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Oyler: Western Pa. history includes state border dispute

The April program meeting for the Bridgeville Area Historical Society was a presentation by your columnist dealing with an interesting episode in local history, the dispute between Virginia and Pennsylvania regarding sovereignty of what today is southwestern Pennsylvania.

Those of us interested in local history are aware of this disagreement in the 18th century; its causes and resolution are an extremely interesting story.

The border conflicts between the original colonies are the consequence of a number of factors — ambiguous, frequently overlapping charters; inaccurate maps of the New World; and a general ignorance of the geography of the lands west of the Alleghenies.

A series of charters issued by a series of English monarchs in the 17th century set the stage for disagreement.

Virginia’s charter in 1609 gave its proprietors 400 miles of the East Coast, and dominion over land stretching “from Sea to Sea north and northwest.”

Although later charters to other colonies superseded parts of this one, the Virginians used it as precedent to claim every other contested area.

Maryland’s charter in 1632 used the Potomac River as a southern border, a meridian through its headwaters as a western border, the 40th parallel as a northern border, and a sharing of the Delmarva Peninsula as an eastern border.

The northern border was based on the assumption that the mouth of the Delaware River was on the 40th parallel.

This assumption came from a map produced by John Smith in the early 1600s. Smith was an accomplished warrior and explorer, but an incompetent mapmaker; the fact that the 40th parallel was about 20 miles north of the Delaware mouth would cause major problems later.

Pennsylvania’s charter, in 1681, was a masterpiece of errors and ambiguities. Its eastern border — the Delaware River — was clearly defined, as was its northern border, the 43rd parallel of latitude. King Charles II meant well when he awarded William Penn land north of the “beginning of the 40th parallel,” assuming this included the mouth of the Delaware.

Long after Philadelphia had been settled, it was realized that most of it fell south of the 40th parallel, thus placing it clearly in Maryland! After a series of confrontations between Pennsylvania and Maryland militia along the Susquehanna River, the governors of the two states agreed that their common border should be “15 miles south of the southern-most house in Philadelphia.”

The new Maryland-Pennsylvania border was surveyed by astronomer Charles Mason and surveyor Jeremiah Dixon between 1763 and 1767. Their assignment also required them to locate the headwaters of the Potomac River, Maryland’s western border.

According to the Pennsylvania Charter, its lands should “extend westwards five degrees in longitude, to be computed from the said Eastern Bounds.”

Virginia interpreted this to define Pennsylvania’s western border as a zig-zag line, paralleling the Delaware River in the east. Based on this interpretation Pittsburgh and Washington were both clearly outside of Pennsylvania, therefore part of Virginia.

This led to confrontations between officials from both colonies claiming jurisdiction in this area. The governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, occupied Fort Pitt, renaming it Fort Dunmore, with Dr. John Connolly as his representative there, initiating a series of arrests, paroles and counter arrests that subsided only when the Revolutionary War began.

In 1778 Virginia established three new counties — Ohio, Monongahela, and Yohogania — which included all of Pennsylvania west of Laurel Ridge and south of the Kiskiminetas, Allegheny and Ohio Rivers, land claimed by Pennsylvania as Westmoreland County. The ensuing controversy was resolved in 1780 by the Continental Congress.

The Mason-Dixon Line was extended westward to a point five degrees of longitude (about 260 miles) from the Delaware River. Equally important was the decision to extend Pennsylvania’s western boundary due north to the 43rd parallel, establishing our current border.

In retrospect, it is encouraging to see that practicality and common sense resulted in compromises that overcame the inadequacies of the early charters and the arrogant ambitions of the early colonial proprietors.

We are grateful to the historical society, and particularly to program director Rosemary Kasper, for the opportunity to participate in this program. This series of program meetings continues to be superior to any provided by other community historical societies in this area.

The next society program meeting will be at 7:30 p.m. May 26 in the Chartiers Room at the Bridgeville Volunteer Fire Department.

Tim Neff, of Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum, will be the speaker; his subject is “A Footlocker Presentation — WWII.”

John Oyler is a columnist for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-343-1652 or [email protected].


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