"...for as Geography without History seemeth a carkasse without motion, so History without Geography, wandreth as a Vagrant without a certaine habitation..."1
Virginia's edges were defined initially in charters issued by the King of England as grants of land to private investors. The history of colonial land grants is confusing, but essential to understanding the location of those boundaries.
The extended disputes over colonial boundary lines was driven by the primary motivation of colonial investors to get rich. There were nationalist, religious, and other motivations as well, but the potential to acquire land at a low price and sell it at a profit was the key factor in defining how the edges of Virginia were finally drawn. Queen Elizabeth I, and then King James I, could make awards of land and settlement rights by royal charter. Competing claims by Spain, and by the "naturals" who already lived on the land, could be ignored.
European mapmakers identified claims to territory by Spain and England, but ignored potential Native American claims
Source: University of North Carolina, Virginia et Florida (by Gerhard Mercator, 1610)
The three ships that brought 104 colonists to Jamestown in 1607 (the Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery) were financed by and filled with people who sought economic advantage. The desire for freedom of religion or increased individual liberties was not the driving factor in the initial settlement of Virginia in 1607. Instead, the goal of the initial colonists and their backers in London was to increase personal wealth.
The investors who financed the project to colonize Virginia were venture capitalists, "adventuring" or risking their wealth in the hope of getting even richer. The colonists who sailed to England were also seeking to increase their personal wealth, seeing opportunity in Virginia just like the founders of the company. In their charters, Queen Elizabeth I and King James I was careful to reserve the rights for 1/5th of the gold/silver, just in case the English ran into the same wealth discovered by the Spaniards in Mexico and Peru.
The investors incorporated as a joint stock company, the Virginia Company, with a coalition of capitalists based in London and Plymouth. The London-based investors focused on settling the Chesapeake Bay region. The capitalists based in Plymouth, who were more familiar with the fishing grounds off Newfoundland, focused on settling lands further north. Both the London and the Plymouth companies sent expeditions to settle in North America.
The First Virginia Charter issued by James I in 1606 gave the London Company the right to:2
That was a generous grant; the area between 34 and 41 degrees latitude stretches from present-day South Carolina to New York City. James I was giving away rights to a vast swath of territory to which he had no legitimate claim, unless it was occupied by English. The Right of Discovery would be invoked later by various colonial officials and Chief Justice John Marshall to legalize the elimination of Native American title to the land, but in 1606 the key to competing with Spanish, French, and Dutch rivals in North America was to be first to occupy and defend a slice of land.
That 1606 charter created a potential overlap between the claims of the London Company ("Firste Colonie") and the rights of the Plymouth Company ("Seconde Colonie") to settle "betweene eighte and thirtie degrees and five and fortie degrees of the saide latitude." Each company's first settlement in Virginia was guaranteed exclusive control over territory within 50 miles to the north and south of their settlement:
In addition, the company was granted rights for 100 miles inland from the first settlement. The total grant included 100 square miles or 6.4 million acres of territory, plus islands within 100 miles of the shore.
The Plymouth Company sent its first ship to the New World in August 1606, ahead of the London Company's 3-ship expedition that sailed from London in December 1606. However, the Plymouth Company's scouting ship, the Richard, was captured by the Spanish off the coast of Florida.
A second expedition from the Plymouth Company sailed in 1607. That effort founded the Popham (or Sagadahoc) colony, at the mouth of what is now the Kennebec River in Maine.
The Plymouth Company's colony survived a winter in what we now call Maine. In 1608 a resupply ship brought word that the leader in the colony, Rawleigh Gilbert, had come into an inheritance; he was now a rich man back in England.
the Popham colony feared potential attack by the Spanish, so Fort George was constructed at the mouth of the Sagadahoc (Kennebec) River
Source: Alexander Brown (ed.), The Genesis of the United States (facing p.190)
Gilbert and all the colonists sailed home right away - some in the first English ship constructed in the New World, the Virginia. The Plymouth Company charter was forfeited and the company faded into history, but new colonists obtained charters and arrived in Massachusetts starting in 1620. Those charters defined the 40th degree of latitude as the southern boundary of the Massachusetts colony, overlapping the grant of land by King James II to Virginia in 1612.3
After the Popham colony was abandoned and the Plymouth Company failed, references to the "Virginia Company" are typically references to the surviving half - the London Company, with its settlement at Jamestown. When James I issued two additional charters to the Virginia Company in 1609 and 1612, he extended only the rights of the London Company in North America. The private corporation survived until 1624, when the king assumed control over the then-bankrupt London Company.
After John Smith had determined the extent of the Chesapeake Bay, King James I adjusted the Virginia Company's grant when he issued a Second Charter in 1609. While the 1606 First Charter had limited the London Company's rights to just the land within a 100-by-100 mile square (plus islands within 100 miles offshore from the initial settlement), the 1609 Second Charter granted rights to all lands 200 miles north and 200 miles south of the James River.
More significantly, that Second Charter gave the private investors a massive amount of land stretching all the way across North America from Jamestown to the Pacific Ocean:4
Point Comfort, as displayed on the map produced by Captain John Smith; "Powhatan flu" is now the James River
(NOTE: map is oriented with west at the top, not north - so the Chesapeake Bay extends to the right)
Source: Library of Congress
Cape or Point Comfort is the southern tip of the city of Hampton, at the site of Fort Monroe now. It is the entrance to Hampton Roads, where the James River flows into the Chesapeake Bay. Point Comfort was named by Captain John Smith in 1608, because it was "comforting" for sailors to see the mainland after entering the Chesapeake after an ocean crossing. Known today as "Old" Point Comfort, it is slightly south of "New" Point Comfort at the eastern edge of Mathews County.
the First Charter in 1606 defined overlapping boundaries where settlement was authorized for both the London and Plymouth companies
Source: William E. Peters, Ohio Lands and Their Subdivision (p.104)
The Third Charter was issued on March 12, 1612 - or 1611, if dated by the Old Style calendar. Until 1752, the new year in England started not on January 1 but on March 25. The date of the Third Charter was in 1611 by the Old Style Calendar and in 1612 under the New Style calendar - so March 12, 1611/12 refers to 1612 in today's calendar.
The Third Charter gave the colony a claim to all lands between 34-41 degrees, and expanded Virginia's colonial boundaries further into the Atlantic Ocean beyond the 100 miles authorized in the First and Second charters. The Third Charter gave the islands offshore to "The Treasorer and Planters of the Cittie of London for the First Colonie in Virginia," stating:
1633 map showing Bermuda, off the coast of North America
Source: Library of Congress, Pascoal Roiz, A portolan chart of the Atlantic Ocean and adjacent Continents
Why did the Virginia Company investors obtain the territorial expansion by the king in 1612? The leaders of the Third Supply fleet, sailing to the colony in 1609, wrecked on Bermuda. They spent the winter of 1609-10 on the island, and it provided a surplus of food - in clear contrast to the starvation at Jamestown during that same winter.
The flagship vessel of the nine ships in the Third Supply fleet was the Sea Venture. It was separated from the other eight ships in a hurricane, and came close to sinking. The vessel was sailed onto the reef at Bermuda, and everyone escaped onto the dry land. The shipwrecked Englishmen spent ten months in 1609-10 salvaging the materials from the Sea Venture and building two new vessels in Bermuda, the Patience and the Deliverance.
The unplanned stay in Bermuda tested the authority of the colonial officials on their way to governing the Virginia colony in Jamestown. Some sailors considered their obligations to have been completed once the trip ended in Bermuda. One of Governor Gates' clerks, thought to be Stephen Hopkins, claimed that the governor's authority was valid only in Virginia and not on Bermuda. While most of those shipwrecked were busy building two smaller ships from the remains of the wrecked flagship, the Sea Venture, some rebelled. In the end, one rebel was executed, but Hopkins survived.
The Patience and Deliverance both reached Jamestown in 1610, just before Lord de la Ware brought another relief fleet with essential food and supplies. Shakespeare may have incorporated stories about the Sea Venture shipwreck into his play "The Tempest," after Patience sailed back to England.
modern map showing Bermuda
Source: Library of Congress, Atlantic hurricane tracking chart/NOAA
Bermuda is roughly 600 miles offshore from North Carolina. That put it outside the 100-mile limit of islands to be included in Virginia, according to the first two charters. The 1612 Third Charter extended the colonial boundary to include islands up to 300 leagues offshore. As a result of the modification, after 1612 Virginia extended up to 1,000 miles eastward in the Atlantic Ocean.
The Bermuda colonization was very successful, but the size of the island limited the potential profits from either agriculture or selling land. The Virginia Company venture capitalists in London "spun off" their investment. They arranged for James I to issue a separate charter for the island in 1615 and sold the rights to Bermuda to those investors who were most interested, splitting the island from the colony of Virginia.
Those capitalists in England who "adventured" their funds in the Virginia colony received little return on their investment. The Virginia Company changed its approach in 1618, issuing a "Great Charter" that ended martial rule and established a representative assembly. That charter was issued by the company rather than by the kink, and had no effect on the boundaries of the colony.
King James I failed to renew the Virginia Company's charter in 1624, and made Virginia a royal rather than a proprietary (private) colony. By canceling the corporate charter, King James made stock in the Virginia Company worthless, the equivalent of declaring the company to be bankrupt. The venture capitalists who bought stock in Virginia did not make a profit on their investment, even after being given a massive amount of free real estate.
When later kings chose to create new proprietary colonies in Maryland and Carolina to reward new friends, their grants of land reduced the boundaries of Virginia. The shrunken boundaries diminished the ability of Virginia officials to sell rights to vast amounts of land.
the beach is in Virginia (at Leesylvania State Park), but the boardwalk is in Maryland - thanks to a 1632 charter
The Stuart kings emphasized their power and marginalized the role of others, including Parliament (stimulating the English Civil war in 1642). After changing the boundaries of the Virginia colony, the kings did not compensate their subjects in Virginia or investors in England - and certainly did not compensate the Native American inhabitants.
Changes in the boundaries of the Virginia colony after 1612 did cause angst in Jamestown, when the king chartered new colonies within the area defined as Virginia in the Third Charter. The Virginia colonial officials lost authority to grant property deeds ("patents") to northern lands in New England (in 1620, with control over land north of the 40th parallel) and in what became Maryland (in 1632, north of the Potomac River).
land claims based on the 1620 charter to Massachusetts conflicted with the claims based on the 1612 charter to Virginia
Source: Bureau of Land Management, A History of the Rectangular Survey System: Volume 2 (Figure 1)
Lands to the south became part of a separate Carolina colony. A 1629 charter to an ally of Charles I, Sir Robert Heath, included lands between 31-36 degrees of latitude. That grant was never implemented due to the English Civil War. When Charles II granted the same land to eight Lords Proprietors in 1663, Virginia's southern border was once again defined at 36 degrees of latitude.
In 1665, the border was moved north a half-degree to 36 degrees, 30 minutes, giving the Carolina proprietors full control over the navigable parts of Albemarle Sound - plus land along the shoreline, whose settlers wanted to ship tobacco/lumber to England without paying export taxes to the Virginia colony.
In 1705, Robert Beverley described the extent of Virginia with specific limits on north, east, and south, but with the western edge extending all the way to the Pacific Ocean:6
Virginia's claim to land stretching all the way across the continent to "the Californian Sea" ended in 1763. At the end of the French and Indian War (known as the Seven Years War in Europe), negotiators in Paris determined a new boundary for the western edge of Virginia.
France regained control over the Caribbean sugar islands that the British had captured (Martinique, Guadeloupe, and St. Lucia). In return, France abandoned nearly all of its land claims in North America and transferred control over the Louisiana Territory and New Orleans to Spain. The 1763 Treaty of Paris established the Mississippi River as the new line defining the western boundary of Virginia.7
on the 1755 Mitchell map, lands west of the Mississippi River between the 36° 30' line of latitude on the south and the 40° line on the north were identified as part of Virginia
Source: Library of Congress, John Mitchell, A map of the British and French dominions in North America, with the roads, distances, limits, and extent of the settlements
after the 1763 Treaty of Paris ended the French and Indian War, English officials recognized that Spain controlled the Louisiana Territory and Virginia no longer extended west of the Mississippi River
Source: Library of Congress, John Mitchell, A map of the British and French dominions in North America, with the roads, distances, limits, and extent of the settlements
The claim to political authority over the lands defined in the charters is still part of the Code of Virginia, along with the official release of the Virginia claim to some or all of Maryland, Pennsylvania, North and South Carolina. Title 1, Section 1-301. "Extent of territory of the Commonwealth after the Constitution of 1776" says:8
westward extension of land claims by English colonies, 1755
(assumes Virginia's northern boundary was limited at 40th degree of latitude by 1620 charter to New England colony)
Source: Library of Congress, A Map of the British and French settlements in North America
During the Civil War, Virginia was carved up and 1/3 of its land area used to create the new state of West Virginia in 1863. The removal of the western counties was a significant alteration of the boundaries, but an even more dramatic change had been proposed by Secretary of War Simon Cameron in 1861.
Cameron suggested that creating a buffer of "safe" territory around Washington DC by transferring all of Virginia east of the Blue Ridge (except for the Eastern Shore) to Maryland, and realigning the boundaries of Maryland and Delaware based on natural boundaries:9
since West Virginia was established, Virginia shares boundaries with five other states
Source: Virginia: a geographical and political summary (published in 1876)
Cameron's plan would have made Virginia an inland state with no coastal waterfront, and reduced the potential of enemy forces controlling the heights of Arlington, by:
- adding the western edge of Maryland to Virginia, using the Blue Ridge to define the new state boundary
- transferring all territory east of the Chesapeake Bay to Delaware, using the Chesapeake Bay as a natural border on the east
- returning Virginia's Alexandria County to the District of Columbia, undoing the retrocession of 1846
Secretary of War Simon Cameron proposed shifting the Eastern Shore to Delaware, transferring the Piedmont/Coastal Plain regions of Virginia to Maryland
Source: Harpers Weekly (digitized by "Son of the South), Map Showing The New Boundaries Of Virginia, Maryland, And Delaware As Proposed By Secretary Cameron (December 21, 1861)
northern officials considered various ways of altering Virginia's boundaries to reduce the potential of hostile forces threatening Washington DC after the Civil War
Source: Harpers Weekly (digitized by "Son of the South), Chief Cook Cameron Divides The Virginia Goose Between Maryland And Delaware (December 21, 1861)
the Virginia-North Carolina border was defined initially by the 1728 "dividing line" survey, and in 1749 Joshua Fry and Peter Jefferson extended it further west to Steep Rock Creek in the Blue Ridge
Source: Library of Congress, A map of the most inhabited part of Virginia containing the whole province of Maryland with part of Pensilvania, New Jersey and North Carolina
the Popham colony started by the Plymouth Company failed, leaving the Virginia Company with no competition in England regarding its northern boundary until Maryland was chartered in 1632
Source: The Southern States of America (published in 1909)
Virginia's claim to the Northwest Territory across the Ohio River was contested by Connecticut as well as other colonies, until all states ceded their claims to the Continental Congress
Source: William E. Peters, Ohio Lands and Their Subdivision (p.148)