"Staunton" vs. "Roanoke" River

the 1755 Fry-Jefferson map of Virginia referred to Smith's or Staunton River
the 1755 Fry-Jefferson map of Virginia referred to "Smith's or Staunton River"
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 (by Joshua Fry and Peter Jefferson, 1755)

When place names were assigned by the early explorers and colonists, there was no Board of Geographic Names to reconcile differences and establish an official name. In most cases, the settlers in a region would ultimately adopt one place name, and alternate names would be discarded. For example, the same stream in southwestern Virginia was called both the New River and the Woods River, but "Woods River" dropped out of use quickly.

the Roanoke River was known as the Staunton River upstream of the confluence with the Dan River - and upstream of Richmond, the James River was known as the Fluvanna River
the Roanoke River was known as the Staunton River upstream of the confluence with the Dan River - and upstream of Richmond, the James River was known as the Fluvanna River
Source: Library of Congress, A map of Virginia and Maryland (1767)

Today, all Virginia rivers stay the course and are described by just one name from their headwaters to their mouth - with one exception. The Roanoke River changes its name in the middle of its path through Virginia. A portion of the Roanoke River, from Leesville Dam to the mouth of the Dan River, is still known locally as the Staunton River.

highway sign south of Altavista
highway sign south of Altavista
riverfront park in Altavista
riverfront park in Altavista

Above Leesville Dam and below the confluence with the Dan River, the Roanoke River is called the Roanoke River. For 80 miles in the middle, however, it is also called the Staunton River. In 1984, 51 miles between State Route 360-State Route 761 (at the Long Island Bridge) were designated the "Staunton State Scenic River," a component of the Virginia Scenic Rivers System.1

Staunton River segment of Roanoke River
Staunton River segment of Roanoke River
Map Source: US Fish and Wildlife Service, Wetlands Mapper

The river's name honors Lady Rebecca Staunton, wife of Governor William Gooch (who served as governor between 1727–1740). A city in the Shenandoah Valley bears the same name, and in both cases it is pronounced STAN-ton.

a 1733 map provides a clue for the traditional pronunciation of the Staunton River
a 1733 map provides a clue for the traditional pronunciation of the Staunton River
Source: David Rumsey Map Collection, A Map of the British Empire in America by Henry Popple (1733)

William Byrd II recorded the Staunton River's name on his visit to the confluence of the Dan and Staunton rivers in 1728. He accompanied the surveyors marking the dividing line between Virginia and North Carolina. In his diary, Byrd noted that the Roanoke River forked 36 miles upstream of the "great falls" at what is now Roanoke Rapids/Weldon:2

The river forks about thirty-six miles higher, and both branches are pretty equal in breadth where they divide, though the southern, now called the Dan, runs up the farthest. That to the north runs away near north-west, and is called the Staunton, and heads not far from the source of Appomattox river, while the Dan stretches away pretty near west, and runs clear through the great mountains.

Byrd is credited with naming the Dan River. He never explained a reason, but the presumption is that the river's name reflects the Biblical phrase used to define the boundaries of Canaan, "from the Dan to Beersheba." Byrd was well aware of the Old Testament, and in 1728 he was defining the boundaries of Virginia and North Carolina.3

US Geological Survey now labels the river Roanoke for its entire length, ignoring local use of Staunton River
US Geological Survey now labels the river "Roanoke" for its entire length, ignoring local use of "Staunton River" place name
Map Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), Altavista 7.57.5 topographic map (2010)

The name Roanoke River reappears where the Staunton and Dan rivers run together - at a site reflecting the pattern of contentious name disputes between Virginia and North Carolina regarding the Roanoke River.

In 1733, the Dan River was labeled the Fitzwilliam River by North Carolinia's surveyor general, Edward Moseley. He ignored the Dan River name for the river used by William Byrd, and instead indicated his sympathy with one of the Virginia commissioners who oversaw the 1728 survey.

in 1733, the Dan River was labeled the Fitzwilliam River by North Carolina's surveyor general
in 1733, the Dan River was labeled the Fitzwilliam River by North Carolina's surveyor general
Source: A New and Correct Map of the Province of North Carolina by Edward Mosely, 1733

During the 1728 expedition to mark the colonial boundary at the latitude of 36 degrees 30 minutes, Richard Fitzwilliam had sided with Moseley and the other North Carolinian commissioners in various disputes with William Byrd.

Byrd was a domineering character and documented the surveying expedition for history. He used the pseudonym "Firebrand" for Fitzwilliam, because supposedly he was "always ready to assert his rights vehemently or to make love to almost any white, black, or red female he saw."

Moseley clearly preferred Fitzwilliam to Byrd, but the Fitzwilliam River name disappeared and Byrd's Dan River remains.4

The Staunton/Dan confluence observed by Byrd has been drowned by Buggs Island Lake - or Kerr Reservoir, if you use the North Carolina name for the artificial lake. When the Corps of Engineers first authorized the flood control project in 1944, it was called the Buggs Island Reservoir, based on the historic name for an island near the dam site.

to the Virginia Department of Transportation, it is Buggs Island Lake
to the Virginia Department of Transportation, it is "Buggs Island Lake"
Source: State Highway Map

Credit for getting funding for the US Army Corps of Engineers to build the dam goes to a North Carolina member of the US House of Representatives, John H. Kerr. In 1952, the US Congress named the project the John H. Kerr Dam and Reservoir.

Virginia politicians were already upset by the loss of property in Virginia for a reservoir to supply flood control for communities downstream in North Carolina. Since the dam and 75% of the reservoir were in Virginia, the state's officials thought a Virginia-based place name was more appropriate than honoring a North Carolina politician. In a fit of pique after the US Congress canged the project's name, the Virginia General Assembly unanimously passed a resolution declaring Virginia would "forever more" describe it as Buggs Island Lake.5

Virginia agencies, such as the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, refer to the reservoir first as Buggs Island Lake
Virginia agencies, such as the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, refer to the reservoir first as Buggs Island Lake
Source: Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (2010)

The change in name from Roanoke River to Staunton River and back to Roanoke River is confusing, but it gets even more confusing when you realize that Virginia has a second stream called "Staunton River." That Staunton River is a tributary to the Rapidan River, in Madison County.

Staunton River - in Madison County
Staunton River - in Madison County
Source: ESRI - ArcGIS Online

Links

John Collet's 1770 map of North Carolina showed the Roanoke River starting at the confluence of the Staunton and Dan rivers
John Collet's 1770 map of North Carolina showed the Roanoke River starting at the confluence of the Staunton and Dan rivers
Source: University of North Carolina, A Compleat map of North-Carolina from an actual survey by John Collet (1770)

References

1. Code of Virginia, Title 10, Section 4, § 10.1-418. Staunton State Scenic River, http://leg1.state.va.us/cgi-bin/legp504.exe?000+cod+10.1-418 (last checked September 2, 2013)
2. William Byrd of Westover, Edmund Ruffin, History Of The Dividing Line: Run In The Year 1728, p.41, in 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:, printed by Edmund And Julian C. Ruffin., 1841, http://docsouth.unc.edu/nc/byrd/byrd.html (last checked September 2, 2013)
3. "Early Danville History," Danville Historical Society, http://danvillehistory.org/history.html (last checked September 2, 2013)
4. William Byrd, William Byrd's Histories of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina, Courier Dover Publications, 1929, p.xiii, http://books.google.com/books?id=0fUIt4qSPgkC (last checked September 2, 2013)
5. "What’s in a name? For the Bugg family, pride," Mecklenburg Sun, October 24, 2012, http://www.sovanow.com/index.php?/news/article/whats_in_a_name_for_the_bugg_family_pride/ (last checked September 2, 2013)

in 1755, the river upstream of the Dan was the Staunton River, the settlement at Beverley was not yet called Staunton - and Richmond was not important enough to show on the map
in 1755, the river upstream of the Dan was the Staunton River, the settlement at Beverley was not yet called Staunton - and Richmond was not important enough to show on the map
Source: Library of Congress, Carte des possessions angloises & françoises du continent de l'Amérique septentrionale. Kaart van de Engelsche en Fransche bezittingen in het vaste land van Noord America (1755)


Roanoke River
Rivers of Virginia
Rivers and Watersheds of Virginia
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