October 7, 2020

Pages 735-738
Whole Number 42


by William Perry Johnson

(Note: The following article is a condensation of, and based entirely on, an article in the Pennsylvania Archives, 3rd Series, Volume 3, and beginning on page 482. Facing page 482 in this volume is a map entitled "Outline Map of Virginia Claims in Southwest Pennsylvania." This map was used as the basis for the map that appeared on the cover of the September, 1954, issue of The Sparks Quarterly. Readers may wish to refer to this map as they peruse this article. W.P.J.)

by 1749 large grants of land on the branches of the Ohio River had been made "to certain gentlemen and merchants of the city of London and to inhabitants of Virginia." It became known in 1752 that the authorities of Virginia, as a matter of self protection, began to contemplate the erection of a fort at the junction of the Allegheny and Manongahela Rivers, the present site of the city of Pittsburgh, a point which was believed to be of such great strategic importance that upon its possession, in a large measure, depended the control of the great Ohio Valley.

In March, 1752, Thomas Penn wrote to Gov. James Hamilton, the representative of the proprietaries of Pennsylvania: "I desire you will enter into any reasonable measure to assist the government to build there, to wit, at the Ohio, taking some acknowledgement from him, that this settlement shall not be made use of to prejudice our right to that country"; and again, on the 3rd of July, of the same year, he writes: "I hope you will, as I wrote you on the 9th of March, acquaint the Governor of Virginia that we consent to this (that is, to the building of a fort at the Ohio) without prejudice to our right to the land in case it should be found to lie within our province, to be granted to the bonafide settlers on the same terms and conditions as they are to have it from Virginia.

It was decided in 1754, by Governor Dinwiddie of Virginia, that a fort should be built, and in order to raise a military force of sufficient strength for the purpose in view, on the 19th of February of that year, he issued his proclamation, which reads in part as follows: "Whereas it is determined that a fort be immediately built on the river Ohio, at the fork of Monongahela, to oppose any further encroachments or hostile attempts of the French, and the Indians, in their interest, and for the security and protection of his majesty's subjects in this Colony, and as it is absolutely necessary that a sufficient force should be raised to meet and support the same: For an encouragement to all who shall voluntarily enter into said service, I do hereby notify and promise, that by and with the advice and consent of his majesty's council in this colony, that over and above their pay, two hundred thousand acres of his majesty, the King of Great Britain's lands, on the east side of the river Ohio, within this dominion (one hundred thousand acres whereof to be contiguous to the said fort, and the other one hundred thousand acres to be on or near the river Ohio), shall be laid off and granted to such persons, who by their voluntary engagement, and good behaviors, in the said service, shall deserve the same."

On the 13th of March following, Governor Hamilton wrote to Governor Dinwiddie in answer to his proclamation that "the invasions, etc., having engaged me to inquire very particularly into the bounds and extent of this province westwardly, I have from thence the greatest reason to believe that the fort and lands (intended to be granted) are really within the limits of Pennsylvania." In reply, Dinwiddie, on the 21st of March, wrote to Hamilton, "1 am much misled by our surveyors, if the forks of Monongahela be within the limits of your Proprietor's grant." The foregoing is the first recorded notice of the claim of Virginia to the southwest corner of Pennsylvania, and was the beginning of a dispute which was to continue for thirty years before an adjustment was reached.

In the summer of 1754, a company of Virginians, under command of Captain Trent, arrived at the confluence of the rivers and commenced to build the proposed fort; but before they had completed their labors a force of one thousand French and Indians, with eighteen pieces of cannon, appeared before the unfinished stockade and compelled the little body of forty-one men present for its defense to surrender. The French immediately built "Fort Duquesne," and remained in possession until forced by the expedition of General Forbes, to destroy and abandon it in November, 1758, its place being taken by Fort Pitt, built in 1759.

The claim of Virginia embraced all the land west of Laurel Hill, included within the present counties of Westmoreland, Fayette, Greene, Washington, and parts of Allegheny and Beaver; whilst the Pennsylvania claim rested entirely upon the charter of Charles II, King of Great Britain, to William Penn, by which the lands granted to Penn were to extend westward five degrees in longitude from the river Delaware, and there had been sufficient investigation to convince the Pennsylvania Proprietaries that the point at which the two rivers united to form the Ohio was some distance within the limits of the royal grant to them.

For twenty years after 1754, there was no official correspondence between the two colonies in relation to their claims, and the military grants promised in the proclamation of Governor Dinwiddie were never surveyed or given to the persons who were to receive them. However, settlements under Virginia rights were encouraged within the bounds of the territory in dispute, and in a few years pioneer settlers began to appear along the Monongahela Valley.

The Pennsylvania authorities granted no rights for land west of the Allegheny mountains until after the treaty at Fort Stanwix in November, 1768, by which the Indian title to that section of the state was extinguished. Many applications authorizing surveys to be returned under the applications system then in force, were entered early in 1769, and after that system ceased in September of the same year, many warrants for lands purchased were granted.

Bedford County, formed in 1771, included within its limits the entire southwestern corner of the state to its western boundary, and there was an active renewal of the boundary controversy. In 1774, John Penn, then Governor of Pennsylvania, wrote to Lord Dunmore, Governor of Virginia: "The western extent of the Province of Pennsylvania, by the Royal. Grant, is five degrees of longitude from the River Delaware, which is its eastern boundary. In the year 1768, an east and west line was run from the Delaware, at the mouth of Christiana Creek, to the crossing of Dunkard Creek, a branch of Monongahela, by Messrs. Dixon and Mason, two surveyors of distinction, who were sent over from England to run the division line between Maryland and Pennsylvania. These artists fixed the latitude and extent of that line with the utmost exactness and precision, to the satisfaction of the commissioners on both sides. From the 233d milestone on this line a north line hath been since carefully run and measured to the Ohio, and from thence up to Fort Pitt; the several courses of the river have been taken with all possible care..."

The territory claimed by Dunrnore at that time was treated as part of Augusta County, (Virginia) and the first court was held at Pittsburgh, or Fort Dunmore as it was now called, on February 21, 1775; and for the next five years dual sets of officers asserted their right to exercise authority over the same people. This district of Virginia, called West Augusta, was subsequently divided into three counties, Ohio, Monongalia and Yohogania. A land office, in charge of a surveyor, was established in each county, and, as settlements were encouraged, many rights for lands under Virginia laws were entered and surveyed. In the records of the land department, these rights are known as "Virginia Entries," and consisted of state, preemption, treasury and military warrants. The terms under which lands were held by Virginia rights were fixed in the warrants, but in most of these warrants the purchase money was as low as ten shillings sterling for a hundred acres. The entries number over one thousand, and cover an area of six hundred and thirty-three thousand acres of land. Upon many of the entries, however, surveys were never made or returned, and, of course, titles to them under Pennsylvania laws never completed. The description of these tracts as they are recorded in the book of entries, and as they are written in the surveys, are quite vague and indefinite, the location usually given being that of a stream.

In 1779 the commissioners of Virginia and Pennsylvania met at Baltimore, and on August 31 reached an agreement which practically ended the long pending controversy: "To extend Mason and Dixon's line due west five degrees of longitude, to be computed from the river Delaware, for the southern boundary of Pennsylvania, and that a meridian drawn from the western extremity thereof to the northern limit of the said State be the western boundary of Pennsylvania forever." This agreement was ratified by both sides in 1780, but due to delays it was not until 1784 that the southern line from the end of Mason and Dixon's line was run out the full five degrees of longitude and the southwestern corner of the state established. The meridian line from the southwest corner to the Ohio River was run in 1785, and from the Ohio River to Lake Erie in 1786.

A land office under the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania was first established by an act of the legislature, passed in 1781. The purpose of this act was to enable persons who held unpatented rights to land obtained from the Proprietary Government prior to December 10, 1776, to pay such arrearage of purchase money as might be due thereon, and complete their titles by obtaining patents. This act was followed by another on the 5th of April, 1782, which provided for a Board of Property, whose duty it was to hear and to settle any difficulties or irregularities that had arisen or might arise, in transacting the business of the land office. The first recorded action taken by this board in relation to Virginia rights was on the 15th of September, 1784, when it was resolved that the Surveyor General issue orders to his deputies in the counties of Westmoreland, Washington, and Fayette, that upon application, they survey the said land for such persons.

The land office in Pennsylvania was closed in 1776 after the declaration of independence. When it was again opened in 1781, under the Commonwealth, it was for the above-stated purpose of permitting the completion of titles of lands held under grants from the Proprietary government. It was not until the act of April 1, 1784, became a law that provision was made for the sale of unappropriated lands of the state. It follows that all Pennsylvania claims that conflicted with. Virginia rights must have been acquired under the Proprietary government, between the years 1769 and 1776. These rights were under applications entered in 1769, and following that year, after the application system had been abandoned, by warrant and survey.

On page 548 of Volume 3, 3rd Series, of the Pennsylvania Archives are listed the Virginia entries for George Sparks and William Sparks which have been discussed by Dr. Bidlack in preceding article.