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A Short Time Between Drinks

March 2023
2min read

Other colonial surveys besides that of Mason and Dixon were fraught with political overtones, both foreign and domestic. In 1726, for example, when North Carolina became a royal colony, the Crown directed its governor and that of Virginia to undertake a joint survey of the “dividing line.” The colorful William Byrd II, Virginia’s commissioner, tried to put the North Carolinians in a duly cooperative mood with his letter advising them of the plan the Virginians proposed to follow:

“It is very proper to acquaint you in what manner we intend to come provided, that so you Gentlemen, who are appointed in this same station, may if you please do the same honor to Your government. We shall have a Tent with us and a Marquis [canopy] for the convenience of ourselves and our servants. We shall be provided with as much Wine and Rum as will enable us and our men to drink every Night to the Success of the following Day, and because we understand there are many Gentiles on your frontier who never had an opportunity of being Baptised we shall have a Chaplain to make them Christians. For this Purpose we intend to rest in our Camp every Sunday that there may be leisure for so good a work. And whosoever of your Province shall be desirous of novelty may report on Sundays to our Tent and hear a Sermon. Of this you may please give Public Notice that the Charitable Intentions of this Government may meet with the happier Success.”

After frequent delays and adventures—Byrd complained of the “anguish distempers” of the Dismal Swamp and of the “Adamites, without innocence,” who lived with Indian women thereabout—the joint commission started westward. From the Atlantic to the foothills of the mountains, things went fairly well, but on Sunday, October 6, 1729, the North Carolina commissioners advised their Virginia colleagues that they did not intend to proceed farther. Byrd says the going was becoming rougher, and the Carolinians had failed to provide for an adequate flow of supplies to the advance bases. In any case, he reported this denouement of the joint project:

“When the Divine Service was over, the Surveyors set about making the Plats of so much of the Line as we had run … Our pious Friends of Carolina assisted in this work with some Seeming Scruples, pretending it was a Violation of the Sabbath, which we were the more Surpriz’d at, because it happen’d to be the first Qualms of Conscience they had ever been troubled with during the whole journey. They had made no Bones of Staying from Prayers to hammer out an unnecessary Protest, tho’ Divine Service was no Sooner over, but an unusual Fit of Godliness made them fancy that finishing the plats, which was now matter of necessity, was a prophanation of the Day. However, the Expediency of losing no time, for us who thought it our duty to finish what we had undertaken, made such a Labour pardonnable.

“In the Afternoon Mr. FitzWilliam, one of the Commissioners for Virginia, acquainted his Colleagues it was his Opinion, that by his Majesty’s Order they could not proceed farther on the Line, but in Conjunction with the Commissioners of Carolina; for which reason he intended to retire, the Next Morning, with those Gentlemen.

“This looked a little odd in our Brother Commissioner [FitzWilliam, Byrd said, wanted to return to preside over the opening of court in Williamsburg and thus draw double pay as a judge and a Commissioner]; tho’, in justice to Him, as well as to our Carolina Friends, they stuck by us as long as our good Liquor lasted, and were so kind to us as to drink our good Journey to the Mountains in the last Bottle we had left.”

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