The mysteries of William Churton and his map of North Carolina

William Churton (1710 – c1767/8) was one of the pre-eminent surveyors in North Carolina during the 18th century. Unfortunately, very little is known about him.  He was born in London on April 5, 1710. He was in North Carolina by 1749, but when he arrived is unknown. His professional career in North Carolina predominantly pertained to surveying tracts of land in the Granville District. At the time of his death (late 1767 or early 1768), Churton had nearly completed a map of North Carolina. Circumstances of Churton’s death and the fate of his manuscript map remain mysteries to us.

William Churton’s death

William Churton apparently signed his will in Edenton (Chowan County) on 5 January 1768. The signature looks authentic, but I’m not aware of any analysis by a qualified forensic document examiner.  There are two statements by others that raise the question of forgery:

1.     In 1991, Fred Hughes wrote,  “A will was presented in Chowan Court in 1768 for probate. This will, purporting to be a deathbed will, [is] a very strange document. The usual lengthy preliminaries are completely absent. Bequests were made to Edmond Fanning, before any bequest to Churton’s own family. Fanning was known to Churton, but he was no friend, and no reason is known for this strange handling of his property. This will is a different document from the one probated in Orange County…”1

Unfortunately, the evidence of an Orange County will for William Churton has not been located in Fred Hughes’s papers (preserved at Guilford College), and there is no record of such in Orange County records or the State Archives. The document to which Hughes refers is a mystery.  Likewise, the source for Hughes’s statement, “purporting to be a deathbed will”, in regards to Churton’s Chowan County will, is a mystery. If Hughes knew of a historical basis for that statement, he provided no citation of such.

2.    In a letter dated 27 October 1768, colonial governor William Tryon wrote,  “While [Churton] was on the above surveys he wrote to acquaint me if any accident happened to him before his intended departure for England he gave me his map which was a request I had formerly made him: Soon after this, in December last, he died, and by virtue of the above letter I got into my possession his map…”2

That phrase, “in December [1767]”, in Tryon’s letter is apparently the source for all modern-day claims that Churton died in that year. No other mention of Churton’s death has been found in any other contemporary letters or newspapers. One would think that, just a few months after the event, Tryon would not get the month (and year!) of Churton’s death incorrect. If Tryon was correct, Churton would not have been available to sign his will on 5 January 1768.  Given that we are all prone to errors, the easiest explanation would be that Tryon was simply mistaken in the date of Churton’s death.

It’s not just the date of Churton’s death that remains a mystery, but the location and cause are also unknown. Notice that Tryon did not specifically state that Churton died while surveying the coast, or that Churton was even in the southeast coastal region when he died. In the 1958 first edition of The Southeast in Early Maps, author William P. Cumming references Tryon’s 1768 letter (see above), re-phrasing it ever so slightly:

“While he was engaged in these maritime surveys, [Churton] wrote Governor Tryon that, if an accident should befall him, he left the map to the Governor. Shortly after this, in December, 1767, Churton died…”3

However, by 1966, Cumming states:

“While surveying in the coastal region, Churton died in December, 1767…”4

Cumming repeated this claim in his biographical entry for John Collet, published in the Dictionary of North Carolina Biography.5 Unfortunately, nothing has been found in contemporary documents to indicate where or how Churton died. Modern statements that he drowned while surveying the coast are nothing more than speculation or fabrication. The circumstances of Churton’s death remain a mystery.

William Churton’s map

As Tryon relates in his letter, he acquired Churton’s nearly completed map after Churton’s death. Tryon then charged John Collet with the task of completing the map. It is presumed that Collet made a copy of Churton’s map, adding appropriate detail for the southeast coastal region.  Collet’s manuscript map survives in the British Library.  What happened to Churton’s manuscript map? It apparently found its way into the hands of Claude Joseph Sauthier. On 2 January 1771, a message from Governor Tryon to the General Assembly was read into the minutes:

“Mr Southier [sic] waits upon you with the original survey of this Province made by Mr Churton deceased….  He also waits on you with distinct plans of all the Towns of note in the Province; these together with the map, he is desirous of having the Honor to present to you.”6

The assembly approved a payment of ₤50 to Sauthier for Churton’s map and Sauthier’s town plans. How Sauthier’s ten town plans ended up in the British Library, yet Churton’s map did not, is unknown.

We ask again, what happened to Churton’s map? Unfortunately, that question cannot be answered in the absence of speculation. In 1806, Jonathan Price, Thomas Coles, and William Tatham were selected by the U.S. government to perform a survey of the North Carolina coast. During that work, a hurricane sank a boat in Pamlico Sound, taking with it many of the surveyors’ supplies. Among the items listed in an inventory by William Tatham: “a manuscript map of North Carolina, by Sauthier”.7 How and from whom the surveyors obtained this map for use on their coastal survey in 1806 is not known. No evidence exists that Sauthier made a manuscript map of North Carolina. However, there is evidence that Churton’s manuscript map was last recorded in Sauthier’s possession. Therefore, it isn’t entirely unreasonable to postulate that William Churton’s great manuscript map of North Carolina disappeared forever into the waters of Pamlico Sound.

* * * * *

Do you have any information on the life or death of William Churton? Or about his map? Do you know if Churton’s purported letter to William Tryon in 1767 survives? Several potential sources have been mined for data by Stewart Dunaway.  Although he has not yet found answers to our questions in the Fanning papers or in the Alves papers at the Southern Historical Collection, Dunaway has discovered some potential leads. For example, correspondence in the Alves papers makes mention of “Churton’s papers” in the hands of Fanning’s attorney, William Johnston. Whether or not “Churton’s papers” eventually found their way to Fanning is not currently known.  There are other potential sources of information that may not yet have been thoroughly researched. Examples might include letters written by Moravians in the Wachovia tract with whom Churton was acquainted (unfortunately for me, such letters would likely have been written in German language), or papers of Edmund Fanning or William Tryon in other institutional or private collections. Any additional information and/or corrections would be greatly appreciated. Please use the “What’s on your mind?” comment box below.

P.S. Stewart Dunaway has also transcribed the inventory of the sale of William Churton’s estate. Among the items mentioned are a “book of maps” (purchased by Samuel Swift), “some rough plans” (to Joseph Monfort), and “six maps” (to Capt. MacCormack).


Mapping Orange County – 3pm Sunday, May 22

Sunday, May 22, 2016, at 3 pm – Chapel Hill, NC
Mapping Orange County: Land Grants, Early Travel Routes, and the Native Trading Path. A Talk by Mark Chilton

Mark Chilton’s work on mapping the original land grants of Orange County will show where important early figures in county history lived, how people traveled by road, ferry, ford, and bridge, and where the great Native Trading Path was. Starting with the work of Allen Markham of some fifty years ago, Chilton has broadened Markham’s perspective on the Orange County historical record.

Sunday, May 22, at 3 PM

Chapel Hill Historical Society

100 Library Drive, Chapel Hill, North Carolina 27514 (on Google Maps)

North Carolina maps in Fielding Lucas atlases

Fielding Lucas Jr. first advertised an “Elegant New Atlas” as published and for sale on 10 February 1814, claiming, “There being now no other genuine Modern Atlas of the United States, nor any other likely to be had for some time to come –“.[1] He was half correct. Continue reading

Re-Stating Bellin’s Carte de la Caroline et Georgie

This post provides an updated cartobibliography for a Bellin map, Carte de la Caroline et Georgie, first published in 1757. William P. Cumming described two states of one plate (Cumming, Southeast in Early Maps, #311).  Ashley Baynton-Williams lists one state each for two plates in his Carolina checklist (MapForum #95, #96). Both deserve partial credit. There are, in fact, maps from two separate plates, with one state of Plate 1, and two states of Plate 2.

Bellin map - Carte de la Caroline et Georgie

1757-Bellin-Plate 1

Continue reading

NC’s Southern Boundary: a refresher course – March 5, 2016

The History and Re-survey of North Carolina’s Southern Boundary

Stephen R. Kelly, author of “The Boundary Hunters: Uncovering North Carolina’s Lost Borders” (The Atlantic) and “How the Carolinas Fixed Their Blurred Lines” (New York Times), will discuss the historical background of the boundary between the two Carolinas, and the current status of the recent re-survey to determine its true location. Prior to Mr. Kelly’s presentation, Jay Lester, author of the North Carolina Map Blog, will give a brief introduction to the variety and frequently peculiar cartographic shapes of the Carolinas. Shelia Bumgarner, librarian in the Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room at the Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, will have a fascinating selection of 19th century regional maps available for viewing and study. Among these treasures are maps of local gold mines.

Date: Saturday, March 5, 2016

Time: 9:30am-1:00pm

     (Lectures 10:30am-12noon; map viewing available

      prior to and following the lectures.)
Location: Charlotte Mecklenburg Library – Dowd Learning Room
310 North Tryon St.
Charlotte, NC 28202
Phone: 704-416-0150

Click here to obtain directions from Google Maps


If you have any questions about this event, please use the “What’s on your mind?” comment box below.

What’s in a name? Bellin “Reckoned” wrong in Carolina.

Determining the origins of unusual place names found on early maps of Carolina is a fun, and perhaps nerdy, exercise. Some, such as Lockwood Folly, have interesting, and sometimes obscure, historical origins. Others, like Murder and Surveyor’s Ferry, have their origin in copying errors by cartographers and/or engravers. What about Reckoned, on the Catawba River at the current site of Fort Mill, SC? Continue reading

Mapping Salem, Jan. 14, 2016 lecture

This year marks the 250th anniversary of the founding of Salem, North Carolina. Richard Starbuck, archivist with the Moravian Archives in Winston-Salem, will present a lunch-time lecture, Mapping Salem, at 12:15pm, on Thursday, January 14. The lecture will be in the Spaugh Lecture/Recital Hall of the Archie K. Davis Center. You’re welcome to bring your lunch!  Although the street address is S. Church Street, the parking lot is accessed from E. Salem Avenue. The extended forecast looks promising, but should inclement weather develop, call the Moravian Archives, 722-1742 or 725-0651, to see if the lecture is still “on”.

Carey’s Pocket Atlas Maps of North Carolina

The Pocket Atlas Maps of North Carolina published by Mathew Carey, 1796-1820.

Mathew Carey published his first “Carey’s American Pocket Atlas” in 1796. The engraved plate for this map of North Carolina was used in later issues of Carey’s pocket atlas in 1801, 1802, 1805, 1806, and 1810. Updates to the plate appeared with the 1801 and 1805 editions of Carey’s pocket atlas. Continue reading

What map is this? Burr or Greenleaf?

In “What map is this?” Part 1 and Part 2, cartobibliographic resources useful in identification of North Carolina maps were discussed. In this segment, we’ll provide all the nitty-gritty details needed to correctly identify and date a series of 19th century atlas maps of “North & South Carolina” (ignoring the awful grammar inherent to that map title). Continue reading

Map Societies’ meetings in October

Saturday, October 10, 2015, at the Wilson Library on the UNC-CH campus.

William P. Cumming Map Society

North Carolina Collection

and the Rare Book Collection

9:30 am — Meet, greet, coffee

10 am – “America’s First ‘Coloring Book’: Theodor de Bry’s 1590 edition of Thomas Harriot’s Briefe & True Report from the New-Found Land of Virginia”, by Larry Tise

11 am – “Deed Books as Maps: Origins of the 1770 Churton-Collet Map”, by Mark Chilton

12 noon– Lunch*

1 pm – “Carolina Comparative Cartography – Mouzon and Others“, by Jay Lester

2 pm – Event ends.

If you plan to attend, please make that known to Alison Barnett via email so that we’ll know how many chairs to set up. Before the conference, and/or during lunch, you are invited to view the exhibit, Chronicles of Empire: Spain in the Americas, where De Bry volumes and fine cartographic materials will be on display.

*LUNCH: The most convenient option, if it can be arranged, would be to purchase a box lunch to be provided at the Wilson Library. If you desire this option, contact Alison Barnett at the Wilson Library to express your interest ( Other options include various on campus facilities, some very close to the Wilson Library ( Restaurants on Franklin Street are another option, though the relatively short lunch break may render that option less viable.

Monday, October 19, 2015 – Williamsburg, VA 

The Williamsburg Map Circle

WMC will meet at 5 p.m. in their usual venue, the Jamestown-Yorktown Room at Williamsburg Landing. Margaret Beck Pritchard, Curator of Prints, Maps, and Wallpaper at Colonial Williamsburg, will talk about the evolution of the CW map collection. She is the author of “Degrees of Latitude,” treating selected maps from the collection (now sold out and out of print). The Colonial Williamsburg map collection began as an element of the furnishings of the historic houses, but during Margaret’s tenure has become a comprehensive assemblage of the most important printed (and some manuscript) maps of the era. She will tell us how it happened. Additional information from Ted Edwards.

What map is this? NC Canals are key

Do you ever find yourself staring at an old map and wondering, “Where on earth did this map come from?”  That question was recently prompted by a small undated map with no publisher imprint. The map is titled N. & S. CAROLINA and GEORGIA.1826-NCSCGA-ArmroydCareyLea

Continue reading

Fielding Lucas, Jr.’s forgotten maps of Tennessee

Fielding Lucas, Jr. (1781—1854) was an outstanding early 19th century American cartographer and map publisher, artist, musician, stationer, and civic leader. He was born in Fredericksburg, Virginia, moved to Philadelphia for work and/or education as a teenager, and spent his professional career in Baltimore. Two of his published maps pertain to Tennessee, aka “western North Carolina” (yes, I’m justifying their inclusion in the North Carolina Map Blog). Neither of these maps is recorded by Philips in A List of Maps of America in the Library of Congress..., or by Wells in A Checklist of Tennessee Maps, 1820-1830. The maps are also not described by Ristow in American Maps and Mapmakers. These two maps have been long lost and forgotten… until now. Continue reading