The Land of Eden

Have you seen the Land of Eden? No, it’s not in Mesopotamia. At least not William Byrd’s Eden. Byrd’s original Land of Eden was in North Carolina.

William Byrd II was born in Virginia in 1674, likely near the present location of Richmond, a city he founded in the 1730s. Although he spent much of his early life in London, with relatively brief periods in Virginia, he returned permanently to his native land in 1726. In 1728, he participated as one of Virginia’s commissioners in the NC/VA boundary survey. It was during the latter part of this survey that Byrd purchased 20,000 acres south of the boundary line from the North Carolina commissioners. This wedge-shaped tract of land lies almost entirely within present day Rockingham County, NC. A very small sliver at the eastern edge of Byrd’s tract lies in present day Caswell County, NC. The eastern boundary is 1 mile in length, the western boundary 3 miles in length, and the tract covers 15 miles from east to west.

A few years later, Byrd added an additional 6,000 acres adjacent to the southern property line of his original tract. Byrd drew a small map showing the location of his property. A facsimile of Byrd’s drawing was included in the 1866 publication of Byrd’s “Journey to the Land of Eden” (Vol. 2 of History of the Dividing Line and Other Tracts).1  Unfortunately, no original deed for the 20,000 acre tract survives in the State Archives.2  According to the “Christmas card” map shown below, the 6,000 acre patent in 1743 is recorded in “Book A page 10 Register Deeds office.”

In the early 20th Century, James Trogdon, a local surveyor, sent out a Christmas greeting card in the form of a blueprint of Byrd’s plat, with then present towns of Leaksville, Spray, and Draper superimposed.

Blueprint map of Byrd’s Land of Eden

Leaksville was founded in the 1790s and incorporated in 1874. The town was named in honor of local plantation owner and Revolutionary War veteran, John Leak.3 The location of Spray was settled in about 1813 when James Barnett built a canal and gristmill on the site. The town that eventually developed on that site was informally known as Splash or Splashy, from the water thrown up by a waterwheel at the local mill. However, when it finally reached a status worthy of a post office in the 1890s, the name Spray was chosen.4 Spray was not incorporated until 1951. Draper, the youngest of the “tri-cities” (“cities” used in the broadest possible definition)5 was established as a mill village in 1905 and incorporated in 1949.6

In 1967, the towns of Leaksville, Spray, and Draper merged to form the town of Eden, taking its name from that given to the region by William Byrd over 200 years earlier.

Leaksville, Spray, and Draper on 1967 North Carolina Official Highway Map

Leaksville, Spray, and Draper on 1967 North Carolina Official Highway Map courtesy of State Archives.

 

Eden on 1968 North Carolina Official Highway Map

Eden on 1968 North Carolina Official Highway Map, courtesy of State Archives.

The location of Eden was a moving target in Byrd’s lifetime. The 26,000 acres he owned in North Carolina were just a small part of Byrd’s vast land holdings. He had received a grant from the Virginia Council for 100,000 acres in southern Virginia near the confluence of the Dan and Staunton rivers, “on which to settle a number of Switzers and other foreign Protestants whom he speedily expected.”7.

Byrd arranged for the publication of a book in Switzerland to encourage immigration to Virginia. (He had a deadline to meet for settling the 100,000 acres to avoid a hefty tax bill.) The book published by the Helvetische Societat, Neu-gefundenes Eden (New found Eden), was largely drawn from John Lawson’s A new voyage to Carolina (London, 1709) and Robert Beverley’s The history . . . of Virginia (London, 1705). It contained two maps, one credited to Edward Moseley that covered Pennsylvania through the Carolinas, and another depicting Byrd’s “Eden in Virginia”, shown below (full view available here).

Unfortunately, tragedy struck the immigrants and Byrd did not live to see his dream fulfilled.8

In addition to the references cited in the above text, there are numerous excellent resources for further reading on the topics of William Byrd, the Dividing Line, and the Land(s) of Eden. An abbreviated list is provided as a starting point for those who have a thirst for such information:

William Byrd

The Dividing Line

  • High resolution late 19th century facsimile of the 1728 boundary survey by Virginia surveyor, William Mayo:  http://rla.unc.edu/Mapfiles/DDL/darmap0316c_200dpi.jpg
  • An original copy of the manuscript map of the 1728 boundary survey by North Carolina commissioner and surveyor, Edward Moseley: http://www.mesdajournal.org/wp-content/blogs.dir/23/files/mcnamara-2012/mcnamara-fig-07.jpg
  • William Byrd’s History of the Dividing Line, intended for publication by Byrd, but not published until 1841: Byrd, William. The Westover manuscripts: containing the history of the dividing line betwixt Virginia and North Carolina; A journey to the land of Eden, A.D. 1733; and A progress to the mines. Petersburg: Edmund and Julian C. Ruffin. 1841. http://archive.org/stream/westovermanuscr00byrd#page/102/mode/2up
  • William Byrd’s Secret History of the Dividing Line, intended for private distribution to Byrd’s friends, first published in 1929. In the Secret History, Byrd gives pseudonyms to the main characters on the boundary survey expedition. My 6th great-grandfather, Rev. Peter Fontaine, was given the name “Dr. Humdrum”, thus explaining the genetic origin of my personality. “The author’s ‘History of the dividing line betwixt Virginia and North Carolina,’ and his hitherto unpublished ‘Secret history of the line,’ which is another version of the same subject matter, are here printed on opposite pages”:  https://archive.org/details/williambyrdshist00byrd

The Land of Eden (NC)

Eden in Virginia

  • William Byrd’s Natural History of Virginia; or, the newly discovered Eden, a 1940 English language translation of Neu-gefundenes Eden… If anyone finds a full text version on line, please let me know via the What’s on your mind? comment box below. In the meantime, check with your library.  Copies are available to purchase on line via bookfinder.

 

References

  1. A b/w photographic reproduction of the original drawing by Byrd was published on page 41 of The Geographic Revolution in Early America... by Martin Brückner. I cannot consistently find the image on line. It seems to be intermittently included as part of a Google Books preview.
  2. The complicated history of ownership of Byrd’s “Land of Eden” in North Carolina is explained by Charles Rodenbough in History of a Dream Deferred.
  3. North Carolina Gazetteer, available on line.
  4. North Carolina Gazetteer, available on line
  5. According to this 1962 map of Rockingham County, the total combined population of the three towns was less than 15,000.
  6. North Carolina Gazetteer, available on line.
  7. Clement, Maud Carter: The History of Pittsylvania County, Virginia; Genealogical Publishing Co., 1929, p35
  8. A contemporary account of the Switzers’ tragic voyage was published in the Virginia Gazette (Williamsburg) on January 19, 1738, and reproduced in the Lower Norfolk County Virginia Antiquary, Vol. 2 (1902), available on line here.

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