Society for the History of Discoveries


Ausband, Stephen Conrad.  Byrdís Line:  A Natural History.  Charlottesville and London:  University of Virginia Press, 2002.  ix, 187 p.  ISBN 0813921341 (cloth); ISBN 081392135X (paperback).

     Byrdís Line:  A Natural History by Stephen Conrad Ausband is a welcome addition to the literature about the dividing line between Virginia and North Carolina.  Based on his personal knowledge gained from many years of hunting, fishing and exploring the region, the author compares todayís landscape and its vegetation and wildlife with that described by the erudite William Byrd II in 1728.

     Boundary disputes between North American colonies and the field surveys conducted to resolve them continue to be of interest today.  Certainly one of the most interesting and best known of colonial disputes was the location of the east-west line separating Virginia from North Carolina.  This dispute stemmed from two charters that were issued by the English Crown for land south of Virginia.  The earliest, dated March 14, 1663, indicated the east-west boundary was to begin at Colleton Island lying in 36 degrees of north latitude.  Two years later, however, a second charter moved the dividing line 30 minutes to the north beginning at the north end of Currituck Inlet.  The dispute finally was resolved when commissioners and surveyors from the two colonies met in 1728 and agreed to run the line westward from Currituck Inlet.  We know a great deal about this survey because of two contemporary literary accounts written by William Byrd II, the lead commissioner from Virginia.  Byrdís official account of his experiences and the people involved in the survey is entitled The History of the Dividing Line betwixt Virginia and North Carolina, Run in the Year of Our Lord 1728.  His second and much shorter and franker account is titled The Secret History of the Line.  Here Byrd employed pseudonyms to describe the participants in whimsical and sometimes derogatory terms.  Handwritten copies of both works circulated during Byrdís lifetime and  his satirical comments about North Carolina and its commissioners did not endear him to the citizens of that colony.  Neither of Byrdís manuscripts was published until after his death in 1744.  In fact, the History did not appear in print until 1841 and the Secret History until 1929.  More recently both were incorporated into The Prose Works of William Byrd of Westover, edited by Louis B. Wright (1966).

     Ausbandís book is not for the person interested in surveying, but as the subtitle states, it is A Natural History.  Its value lies in his comparison of the region, as it is now, to the land Byrd viewed and described 274 years earlier.  The author notes in the introduction that ďsmall sections of the countryside along the line are remarkably like they were then; most of it, however, has been altered drastically.  The Great Dismal Swamp is smaller in total area than it was in 1728, but its status as a National Wildlife Refuge has helped preserve its integrity.  The huge chestnut trees Byrd described are gone from the wooded slopes of piedmont hillsides, replaced by oak-hickory forests, and the nearly unbroken woods have given way in most places to farmland, towns, and cities.Ē

     Ausbandís  Byrdís Line was not written for the scientist, but rather for the ďCommon Reader.Ē  The reader interested in the natural history of the dividing line should indeed acquire this book.

Richard W. Stephenson
Library of Congress (Retired)


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