestern Territory between 1790-96, after North Carolina ceded its western lands to the national government and before the State of Tennessee was accepted into the Union (much of southwestern Virginia became the State of Kentucky in 1792)
Source: Library of Congress, Map of the state of Kentucky: with the adjoining territories, 1795
During the middle of the American Revolution in 1779, Virginia and North Carolina agreed on a new survey to extend their common boundary to the west. The decision came thirty years after Fry and Jefferson had stopped at Steep Rock Creek, and the states of Tennessee and Kentucky had not been created yet.
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 a grant from Virginia for 800,000 acres in southwestern 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.)
In 1779, the Virginia and Carolina commissioners/surveyors could not find evidence of that 30-year old survey by Fry/Jefferson and North Carolinians. Instead, in 1779 the two survey teams agreed to begin the new survey by defining the latitude of 36° 30' to be a little over one mile north of where Fry and Jefferson had stopped their survey at Steep Rock Creek. That is why 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.
After 45 miles of moving west, 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° 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 Tennessee 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 Tennessee, 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
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
|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
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
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 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:
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, with notch east of Bristol
Source: National Atlas
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