The Dividing Line Histories of William Byrd II of Westover

The Dividing Line Histories of William Byrd II of Westover

The Dividing Line Histories of William Byrd II of Westover

The Dividing Line Histories of William Byrd II of Westover


After his 1728 Virginia-North Carolina boundary expedition, Virginia planter and politician William Byrd II composed two very different accounts of his adventures. The Secret History of the Line was written for private circulation, offering tales of scandalous behavior and political misconduct, peppered with rakish humor and personal satire. The History of the Dividing Line, continually revised by Byrd for decades after the expedition, was intended for the London literary market, though not published in his lifetime. Collating all extant manuscripts, Kevin Joel Berland's landmark scholarly edition of these two histories provides wide-ranging historical and cultural contexts for both, helping to recreate the social and intellectual ethos of Byrd and his time.

Byrd enriched his narratives with material appropriated from earlier authors, many of whose works were in his library--the most extensive in the American colonies. Berland identifies for the first time many of Byrd's sources and raises the question: how reliable are histories that build silently upon antecedent texts and present borrowed material as firsthand testimony? In his analysis, Berland demonstrates the need for a new category to assess early modern history writing: the hybrid, accretional narrative.


In the spring and fall of 1728, an expedition of Virginia and North Carolina officials, surveyors, and woodsmen set out to resolve the disputed boundary between the two colonies, running nearly 242 miles west from the Atlantic shoreline to the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Over the decades following the expedition, William Byrd revised and expanded the official report he had submitted to Virginia’s governor into two remarkable narratives, never published in his lifetime but now considered classics of early American literature: The History of the Dividing Line betwixt Virginia and North Carolina and The Secret History of the Line.

The History of the Dividing Line was a public history designed for British readers always eager to read about travels in distant lands. Byrd dressed up his narrative with an abundance of botanical, zoological, and historical information together with literary allusion, anecdotes, historical sketches, tidbits of ethnographic information, erudite jests, and unacknowledged appropriations from earlier authors, both ancient and modern. The range of Byrd’s accumulation of materials will be of great interest for modern readers to observe, using this edition’s annotations and commentary. In refashioning the official report, Byrd was faithful to the Horatian warrant for literature: its purpose is to instruct and delight. The resulting narrative functions at once as historical chronicle, literary entertainment, and encyclopedic survey of nearly everything that could be said about its subject, the Virginia–North Carolina backcountry in the early 1700s.

What led Byrd to write such a book? It must have been in part a desire to establish himself in England as the leading expert on Virginia. He had a taste of reputation as an expert when John Oldmixons’s 1708 History of the British Empire in America borrowed—and praised—a sketch of Virginia history Byrd had written. And it might have been in part a desire to contribute to the collection and dissemination of useful information that characterized the writings of the Royal Society’s correspondents. Byrd had been a proud member of the Royal Society from the age of twenty-two and participated in the correspondence network that supported the scientific project. It might have been in part a desire to display the breadth of his knowledge, insight, practical wisdom, political skill, social status, wit, and literary talent. Whatever the combination of motives, The History of the Dividing Line was exactly the kind of book his education, his scientific and cultural interests, and his sense of his position in society prepared him to write.

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