A Little History of Knotts Island

Table of Contents

Preface and Introduction

Chapter 1
Discovery, Exploration, and Settlement

Chapter 2
The Source of a Name

Chapter 3
The Great Dispute

Chapter 4
The History of Currituck Inlet

Chapter 5
Knotts Island Today


by Hal James Bonney, Jr.
University of Richmond, Virginia, 1951

Chapter 3



If Knotts Island retains any claim to fame other than its early discovery and exploration, it is evident in the fabulous boundary squabble between the colonies of Virginia and North Carolina. Her day had arrived and now the Island would receive a huge amount of attention and would appear often in the annals of recorded history in a fiasco that is exceptionally interesting.

The grant to the Lord Proprietors of Carolina in 1663 set the northern limits at the thirty-sixth parallel which, if compared on a map, would place the dividing line below the present sites of Edenton, Durham, Greensboro, and Winston-Salem. Two years later the king granted another patent placing the northern limit as a line to begin at the north end of Currituck Inlet or River, 36-30, and run due west to Wyanoke Creek. The latter position produced the rub, while Currituck was a bay running north and south or the Inlet.(1) "The Inlet in time became reputed as the bounds,"(2).

There was very little concern in the early years over the precise line and both Virginia and North Carolina granted patents in the area without the slightest consideration of whose territory was involved. As the deeds of Lower Norfolk County reveal, many Virginians held land far into the present state of Carolina.(3). The need for settlement of the exact line was never pressing until the residents of the section were taxed by both governments.

The first voice of protest was raised June 12, 1680 in a petition of the inhabitants of "black water and curratack" sent to the House of Burgesses and referred to the Committee of Grievances.(4). As early as May l, 1683 the people of Curretuck complained to the Council of Colonial Virginia that the North Carolina officials were "distraining (seizing)" household goods in the belief they should bear proportionable cost of government.(5). The inhabitants protested bitterly since they held their land by patents from Virginia; this was the first attempt North Carolina made to collect levies.(6).

Virginia had collected taxes far earlier through orders of September 25, 1680 and May 22, 1683 directing the sheriff of Lower Norfolk County to collect from "Carrotuck."(7).

The Proprietors of Carolina were quite anxious to settle the dispute and accordingly petitioned on October 20, 1681 the Lords Committee for Plantations to appoint commissioners to run the line between the two neighbors beginning at "Currahtuck."(8).

Virginia's unrest grew as Scottish ships began trading in the vicinity without payment of duty.(9). Highly indignant over the matter,the commissioners for managing and levying customs asked the Lords Commissioners of His Majesty’s Treasury to annex North Carolina and "Put under the Care and inspection of the Government of Virginia to prevent shipping of tobacco growing in the South by Inlets of Corrituck and Roanock." This was the cry of Edmund Randolph on December 7, 1695.(10).

A year later Randolph again expressed his opinion freely. "Pyrats and runaway Servants resort to this place from Virginia etc." How red the explosive gentleman's face must have been when in 1728 the territory was found to be in North Carolina! He did leave this historian valuable information by remarking there were sixty or seventy scattered families under no regular government.(11).

The last statement of Randolph is too true and therefore a continuous plague to research in the area. Knotts Island was almost completely isolated with no local government and only occasional contact with the outside world. Our only insight into the Island's history is the seldom focus of a major event upon the isolated land.

Still Virginia sought to collect the taxes in a determined manner whereby the sheriffs were ordered to appear before the General Court to answer charges of neglect in the collection of the quitrents and "other public dues."(12).


In the course of the passing years Currituck Inlet became reputed as the starting point of the boundary line, but Virginia denied existence of the second (1665) charter which described the line in terms of natural objects. On the 19th of March, 1692 Thomas Milner arrived at Cowpenpoint (altitude 57-20, latitude 36-28) on the north side of Corotuck Inlet and observed by "My Instrum (instrument) that a line running due west, as the charter prescribed, went thence "Over Knots Island leaving the greatest part of that Island on the South side (Carolina)...but could from thence make no farther observations of the bearing of any remarkable Settlemts Contiguous to the place."(13).

The first part of the official report of Surveyor Milner is very clear, but the after phrasing deserves comment. Milner stated he was unable to actually carry the line from Cowpenpoint for want of any "remarkable (notable) Settlemts Contiguous (touching; near) to the place. " By this it appears no settlers were to be round on Knotts Island or in the locality at this time - 1692. This is not likely and in all probability his "remarkable settlement" must have been a town. The absence of a town does in no manner infer absence of people.

The statement of Edmund Randolph in 1696 mentions sixty or seventy families while the wills or Thruston and Walk prove the existence of settlers.(14). The complaints of the people to the government of Virginia must have been made, if we believe Milner, by ghosts.

The matter became more and more acute and in 1710 honest efforts were made to end the controversy when Virginia sent Philip Ludwell and Nath Harrison as commissioners to meet with Carolina commissioners, who were not fully instructed, at Currituck Inlet. On May 27th they secured a guide at the home of Captain Moss (designator or Moss' Point, Princess Anne County, Virginia) to lead them to Solomon White's whose home was to be the meeting place of the arbitration.(15).

Ludwell and Harrison rode "5 mile down Knots Island to the place where we must take (to) water ...." Here the horses swam about three-quarters of a mile over "3 channells" arriving then on the south side of the inlet at the cabin of Thomas Williamson who lived at the Sand Banks just by the sea side. Here they lodged for the night and with the dawn swam their animals over Curratuck Inlet "which is about a mile broad (hardly so much at the mouth.)"(16). It is most fortunate that the charter of Charles II was so specific in naming an inlet as a starting point.

The above description of crossing Knotts Island (Currituck) Bay is proof of that body's danger at that time as compared with a crossing today across one channel. The waters, it would appear, are in constant change.

A simple bush or red berries and evergreen leaves greeted the eyes of the Virginians on the north side. They knew it as Yaupon or Cassena which the Indians and inhabitants esteemed good for fever and cold, while in England it was used very widely as an excellent tea.(17).

The two men erected their instruments and recorded the latitude as 36 degrees, 41 minutes, but here failure entered with the arrival on June 6 of the Carolina commissioners. Neither side could agree on the accuracy of the instruments and the mission ended. The variations in minutes were very important, for the reader will remember Thomas Milner reported the latitude as 36-28. The Carolinians' complaint was well founded.

Governor Spotswood informed the Lord Commanders of Trade on July 21, 1714 that Governor Charles Eden of North Carolina had no instructions from the Lord Proprietors for a settlement.(19). The attempt of 1710 did afford the officials the difficulty of carrying a surveyor's chain as Spotswood termed it. "One of the most unhabitable and impracticable wilderness that is known in these parts..." refers to the entire route from Curratuck to Wicconi", but this blanket statement reflects only on the swamps and not the mainlands.(20).

The testimony of William Duckenfield on May 26, 1711 tells of his visit to Milner at Nansemond where they discussed the dividing line. Milner remarked that it would cut exactly through Patrick White‘s lower plantation on Knots Island.(21). This description was based on Milner‘s investigation of 1692 and thereby disproves any claim of total uninhabitation on Knotts Island.


Virginia‘s Executive Council acted November 1, 1715 by proposing to the governor of North Carolina a speedy determination of the boundary question. The Old Dominion agreed to accept the mouth of Corrattuck River or Inlett as a starting point and from there the line would run and "be ever deemed the dividing Line between Virginia and Carolina."(22).

In 1715 Virginia also approved the existence of the second charter given the Lord Proprietors which charter she had heretofore denied. As each day passed it became more and more evident that a decision must be reached if the inhabitants of the thirty-one miles of disputed land (36 to 36-30 degrees) were to be secure in land grants. The realm of government moved slowly then as today and thirteen more years passed before negotiations and pleas developed into constructive action.

The remaining argument was not over the starting point or eastern part of the line, but rather over the location of Weynoke Creek. At this point one of Virginia's most illustrious citizens entered the scene and enacted his large part in the history of Knott's Island. Not only would William Byrd serve as a commissioner, but as an author in recording a history of the venture in his diary.

Byrd's history is a classic as was he. His is a social history of the English coffeehouse type personified so vividly in Addison and Steele's Sir Roger de Coverly. The attacks on Byrd's writings have been hot and heavy mainly because of a secret history appearing alter the regular one in which he expressed deep personal views. The purpose of the secret paper was not to ridicule the Carolinians, but his fellow Virginia travelers.(23).

The author has been criticized, even before completion of this writing, for even considering William Byrd as a source. The slur was based on Byrd's unfavorable remarks against Carolina. This is far from the truth, especially in his remarks about Knotts Island. More time is spent directing remarks against William Mayo and Alexander Irvine, fellows of Byrd. For insurance there remains the Colonial Records of North Carolina which solidly support Byrd‘s treatment of Knotts Island.

Byrd was accompanied by his fellow commissioners, Richard Fitzwilliam and William Dandridge members of the Virginia Executive Council, who on March 2, 1728 arrived in Norfolk.(24). An attempt to find someone familiar with the land around Coratuck Inlet was vain until they accidentally met William Williams "that lives upon the Borders drew a rough Sketch..." of the area and its routes of accessibility.(25).

By foot and cart they arrived at Prescot Landing on the North West River where they camped for the night.(26). The environment was abominable to Byrd as he referred to it in a letter to Charles, Early of Orrery, as "Worse air, if possible, than in Zeeland (island of East Denmark)”.(27).

The expedition survived the night and descended North West River for eighteen miles where it empties into Currituck Sound. The troop found interest in noting the river never ebbed and flowed until 17l3 "When a Violent Storm opened a new Inlet (new Currituck) about 5 Miles South of the old one Currituck as mentioned in the king's charter...."(28).

Now situated at the junction of North West River and Currituck Sound, the Byrd polar (line) expedition on the 5th found it necessary to shape their course around the south end of Knots Island since a passage to the north of the Island was blocked by the Great Marsh. While braving the Sound, the commissioners observed to the south Bell's and Churche's Islands both of which are known today as gunning sites.(29).

In addition they noted a New England sloop trading without payment of duty (penny a pound for tobacco.)(30).

The Virginians arrived at the south shore of old Currituck Inlet and on the 5th of March, 1728 the Carolinians were met, but unfavorable weather delayed immediate action.(31).

A horrible sound fell upon the ears as the heavy breakers washed over the inlet which proved to be very shallow and not quite a mile wide. Deductions led Byrd to believe it had formerly been two miles across; even with the narrowing the shoals ran out to the east, into the Atlantic, for two or three miles.(32).

Philip Ludwell and Nath Harrison eighteen years before had marveled at the red and green Youpon bush; this holly type plant attracted Byrd with equal enthusiasm. The author believes Colonel Byrd had tongue-in-cheek when he remarks the natives value shells "far beyond Gold and Silver." These items were far too numerous to be counted as specie and what store keeper or tax collector would receive them in payment? If one has roamed slowly along the beach of North Carolina's sand banks, there is little doubt but that the numerous varieties of shells appeared a great deal more colorful than money.

The North Carolina commissioners, Chief Justice Christopher Gale, John Lovick, Edward Moseley, and William Little, exchanged instructions with the Virginians as Moseley, the Carolina surveyor, set the latitude as 36-3l.(33). Byrd‘s secret history notes the same on March 6th.(34).

No longer can one row to an oyster bank and secure a meal as did one of the commissioners who secured the animals described by Byrd as the largest and best he had ever seen.(35).

That afternoon William Mayo found the latitude to be 36-31, but Alexander Irvine staunchly insisted it registered 36-30.(36). Byrd in his 36-31 claim noted a three degree variation in his secret diary.(37). His secret account violently assails Irvine, a professor at William and Mary College, but the peak was not reached until the expedition reached the western end of the line; then the Virginia political scene was shaken.

Again and again minor occurrences interrupted the proceedings, but they were in no manner minor to the commissioners each of whom sought to return the larger slice of land to his colony. They would fight over grains of sand rather than submit, for what were words compared to inches of land? Virginia claimed the end of the sand split of the inlet as the legal starting point while North Carolina maintained it to be the high land on the north side of the inlet. Faced with a legal document of 1712, the Virginians realized they were compelled to recognize the Carolina contention.(38).

A most important date was etched in Virginia-Carolina-Knotts Island history on March 7, 1728 as the joint commissioners ordered a cedar post set in the sand as starting point No. One on the dividing line between close friends who were often rivals.(39).

Before continuing with the line that would leave the inlet and move westward, Byrd reported a nature boy or marooner living on the south side with a "wanton Female" in an Indian bower. They followed the Bible, Byrd commented, by never spinning nor sowing, but instead they feasted on oysters and the milk of neighbors' cows she herded to their door. For clothing nature provided beard and hair.(40) This is of no credit to Knotts Island, but if the truth were known, it would reveal their origin as Virginia without a doubt.

"That day (7th) the Line was run as far as Notts Island about 20 Rodds (330 feet) to the Northward of Wickers House and so cross the Island ...."(41). The line cut Dosier's Island (Dansiers Island according to the North Carolina record) a flat sand island of shrubs lying in Knotts Island Bay (Deal's Island today) and split the plantation of William Harding.(42). Here they camped for the night spent on Knotts Island.

Harding had been a valet to Governor Hyde (1710 – 1712) and Mrs. Harding a laundress near London‘s Temple Bar.(43). Surely fastidious Byrd had a night of pleasure recalling old England's peaceful life.

The soil of Knott's Island was highly lauded by the gentleman from Westover who described the place as forming a wedge with the south end several miles across and the north end a point. A paradise existed for stock by virtue of the swamps and warmth with the sheep found to be as large as Lincolnshire since they suffered from neither hunger nor cold.(44).

The line left three hundred and fifty acres "Upland of the Island in Virginia and two Families, the rest of the Island taken into Carolina..." with five miles in length joined by Jones's (Mackey) Island on the west containing 2000 acres and half a score of families (on Knotts Island, not Jones's Island) "thereby taken into Carolina that before were in Virginia." Thus after sixty-five years the inhabitants knew to whom to pay taxes. O, the power of the tax!

The census above divulges twelve families living on the Island engaged in farming and stock raising with sea food a side industry. Only three names or those twelve remain for us today: William Harding and wife, a Wicker, and a Mr. White the principal freeholder who kept open house for all travelers, shipwrecks, and debtors.(46).

The dividing line fell on the highland with the distance across the Island less than half a mile where the line then entered the Great Marsh and Back Bay (map, page 24). The Carolinians noted that "Notts Island improperly so called..." for in reality it is a peninsula extending from Princess Anne County with water surrounding it only at very high tides or overflowing marshland.(47). Byrd, too,


 observed this and predicted it could be drained into a productive meadow capable of grazing more cattle than Job. The climate was almost perpetually warm, but mosquitoes were infinite and fierce.(48).



Drawn by E. Moseley, Surveyor General of North Carolina, who was one of the Carolina commissioners sent to meet the Virginia commissioners at Currituck Inlet from whence the dividing line was run due west in the year 1728.

Reproduced from William Byrd's Histories of the Dividing Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina with introduction and notes by William K. Boyd, pp. 322 - 323.

On the 8th the baggage was sent around the south end of Knott's Island to meet the officials at the mouth or North River (Byrd meant North Landing River.) The party proceeded around the north end, but encountered something of what Spotswood had spoken.(49). The shoals promised to wreck the canoe if they had not sighted a fortune teller and a wench in the Bay as the two fled from Princess Anne County after expulsion for crafty living.(50). The pair thought the commissioners to be officers and attempted to escape, but in the chase they were caught and forced to designate the channel through Back Bay to the mainland.(51). Again Byrd’s eye spied surrounding terrain as he reported seeing Cedar Island to the north of Knotts Island.

After this harrowing escapade they reached the mainland and camped at John Heath's.(53). The entire population for miles around left their occupations to flock to Heath’s plantation to gaze upon them. Many "rose out or their sick Beds...."(54). From this point the project marched westward through the Dismal Swamp and unto the land of Wyanoke. The line was now very plain and firmly settled with both sides thankful the dispute was behind. Recently the boundary line was checked to assure all conclusions, but as the “Map of the North Carolina and Virginia Boundary from the Atlantic Ocean to the Nottaway River..." begun November 18, 1886 and completed March 5, 1887 shows, there was no change in its crossing of Knotts Island.(55).

Knott's Island had experienced its day and once again the darkness of unknown history closed upon it; since 1728 it has not returned into focus. Her big day passed away with the passing into the west of the Virginia-Carolina commissioners. Nothing world shaking in the foregoing account, merely local history that affords no contribution to important acts of history and is itself only a by-product of a greater moment or event.  __________________________________________________
1. Colonial Records of North Carolina, II, 730.
2. Ibid., II, 731.
3. Brief Abstract of Norfolk Wills, I, 147.
4. H. R. Mcllwaire, Journals of the House of Burgesses of Virginia, 1659/60, 123.
5. Executive Journals of the Council of Colonial Virginia, I, 94, 95.
6. Ibid., I, 95.
7. Ibid., 536, 537.
8. Colonial Records of North Carolina, I, 339, 340.
9. Ibid., I, 439: Executive Journals of the Council of Virginia op. cit. I, 96.
10. Ibid.
11. Ibid., 467.
12. Council of Virginia, op.cit., I, 340.
13. Colonial Records of North Carolina, I, 385 - 386.
14. See pages 31, 27, supra.
15. Virginia Mag. of Hist & Biog., V, 10.
16. Ibid.
17. Ibid., V, 11. Even today Yaupon is used occasionally on Knotts Island.
18. Ibid.
19. Letters of Spotswood, II, 71.
20. Ibid., II, 142
21. Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, April 1900, No. 4, VII, 349.
22. Council of Virginia, III, 415.
23.W. K. Boyd, William Byrd's Histories, xii.
24. Colonial Records of North Carolina, II, 744; Boyd, op. cit., 37 secret history.
25. William Byrd's Histories, 37 secret history.
26. Ibid., 38, regular history.
27. Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, January 1924, No. 1 XXXII, 33.
28. Boyd, op. cit., 40, regular history.
29. Ibid.
30. Ibid, 42, regular history.
31. Colonial Records of North Carolina, II, 743.
32. Boyd, op. cit., 42 regular history; 44 secret history.
33. Colonial Records of North Carolina, II, 744.
34. Boyd, op. cit., 44 secret history.
35. Ibid.
36. Ibid., 45 secret history.37. Ibid., 44 secret history.
38. Ibid., 47 secret history; Colonial Records of North Carolina, II, 750.
39. Ibid., II, 746.
40. Boyd, op. cit., 46 regular history.
41. Colonial Records of North Carolina, II, 746.
42. Ibid., II, 571; Boyd, 46 regular history.
43. Boyd, op. cit., 47 secret history.
44. Ibid. 48 regular history.
45. Colonial Records of North Carolina, II, 746.
46. Boyd, op. cit., 48 regular history.
47. Colonial Records, II, 571.
48. Boyd, op. cit., 50 secret history. The Island's future.
49. See page 19, supra.
50. Boyd, 48 regular history.
51. Ibid., 50 regular history.
52. Ibid., 48 regular history.
53. Colonial Records of North Carolina, II, 571.
54. Boyd, 50 secret history.
55. A photocopy of the map is owned by the author and was acquired April 6, 1951. The original is in the State Department of Archives and History, Raleigh, North Carolina.

Back to the top.