WNC border may have been drawn “under the influence”Written by George Ellison
Editor’s note: This column first appeared in The Smoky Mountain News in April 2002.
Have you ever looked at a map of North Carolina and wondered how in the heck the Old North State came to be shaped like that? There’s no way to describe it except maybe as a key slot turned on its side. But that doesn’t do justice to a configuration which is almost as straight as a ruler on its northern boundary while the southern and western boundaries look like the work of a 3-year-old.
Only half in jest, John P. Arthur in Western North Carolina - A History from 1730-1913 (Asheville, 1914) suggests that the location of still-houses producing moonshine were the primary causes of the seemingly haphazard state lines laid out by the early commissioners and surveyors:
“It is said that the reason the Ducktown copper mines of Tennessee were lost to North Carolina was due to the fact that the commissioners of North Carolina and Tennessee ran out of spirituous liquors when they reached the high peak just north of the Hiwassee River, and instead of continuing the line in a generally southwestwardly direction, crossing the tops of the Big and Little Frog mountains, they struck due south to the Georgia line and a still-house.”
Well, losing Ducktown was perhaps no great loss. Arthur notes that the “the jagged boundary between North and South Carolina” has also been attributed “to the influence of whiskey.” (Actually this was due mainly to an agreement that the North Carolina line would be drawn north of the Catawba Indian Nation.)
I like the way in which W.L. Saunders, editor of the Colonial Records of North Carolina, phrased the matter (as quoted in Arthur): “... judging from practical results, North Carolina in her boundary surveys, and they have been many, seems to have been unusually fortunate in having men who were either abstemious or very capable in the matter of strong drink; for, so far as now appears, in no instance have we been overreached.”
The line that has always interested me the most is the fairly straight one on the northern boundary. This is because I was born in Danville, Va., just north of where the Dan River crosses the line, while my wife, Elizabeth, was born 34 days later on the other side of the line and the Dan River in Milton, N.C. Despite this proximity, we didn’t, however, meet until we were in our early 20s.
I recently went back and reread Col. William Byrd’s accounts of how the line between Virginia and North Carolina was surveyed back in 1728. His remarks regarding the slovenliness, laziness, and generally disreputable character and ways of North Carolina is both scandalous and hilarious — and typically Virginian. Being a native Virginian, I can attest without need for rejoinder that they (we) are among the most uppity people in the world — and rightfully so. If you want some good reading, I recommend that you search out a reprint of Byrd’s accounts.
I have never located a study that names the mountains Byrd describes. The designations suggested herein are based on this writer’s knowledge of the terrain and represent, at best, educated approximations.
Col. Byrd (William Byrd II) was one of the Virginia commissioners. Two manuscript diaries not published until long after his death have subsequently appeared in various ediitons: The History of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina and The Secret History of the Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina. The former suppressed personal details and was no doubt intended for a general audience, while the former was circulated among Byrd’s London friends amid great approval and has won an honored place in the literature of Colonial America.
The boundary line party set out on March 5, 1728, headed slowly westward from “north of Currituck river or inlet.” After six weeks the line had been run for 73 miles. Work was halted until Sept. 20. By Oct. 4 they had reached a point 50 miles west of any colonial settlements. The North Carolinians considered that to be quite far enough and departed, along with one of the Virginia commissioners. Along with the remaining commissioner, the surveyors and workers, Byrd pushed on westward.
On Oct. 10-11, they crossed the Dan River at present Milton, N.C., at a point about a mile north of where my wife was born, and then reached some high ground just southwest of present Danville, Va., about a mile east of where I was born. By this time they were approaching the inner Piedmont where the terrain changes from rolling woodlands to noticeably hilly uplands.
By late October the party had reached Peters Creek in Stokes County, where real mountains could be seen in the distance: “One of the Southern Mountains was so vastly high, it seem’d to hide its head in the Clouds, and the West End of it terminated in a horrible Precipice, that we call’ Despairing Lover’s Leap. The Next to it, towards the East, was lower, where it heav’d itself up in the form of a vast Stack of Cimnys. The Course of the Northern Mountains seem’d to tend West-South-West, and those to the Southward very near West. We cou’d descry other Mountains ahead of us, exactly in the Course of the Line, tho’ at a much greater distance. In this Point of View, the ledges on the right and Left both seem’d to close, and form a Natural Amphi-Theater.”
The mountains to the north in Virginia were probably the low-lying Carter and Bull ranges backed up by the Pinnacles of the Dan complex on the Blue Ridge plateau. The mountains to the south were probably (east to west) Hanging Rock, Sauratown, and Pilot, which arise abruptly from the Piedmont province of North Carolina. From the hill above Peters Creek on the state line, 30 miles to the west — where the Blue Ridge escarpment is at its steepest in the area of Fisher Peak (3,609 feet elevation) — is precisely where Byrd’s imaginary “Ledges” would have appeared to converge.
Had, however, Byrd and his companions pushed on through the foothills of the Piedmont provinces of Virginia and North Carolina, they would have quickly penetrated the real mountains. In that instance, Byrd’s descriptions would be ranked today as the high-water mark in the literature of the Blue Ridge Province of North Carolina prior to the arrival of William Bartram in 1775.