North Carolina: Commentary

North Carolina Atlas of Historical County Boundaries

John H. Long, Editor; Peggy Tuck Sinko, Associate Editor; Gordon DenBoer, Historical Compiler; Douglas Knox, Book Digitizing Director; Emily Kelley, Research Associate and Digital Compiler; Laura Rico-Beck, GIS Specialist and Digital Compiler; Peter Siczewicz, ArcIMS Interactive Map Designer; Robert Will, Cartographic Assistant

Copyright The Newberry Library 2009

Special Topics

The many boundary adjustments, clarifications, and redefinitions reflect the fact that for much of North Carolina's history, counties (called precincts before 1738) were created against a backdrop of expanding population and often inadequate geographical knowledge. For other reasons as well, some imprecision in drawing historical county boundaries in North Carolina is inevitable. The laws frequently direct that boundaries run along mountain ridges, between river systems, and to the "head" of a river or stream—directions all somewhat vague and imprecise. Also, boundaries often involve landmarks that cannot be identified today, for example, the property of named individuals, roads, water fords, ferries, mills, and river landings. Finally, some boundaries were ephemeral, disappearing completely in later boundary changes, sometimes after only a brief period. Judging by the many boundary disputes and the stated reasons for specific boundary changes, it is also apparent that many county boundaries were not surveyed or clearly marked. For these reasons, some historical county boundaries are conjectural; in this volume these are depicted with dashes labeled "estimated line." During the early years of Euro-American settlement in North Carolina, some boundary limits (especially western) were left undefined; Anson (1749), Rowan (1753), Mecklenburg (1763), Tryon (1769), and Guilford (1771), for example, had no western limits specified. These undefined boundaries are identified in the text as "indefinite limits" and the lines used in those cases must be viewed as no more than convenient representations of the county limits at the time.

Mountain ranges were a barrier to precise boundary descriptions in the west, and thus many western boundaries were altered repeatedly as settlers moved west and required more precise boundaries. The difficulty of mapping boundary changes in the mountainous west is illustrated by the Ashe/Wilkes boundary and, after 1859 (when Alleghany was created from Ashe), by the Alleghany/Wilkes boundary. Ashe was created from Wilkes in 1799, with the boundary line to run along "the extreme height" of the Appalachian Mountains. Between 1799 and 1901 the line was changed six times (in 1835, 1877, 1879, 1885, 1887, and 1891); all changes were minor and involved landmarks which either cannot be located today or were made to accommodate local property owners. In 1901 the legislature "restored" the Ashe/Wilkes boundary to "the old boundary line" along the "top of the Blue Ridge." But following this return to the original 1799 boundary, the line has again been changed eight times—in each case for the convenience of a local property owner or owners. Of the fourteen changes, from 1799 to 1990, three laws repealed earlier boundary changes; in the most extreme case, a boundary change enacted in 1913 was repealed in 1957.

Similarly, the boundary between Alleghany and Wilkes Counties has been changed nine times since Alleghany was created in 1859. In most instances the change was made for the convenience of local property owners, and in each case only a small amount of land was involved. Some of the uncertainty of boundary lines in mountainous areas is also reflected in three other statutes involving the Alleghany/Wilkes line: in 1909 the legislature defined part of the boundary, citing "some dispute and misunderstanding as to the correct line"; a 1911 law provided for the clarification of an 1891 boundary change, declaring that the 1891 line "has never been run and is in dispute between certain points"; and in 1939 the legislature defined part of the boundary, asserting that "there is uncertainty as to the exact location of the county line." Other boundaries in mountainous areas, especially in the northwest (e.g., Alleghany/Ashe, Ashe/Watauga, and Watauga/Wilkes), present similar problems in mapping.

In creating counties and altering existing county boundaries, the legislature largely ignored Indian (principally Cherokee) claims to land in present North Carolina and Tennessee (part of North Carolina until 1790). The Indian Boundary Line of 1767, running diagonally across the state from the present-day counties of Polk on the south to Alleghany on the north, was devised by British colonial officials to protect Indian lands west of the line from encroachment by Euro-American settlers. A subsequent series of land cessions by the Indians nullified that boundary, until by the end of the eighteenth century only the southwestern corner of present North Carolina and approximately two-thirds of present Tennessee were still nominally controlled by Indians.

The North Carolina legislature first referred to an Indian boundary line in drawing county boundaries in 1771, when it directed that the Mecklenburg/Tryon boundary with Rowan (which had "not as yet been ascertained") run due west until it intersected the "Cherokee Indian Line." In 1777 the legislature ignored all Indian claims to the land when it included all of present Tennessee in the newly created Washington County and extended Burke County to the present North Carolina/Tennessee boundary. South of Burke, Rutherford County was created from Tryon in 1779, with its northern boundary running through the "old Cherokee line" to the present North Carolina/Tennessee line. Roughly the western half of Rutherford and a small part of western Burke were "reserved" for the Cherokee in 1783, but the reservation did not affect county boundaries. Only in the creation of Greene (Tenn.) in 1783 did the legislature appear to have respected the boundaries of the Cherokee reserve.

Thus, by the end of the American Revolution the North Carolina legislature had created counties for all of present North Carolina and most of Tennessee, even though the Cherokee did not make their final cessions of land in the two states (in southwestern North Carolina and southeastern Tennessee) until 1835. In this atlas the county boundary lines are drawn as described in the laws, with no allowance for Indian claims to the land.

A particular problem was posed by boundary changes made for the convenience of named individuals, often with few or no geographic clues as to location of the land involved. As noted above, many of these occur in western, mountainous areas of the state; but they occur in other parts of the state as well. Most of these changes could not be mapped in this atlas; in the chronologies they are identified as gains or losses of small areas to accommodate local property owners.

There have never been any constitutional restrictions on the legislature's authority to create new counties or to alter the boundaries of existing counties. Ten county creations have been submitted by the legislature to the voters of the affected areas for approval. Seven were approved: Alamance (1849), Yadkin (1851), Dare (1870), Pamlico (1872), Durham (1881), Vance (1881), and Lee (1908). Voters rejected three creations (Hooper, 1851; Lillington, 1859; and Scotland, 1895), although Scotland was subsequently re-created by the legislature in 1899, with no referendum. Also, twelve boundary changes were submitted to the affected residents for approval, beginning in 1851; nine were approved.


Every effort has been made to give the day, month, and year (e.g., 25 February 1785) for all county creations, boundary changes, and other events in this atlas. Occasionally it is impossible to date an event so precisely, but a reasonable estimate is possible. When the precise date is not known or an approximate date is more appropriate, the date is generalized to the month and year (e.g., February 1785) or to the year alone. A lack of evidence may make it impossible to give any date at all for a county's creation, and its occurrence can only be confirmed by the record of a later, related happening, such as the appointment of a sheriff. In such a situation, the date of the later event is used with the simple addition of "by" (e.g., by 25 February 1785) to indicate that the county creation or other event occurred no later than that date and probably earlier.

Several dates may be associated with the creation of a county or a change in county lines. To many individuals the date that makes the most sense is the one when people began to observe the change, but in most cases that date is impossible to ascertain. An alternative is the date on which the law effecting the change passed the legislature or was approved by the governor. The date of passage is an important reference because it helps identify the law; now, as in the past, references to a law often include the date of passage. Most other compilations of county changes have adopted the date of passage as their standard for the date of change, but it is not always the best indicator of when change occurred.

The dating standard in this atlas is the legally effective date of change, whether it be for the creation of a new county or for the alteration of lines between existing counties. Through the colonial period and into the nineteenth century, the date a law passed was generally the date it went into effect. As the nineteenth century progressed, legislators recognized the importance of preparing for the establishment of a new county organization or for the shift in jurisdiction that accompanies boundary changes. Some laws, therefore, began to carry two dates: one marking the passage of the law and the other specifying when the line change or new county creation would go into effect. Using effective dates means that many of the dates in this atlas may disagree with dates in other references.

Before 1836 very few North Carolina session laws have a specific date of approval; from 1836 onward, they all do. Until 1761 the only date usually associated with the laws is the opening date of the session at which the laws were approved; from 1761 through 1835 virtually all laws were read three times and approved at the end of each session. In this atlas, those dates (opening of session or blanket approval at end of session) are used for all laws passed before 1836, when the laws have no specific date of approval or effective date. The date of an election or referendum—when known—has been used for the effective date for all county creations and boundary changes subject to voter approval; in the few cases where the date of the election is unknown, the date of the statute authorizing the election has been used.

Dating events before 1752 is a problem because the calendar then in use is very different from the one in use today. Whereas by 1600 most of Europe had adopted the Gregorian calendar, as the modern system of reckoning the days is called, England observed the Julian calendar until 2 September 1752. For the purposes of this atlas, the chief differences between the two systems are, first, numbering the days and, second, designating the change from one year to the next. There has been no attempt to convert the dates of one system to those of the other. Differences in numbering days, therefore, are effectively ignored; whatever day and month are given in a source are the day and month used here, regardless of whether the document was written in England or some other country, before or after 1752. Under the old, Julian calendar the last day of the year was 24 March and the first day was 25 March, which means that in England and its colonies the day after 24 March 1750 was 25 March 1751. This atlas follows the convention of showing both years for dates that fall within the period from 1 January through 24 March when the different calendars call for different years. Thus, successive dates before England's adoption of the Gregorian calendar would occur as follows: the day after 24 March 1688/1689 would be 25 March 1689; the day after 31 December 1689 would be 1 January 1689/1690. About three months later would come 24 March 1689/1690, and the next day after that would be 25 March 1690.