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Marking the Land in North America

A Straight Line through the Wilderness: Geometry and Geography in William Byrd’s Histories of the Dividing line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina (1728 sqq)

Julien Nègre


In the text now known as the Histories of the Dividing line, William Byrd II narrates the survey, in 1728, of the straight line marking the Virginia-North Carolina border. This paper explores the role played by the motif of the line in Byrd’s writing, and how it shaped his representation of the world as the surveying expedition gradually left the area of white settlement and penetrated the wilderness. In Byrd’s writing, the line becomes much more than just a boundary line; this paper offers a reading of the line as an instrument of order and stability (both social and cartographic), but also as a tool of control and appropriation, and eventually as a vector propelling the colonists westward.</