The Dividing Line

williambyrdVirginia Issues

Virginia considered the territory up the Nausemond River to be hers. Indeed much of this area was initially settled by Virginians and Virginia attempted to control the area as long as the boundary with North Carolina remained undetermined.

In 1728, in preparation for the Crown’s purchase of North Carolina as a royal colony, a survey was undertaken to resolve the North Carolina-Virginia boundary dispute. The journal of Col. William Byrd of Virginia provide a thorough discourse of the conditions he found as seen through the eyes of one of Virginia’s wealthiest aristocrats and his point of view perhaps made some things sound worse than they were. Nonetheless, his journal provides a fascinating glimpse of the people, landscape, and lifestyles of North Carolina and the land that would become Gates County a half-century later.

Much of the fame of the 1728 survey of the Virginia-North Carolina boundary line comes from two sister masterpieces of American prose, the History and the Secret History by Colonel William Byrd, of Westover and later governor of Virginia.

Although Thomas Jefferson, Peter Collinson, and Mark Catesby saw manuscript copies of Byrd’s journal, the History of the Dividing Line was not published until 1841 and the more revealing Secret History remained out of the public eye until 1929.

Of the two accounts, the more formal History contains a greater amount of botanical and zoological commentary, in addition to its moving descriptions of the distant mountains rising “like ranges of blue clouds” on the horizon.

Yet it is the Secret History in which Byrd labels his party of explorers the “Knights of the Rum Cask,” alluding to their extensive alcoholic consumption.

An edition by Dover Publications, The Histories of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina, has the official, printed account of the surveying expedition on one page, while the facing page contains Byrd’s secret manuscript telling of the scandals and bawdy exploits of the commissioners among Indians and settlers.

The History of the Dividing Line

This book should be of interest to MASHBURN researchers because these accounts give a picture of the time and place in which Edward Mashburn lived.


Of the Great Dismal Swamp, Byrd noted the “Noxious Vapors that rise perpetually from the vast Extent of Mire & Nastiness,” yet praised its “everlasting Verdue, which makes every season look like the Spring.” Of the houses he commented that: Most of the Houses in this Part of the Country are Log-houses, covered with Pine or Cypress Shingles, 3 feet long, and one broad. They are hung upon Laths with Peggs, and their doors to turn upon Wooden Hinges, and have Wooden Locks to Secure them, so that the Building is finished without Nails or other Iron-Work.

They also set up their Pales without any Nails at all, and indeed more Securely than those that are nail’d. There are 3 Rails mortised into the Post, the lowest of which serves as a Sill with a Groove in the Middle, big enough to receive the End of the Pales: the middle Part of the Pale rests against the Inside of the Next Rail, and the Top of it is brought forward to the outside of the uppermost. Such Wreathing of the Pales in and out make them stand firm, and much harder to unfix than when nail’d in the Ordinary way.

He reported that in Edenton, the only “metropolis” in the area with forty or fifty houses, and inhabitant was considered “Extravagant if he has ambition enough to aspire to a Brick-chimney,” One can only suppose that the houses in rural Gates were generally rudimentary in nature.

His opinion of the inhabitants were, likewise, not altogether complimentary. Because of what he called an advantageous and productive environment, he concluded that:

“Surely there is no place in the World where the Inhabitants live with less Labour than in N Carolina. It approaches nearer to the Description of Lubberland than any other, by the great felicity of the Climate, the easiness of raising Provisions, and Slothfulness of the People.”

“To speak the Truth, tis a thorough Aversion to Labor that makes People file off to N Carolina, where Plenty and Warm Sun confirm them in their Disposition to Laziness for their whole lives.”

From Byrd’s remarkable account, and considering Byrd’s not-unexpected prejudices, we see that the territory we now know as Gates County was, though settled, still very much in a pioneer stage of development. Many things were found lacking – schools, churches, religion, industry, transportation, even good rum-but the people seemed content with life. Economic development and social sophistication were oft for the future.

Contributed by submitted by Buddy Mashburn on July 26, 2000.


Butchko, Thomas R. Forgotten Gates: The Historical Architecture of a Rural North Carolina County, n.p.: Published by the Gates County Historical Society, n.d.

Related WWW Sites

The Secret Diaries of William Byrd William Byrd kept other secret diaries that are full of interesting information on how life was lived in the southern colonies.

Planations of William Byrd on the James River The Byrd family was weathly and owned several palntations.

In Defence of William Byrd” An interesting article on Byrd’s opinion of and his dealings with the female sex.