History of the Dividing Line: Run in the Year 1728 Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“This modish frenzy being still more inflamed by the charming account given of Virginia, by the first adventurers, made many fond of removing to such a paradise.”

Summary Overview

In 1728, the Virginia landowner and public official William Byrd, II, was part of a team, including commissioners, surveyors, and laborers, that was assigned to draw the boundary line between the colonies of Virginia and North Carolina. The History of the Dividing Line, which circulated in manuscript for many years before being printed long after Byrd’s death, was his “official” account of the events of the expedition, written for his fellow members of the Virginia elite. (Byrd also wrote another unpublished book on the expedition, Secret History of the Dividing Line, which covered the same series of events but was much more satirical and mocking, particularly on the subject of the North Carolinian commissioners’ adventures and misadventures.) This section is from the introduction, which puts the expedition in context by giving a Virginia-centered account of the history of English settlement in North America.

Defining Moment

Byrd was writing at a time when the society of tidewater Virginia, based on large, slave-worked tobacco plantations, had been fully formed. The planter elite, of which Byrd was a leading member, had great wealth and a firm grip on public office, and though still subordinate within the British Empire, they controlled Virginia, then a much larger territory than the current state of Virginia. Men of Byrd’s class, who derived their wealth and power from their ownership of land, viewed themselves as part of the same class as the “gentlemen” of England (who also derived their wealth and status from the control of land), and many, like Byrd, were educated in England and traveled across the Atlantic frequently as young men.

Although the major conflicts with American Indians were over in Virginia, English colonists in North America could not feel altogether secure. Despite its defeat in the War of the Spanish Succession, France, with control of what is now Canada and much of the North American interior, remained a powerful rival for control of the continent. One French advantage was better relations with American Indians, who furnished useful military auxiliaries as well as contributing to the Franco-American economy as fur trappers. The French menace was religious as well as political and military, as the French were Roman Catholics in contrast to the predominantly Protestant British settlers and French Catholic missionaries were having more success converting American Indians than were Protestant British ones.

The early eighteenth century when Byrd was writing was the time of the Enlightenment, a time when intellectual life and categories of thought in Europe and its colonies were growing more rational and secular. The view of history as a record of the unfolding of God’s divine providence was becoming more marginalized in favor of an emphasis on material forces. Although the Enlightenment took some time to move from its centers in Europe to the colonies, by Byrd’s time, Enlightenment ways of thinking were having an increasing influence on educated Americans like Byrd, who was steeped in the culture of the English upper classes. It was also a time when fluent and witty writing was considered a social and cultural asset for a gentleman like Byrd, although the role of professional writer was considered inappropriate. Circulation of works in manuscript, as Byrd circulated his histories of the dividing line, and anonymous publication were quite common.

Author Biography

William Byrd II was a member of both one of the great land- and slave-owning families of Virginia and an Anglo-American transatlantic social and cultural elite. His father, William Byrd, had emigrated from England to found a plantation and serve several terms in Virginia’s legislature, the House of Burgesses. Born in Virginia on March 28, 1674, William Byrd II spent most of his youth in England, being educated and dabbling in science and the theater. Like many landowners in England and its colonies, he studied law in London and became an attorney, although not a very successful one. He went to Virginia in 1696 but returned to England the next year. He moved to Virginia in 1705, after the death of his father, but continued to travel back and forth across the Atlantic until 1726 when he settled permanently in Virginia. Byrd keenly felt his isolation from London and continued to correspond with people in England, sending British scientists natural history specimens from America. He built one of the great private libraries of colonial America in part to recreate the intellectual world of the capital at his rural tidewater estate. Despite his success as a landowner, he was hobbled by debt for much of his career.

As a prominent Virginia landowner, Byrd served in public offices, some lucrative, some not. In 1728, Byrd served with six others on a commission to draw a boundary line between Virginia and North Carolina. The commission, along with their crew, traced a line from the Currituck inlet on the Atlantic coast to Peters Creek, 242 miles away. The expedition was the subject of two works by Byrd, The History of the Dividing Line: Run in the Year 1728 (1841) and The Secret History of the Dividing Line (1929), neither of which was published in Byrd’s lifetime. Byrd was a strong believer in the further economic development of Virginia. In addition to The History and The Secret History, Byrd’s other works include two other manuscript travel accounts, A Journey to the Land of Eden (1841), and A Progress to the Mines (1841). A version of A Journey to the Land of Eden was published anonymously in German, in Bern, Switzerland, with hopes of attracting Swiss-German settlers to Virginia with an account of Virginia’s riches. He helped establish the site for the city of Richmond that became Virginia’s capital.

William Byrd II.

(Virginia Historical Society)
Document Analysis

This introductory section of The History of the Dividing Line is a political and economic history of the earliest period of English colonization in North America framed as the story of how “Virginia”—originally a term applying to the whole area of English control on the Atlantic coast and extending far inland—eventually became limited to a particular colony by a series of royal decrees. As a Virginian, Byrd may have wished to emphasize the legal as well as temporal primacy of Virginia over the other colonies. Since the body of the work is about establishing the exact border between North Carolina and Virginia, discussing the previous establishment of separate colonies is appropriate for an introduction. It does not read as something addressed specifically to an American audience. Byrd’s introduction presents a deeply ambivalent and secular narrative of English colonization, depicting it as both ridiculous and heroic. Byrd also deals with the relationships of the English to the other European peoples colonizing North America at the same time, particularly the French, as well as their relationships to American Indians. He makes an important distinction between the English colonists of Virginia proper and those of New England.

Byrd’s interpretation of colonial history was much more secular than that of some of his contemporary historians of America, many of whom were New Englanders like the Boston Puritan minister Cotton Mather. Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana (The glorious works of Christ in America, 1702) placed colonial American history in a providential frame as the working out of God’s plan. Byrd, a lay member of the Church of England, by contrast makes no mention of God or providence in the opening of the passage. (This was not because Byrd was an atheist or a skeptic; his diary shows him to have been a Christian believer.) Instead, he locates the causes of the colonization of North America in the secular realms of politics, economics, fashion, and individual character. Economic rather than religious motives are primary in Byrd’s account of the early history of the English in America. Byrd ascribes the original English interest in the settlement of America to the desire to find valuable mines of precious metal like those the Spanish were exploiting in Mexico and Peru in the sixteenth century. The first encounter between American Indians and English he also describes in economic terms, as the American Indians exchange valuable furs for the “baubles” of the English. The relative worth of these goods—the fur trade was an essential element of the early colonial economy and Byrd’s father had been a fur trader—suggests that the economic exchange worked strongly to the benefit of the English. However, the early history of Virginia’s colonization was rocky. The failure of the Roanoke colony is depicted as an economic failure, as the colonization company undersupplied the prospective colonists, and the colonists themselves, blinded by an unrealistic picture of American wealth, expected to live and grow rich without working. Part of the problem was the refusal of the government to subsidize the endeavor.

It would be a mistake, however, to view Byrd’s view of early English exploration as simply a matter of greed and economic rationality. Another motivation is simply fashion, and Byrd explicitly links American colonization and the medieval crusades to Jerusalem as fashion-driven endeavors. Since the crusades were far more explicitly religious than the English colonization of America, Byrd is suggesting that much ostensibly religious activity can really be explained by the desire to follow fashion. He links fashion to the hero of Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote, an early seventeenth-century novel about a Spanish gentleman who goes mad and believes himself a knight out of chivalrous romance. In a famous episode, Don Quixote tilts at windmills believing them to be giants. Don Quixote had been translated into English and was very well known in England; by describing the colonization of America as “Quixotic” Byrd asserts its irrational or even delusional character. Like many writers of the eighteenth century and later, Byrd genders fashion as feminine, asserting that women were particularly vulnerable to it. The desire to cross the Atlantic to America is also portrayed as a disease, an “itch” or “distemper.” Byrd had a great liking for living in England, and while he was ultimately required to live on the family estates in Virginia, his resentment of leaving London may be reflected in his depictions of the first colonists as diseased.

Although he states that the first permanent colony endured in spite of, rather than because of, the personal qualities of the first settlers, Byrd does not see the colonization of Virginia as entirely ridiculous. By associating the beginnings of colonization with revered historical figures such as Sir Walter Raleigh and Queen Elizabeth, Byrd establishes the connection between Virginian colonization and a glorious period of English history. A patriotic Virginian, Byrd pauses to pay tribute to the foundation of Virginia’s wealth, that “bewitching vegetable,” tobacco, the basis of his own fortune as well as the prosperity of his community. The story of Queen Elizabeth and her maids associates tobacco with royalty and the heroism of Raleigh, while connecting opposition to tobacco with “whispering” and “faction,” marks of cynical court intrigue.

Byrd also associates the founders of the Virginia colony with the aristocracy, people “eminent for their quality and estates.” His attitude toward the aristocracy is ambivalent. Byrd was a gentleman himself but willing to satirize his own class. Although the aristocratic nature of its “eminent” promoters adds to the luster of Virginia, aristocratic qualities were not always admirable or well suited for the founder of a colony. Byrd mocks his own predecessors in Virginia proper as “reprobates” and paints the survival of their colony as something that occurred in spite of the efforts of the colonists, rather than because of them. Like many writers on early Virginia, he gives the principal credit for the survival of Jamestown to Captain John Smith, while asserting that the “gentlemen” of the colony were lazy and quarrelsome. Laziness was not a quality restricted to gentlemen, as Byrd points out that laborer immigrants, although more hardworking than gentlemen, were not going to “kill themselves with work.” As for the religion of the early Virginians, he states that “like true Englishmen, they built a church that cost no more than fifty pounds, and a tavern that cost five hundred.” The early settlers are never even represented as thanking God for their survival and success. Byrd mockingly refers to the Virginians as greater heathens than the American Indians. In the body of the work, the stereotype of the lazy, religiously indifferent southerner would be applied principally to the North Carolinians.

A key omission in Byrd’s history of the Virginia colony is slavery, the basis of the plantation economy and of Byrd’s own fortune and social standing. (Byrd’s mention of the laziness of the laborer immigrants may have been meant to imply that slavery was the only way to ensure the colony an adequate supply of labor.) Byrd himself was suspicious of slavery as an institution, despite his dependence on it and his frequently cruel treatment of his own slaves. Africans generally are omitted from the catalog of peoples in America that Byrd discusses in this passage, and his generally favorable view of interracial sexual relationships does not seem to extend to such relationships between whites of European descent and slaves of African descent.

The dominant threat to all of the British colonies that Byrd feared was the French. Although Virginia was far from the centers of French power in North America, Byrd, like many British Americans, was worried about the possibility of a successful alliance between the French in Canada and Louisiana and the American Indians who remained an important military force on many of the borders of the English colonies even after French defeat in the War of the Spanish Succession. Byrd attributed the greater success of the French in wooing American Indians to their cause to intermarriage between the two groups, a policy the English had largely shunned. (The marriage of Pocahontas and John Rolfe, in the early seventeenth century, was an exception to this pattern, but one that Byrd as a Virginian might have seen as particularly significant, although he does not mention it in his brief history of the early settlement of Virginia.) By contrast, the English policy promoted hostility between the two groups.

Byrd admired the policy of Louis XIV of France in using financial rewards to promote intermarriage between the French and American Indians. The French policy, Byrd points out, encouraged not just American Indian political loyalty to the French, but the spread of the French religion, Roman Catholicism. Byrd treated Catholicism largely as an adjunct to French power rather than as a rival for American Indian souls. He does not credit effective preaching with the propagation of religion; instead, he views the relationship between “sprightly lovers” as best way to spread Christianity, Catholic or Protestant, to the non-Christian peoples of the world.

Intermarriage between American Indians and the English, which Byrd seems to envision as primarily the marriage of American Indian women to English men, would also lead to a smoother and less violent transmission of property from American Indians to the English. Landed property would figure in the dowries, or “portions,” of American Indian women and end up in the hands of their English husbands; English common law essentially restricted the ownership of all property in a marriage, whatever its origin, to the husband, with the wife retaining no legal rights over it while her husband lived. Like most Europeans, Byrd regarded white skin as superior, but he points out that subsequent generations of American Indians would become paler. Byrd’s picture of the European strain as dominant in pairings between Europeans and American Indians is an inversion of the “one-drop” rule that applied to pairings between Europeans and persons of African descent. He seems to envision the ultimate absorption of the American Indian population by the far more numerous English.

Despite the hostility between the American Indians and the English, Byrd’s portrait of the American Indians is generally favorable, emphasizing the health and strength of their bodies and the purity of their manners, uncorrupted by European civilization’s “lewdness” or “luxury.” This portrayal of the “noble savage” was becoming more popular in the eighteenth century, as opposed to depictions of American Indians as primitive barbarians. At a time when American Indian resistance to the English had been largely broken, Byrd does not see the American Indians as a continuing threat by themselves but principally as potential allies of the French.

Byrd’s brief treatment of the Spaniards, the principal rival of the English at the beginning of North American colonization but a waning force by Byrd’s time, positions them at the opposite pole from the French. The “treacherous” nature of the Spaniards toward the American Indians is contrasted with the “good nature” of the English. By Byrd’s time, the “Black Legend” of Spanish cruelty to American Indians had been firmly established, and Byrd’s readers would not have found it controversial—despite the fact that the English had not treated the American Indians well either.

Byrd’s account also deals with the founding of the New England colonies, whose settlers he implicitly contrasts with the early Virginians. Byrd misidentifies the Pilgrims as Presbyterians when they were actually Separatist Congregationalists, perhaps indicating the diminished importance of such distinctions in the eighteenth century. He pays tribute to the courage of the early Puritan settlers, without hinting that this praiseworthy behavior was evidence of the truth of their religious claims. Byrd’s tone in discussing the settlers of New England is one of subtle mockery, principally directed at their religion. Describing them as a “swarm” or “throng” makes them seem almost like an invasion of locusts, and in contrast to his praise of Raleigh and Smith, Byrd names none of the leaders of the Pilgrim and Puritan settlers except for Lord Chief Justice Popham, who plays a passive role but is not otherwise praised or described. While his picture of the Virginia settlers is secular, Byrd does admit the importance of religious motivations for the New England Puritans. In the New England context, economic motivations are not even mentioned, a striking contrast with the discussion of the early Virginia settlers. Byrd presents the New England settlers as fleeing from an England grown cold to them rather than setting out to build an ideal religious community in the wilderness, as some Puritans themselves would have claimed they were doing. He emphasizes the support they received from England and its role in their success, with an implied contrast to the Puritans’ own belief that their success was evidence of their support from God. He calls them the “saints,” a title the Puritans themselves used but, by the eighteenth century, was connected with fanaticism and an unrealistic approach to the world. In terms of their concern for purity of blood and their biblicism, he likens them to the Jews—a sarcastic comparison that was not complimentary in the anti-Semitic culture of the eighteenth century. The fear of the New Englanders that American Indian wives would draw them into “idolatry” contrasts with the confidence of the French, who drew American Indians into Catholicism by marrying them, not fearing to put their own faith at risk. Byrd also strikes at the Puritan narrative by suggesting that they came to settle in large numbers in New England in the early seventeenth century not because they were persecuted in England but because they “thought themselves persecuted.”

Essential Themes

If Byrd seriously hoped that his recommended policy of intermarriage between British settlers and American Indians would be put into effect, he was doomed to disappointment. There are some cases of individual white men marrying American Indian women as a way of obtaining property, but it was never so widespread as to be a social strategy. By far the most common and enduring way for whites to obtain American Indian property remained violence, as in the early colonial era. However, he was correct in anticipating a major clash between the French, aided by American Indians, and the British, even if he may have underrated British chances. The French and Indian War, known in Britain and Europe as the Seven Years War, began in 1754 and ended in 1763 in a decisive British victory and the expulsion of France from continental North America.

Although the direct impact of Byrd’s work would be small due to the fact that it circulated only in manuscript, the themes it presented would persist. The somewhat mocking attitude Byrd displayed toward the early settlers of Virginia would not become the dominant way of perceiving them. Byrd’s seriocomic narrative would be replaced by a canonical one that emphasized heroism. A similar process would occur in the historiography of New England, in which the Puritan settlers would be viewed as religiously inspired heroes, rather than the misguided, if determined, fanatics of Byrd’s account. However, Byrd’s framing of the colonization stories of Virginia and New England as fundamentally opposed would have a long history. This stereotype of pious, frugal, and industrious New Englanders and lazy, “reprobate” southerners had great impact on subsequent American thought (including antislavery and abolitionist thought), as would the distinction between the religiously motivated settlers in New England and the economically motivated settlers in Virginia. Byrd’s picture of the immigrant coming with unrealistic dreams of wealth would also have a long history, with his silver utensils being replaced by the image of streets paved with gold.

The aristocratic culture of the Virginia gentleman that Byrd represented would continue for many decades, with the Byrd family playing a prominent role in politics and society into the twentieth century. The transatlantic links that were so important to William Byrd faded with the American Revolution but did not disappear. However, religion would become more significant in the worldview of the southern elite.

  • Byrd, William. Prose Works: Narratives of a Colonial Virginian. Ed. Louis B. Wright. Cambridge: Belknap, 1966. Print.
  • Marambaud, Pierre. William Byrd of Westover, 1674–1744. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1971. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Ausband, Stephen Conrad. Byrd’s Line: A Natural History. Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 2002. Print.
  • Davis, Richard Beale. Intellectual Life in the Colonial South, 1583–1763. 3 vols. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1978. Print.
  • Lockridge, Kenneth A. On the Sources of Patriarchal Rage: The Commonplace Books of William Byrd and Thomas Jefferson and the Gendering of Power in the Eighteenth Century. New York: New York UP, 1992. Print.
  • Pritchard, Margaret Beck. William Byrd II and his Lost History: Engravings of the Americas. Williamsburg: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1993. Print.
  • Tinling, Marion, ed. The Correspondence of the Three William Byrds of Westover, Virginia, 1684–1776. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1977. Print.

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