Col. William Byrd's Observations

A Self-Guided Tour Of Pittsylvania County's Southern Border

By Henry H. Mitchell

Col. William Byrd II

Col. William Byrd II. It can be safely assumed that Byrd chose significantly more practical clothing for surveying the wilderness of central Virginia and North Carolina.

The very earliest first-hand accounts of present-day Pittsylvania County are found in the famous writings of Col. William Byrd. Byrd led a surveying party to mark the line between Virginia and North Carolina in 1728, then returned in 1733 through the same area en route to land he was granted in payment for the survey, which he named “Eden” (North Carolina), immediately to the south and southwest of Pittsylvania County. Both of his journeys were faithfully recorded in his diaries, now known and often-reprinted as William Byrd's Histories of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina and A Journey to the Land of Eden.

The purpose of this article is to note the most easily visited points along Col. Byrd's journeys, and to make reference to some of his most interesting comments written about those sites.

1 - First Crossing of the Dan River at the Milton Bridge on VA/NC 62

Dan River at the Milton Bridge

Here Byrd and his surveying party crossed the “South Branch of the Roanoak River the first time” on October 10, 1728. Byrd commented, “The Bottom was cover'd with a coarse Gravel, Spangled very thick with a Shining Substance, that almost dazzled the eye, and the Sand upon either Shore Sparkled with the same Splendid Particles. At first sight, the Sun-Beams giving a Yellow cast to the Spangles made us fancy them to be Gold-Dust, and consequently that all our Fortunes were made. … But we soon found our Selves mistaken, and our Gold Dust dwindled into small Flakes of ising-glass [mica]. However, tho' this did not make the River so rich as we cou'd wish, yet it made it exceedingly Beautiful.”

For a close look at the river, drive into the boat-launch access road beside the bridge.

2 - Cane Creek Campsite Along NC 1527

Cane Creek campsite

Here, in the broad flat field on the west side of Cane Creek, Byrd and his surveyors camped on the night after first crossing the Dan. “We crost a Creek 2 1/2 Miles beyond the River, call'd Cane Creek, from very tall Canes, which lin'd its Banks [native bamboo]. On the West Side of it we took up our Quarters. The Horses were very fond of those Canes but at first they purg'd them exceedingly…. Our Indian kill'd a Deer, & the other Men some Turkeys….”

It was apparently at this location that Byrd chose the name “Dan” for the river just crossed, recalling Bible imagery in which the land of Dan was the northern boundary of the Promised Land: “We call'd this South Branch of Roanoke the Dan….” As mentioned above, Byrd later gave the name “Eden” to his own private portion of this VA-NC promised land.

3 - Another Campsite (Near the Goodyear Plant)

Another campsite

After crossing the Dan a second time, the surveying party camped here (just south of VA 737 and west of its curve in front of the Goodyear plant) on the night of October 11. “We encampt about two Miles beyond the River, where we made good chear upon a very fat Buck, that luckily fell in our way. The Indian [Bearskin] likewise Shot a Wild Turkey….”

4 - First View of the Blue Ridge

Nearby first view of Blue Ridge

From a ridge crest very near this intersection, the group also had their first glimpse of the Blue Ridge Mountains to the west: “I had foretold on the Credit of a Dream which I had last Sunday-Night, that we shou'd see the Mountains, this day, & it proved true, for Astrolabe [William Mayo, surveyor] discover'd them very plain to the NW of our Course, tho' at a great Distance.”

A view today similar to that seen by Byrd and Mayo can be obtained by looking across the city of Danville from the hill on VA 736 just north of its intersection with VA 737.

5 - Iroquois Camp Discovered on Pumpkin Creek south of US 29 Bypass

Campsite when Iroquois presence discovered

At this location on the evening of September 25, 1733, Col. Byrd and a small party of men camped on the way to his land grant “Eden,” the corner of which was only 4 miles to the west-southwest of this point. “[We] quarter'd on a rising Ground a Bow-Shot from [a plentifull Run of very clear Water]. We had no sooner pitcht the Tents, but one of our Woodsmen alarm'd us with the News that he had follow'd the Track of a great Body of Indians to the place where they had lately encampt. That there he had found no less than Ten Huts, the Poles whereof had Green Leaves still fresh upon them. That each of these Huts had Shelter'd at least Ten Indians, who, by some infallible Marks, must have been Northern [Iroquois] Indians. That they must needs have taken their departure from thence no longer ago than the day before…. These Tidings I could perceive were a little Shocking to some of the Company, and particularly the little Major [Mumford], whose Tongue had never lain still was taken Speechless for 16 Hours.”

The group spent the night here without incident, and proceeded safely on to “Eden” the next day.

6 - State Highway Marker Recognizing the Saponi Religion Along Northbound US 29 Business

Saponi marker

In May 1988 a state highway marker was placed here recognizing Col. Byrd's discussions with Ned Bearskin, the Saponi whom Byrd had hired as a hunter to provide food for his surveying party. This was the first marker in the state to recognize an aspect of Native American culture rather than a conflict. The marker reads: “SAPONI RELIGIOUS BELIEFS EXPLAINED. On 12-15 October 1728 Col. William Byrd II and his party camped just west of here while surveying the Virginia-North Carolina boundary. Bearskin, Byrd's Saponi guide, described his tribe's religious beliefs, which, wrote Byrd in his diary, contained, ‘the three Great Articles of Natural Religion: the Belief of a God; the Moral Distinction betwixt Good and Evil; and the Expectation of Rewards and Punishments in another World.’ Bearskin's religion also included a Hindu-like belief in reincarnation.”

7 - Byrd-Bearskin Camp Site at End of VA 1140 (Princeton Road)

House at Byrd/Bearskin campsite

Here (at the dead end of the road) is the location where Col. Byrd and his surveying party camped, and where the discussion with Bearskin commemorated by the historical marker took place.

On October 15 the Byrd party left this spot and crossed the river just a few hundred yards to the west.

8 - Indian Cornfields VA 880 at the State Line Bridge


Here, on October 16, 1728, the surveying party found the Dan River impossible to ford. “… The Line intersected the Dan the fifth time… but the Surveyors cou'd find no Safe ford over the River. This obliged us to ride two Miles up the River [south, into North Carolina] in quest of a Ford, and by the way we traverst Several Small Indian Fields, where we conjectur'd the SAWRO'S [Sauras, Cheraws] had been used to plant Corn, the Town where they had liv'd lying Seven or Eight Miles more Southerly, upon the Eastern Side of the River.”

Cornfields still line the river at this point today.

9 - Cascade Creek Campsite Along VA 860

Cascade Creek

As the gravel road crosses a bridge over Cascade Creek, one can look downstream to the site where the Byrd party camped on the evening of October 17, 1728: “We markt out our Quarters on the Banks of a purling Stream, which we call'd Casquade Creek, by reason of the Multitude of Water-Falls that are in it.”

On the morning of October 18, “We crost Casquade Creek over a Ledge of Smooth Rocks, and then Scuffled thro' a mighty Thicket, at least three Miles long.”

Map Key

  1. First Crossing of the Dan River October 10, 1728
  2. Cane Creek Campsite October 10, 1728
  3. Another Campsite October 11, 1728
  4. First View of the Blue Ridge October 11, 1728
  5. Iroquois Camp Discovered September 25, 1733
  6. State Historical Marker Recognizing Saponi Religion
  7. Byrd-Bearskin Campsite October 12-15, 1728
  8. Indian Cornfields October 16, 1728
  9. Cascade Creek Campsite October 17, 1728
Saponi marker

Supplementary Views

State line, Virginia side

The North Carolina border along the southern edge of Pittsylvania County, Virginia, lies in the exact location as marked by Col. William Byrd II and his team of surveyors in 1728. This view is near where the group crossed the Dan River. (See location 1 above.)

State line, North Carolina side

From the Dan River bridge, NC 62 travels uphill into the town of Milton, North Carolina.

Cane Creek

Just before camping at location 2 above, Byrd's party crossed Cane Creek near this spot. At the time of their crossing, the creekbanks were lined with native bamboo, thus the name “Cane Creek.”

State line, North Carolina side

Today's Pumpkin Creek is the “plentifull run of very clear Water” which Byrd described at the campsite where in 1733 Byrd and companions almost confronted an Iroquois war party at location 5 above.

West from US 29 Business

Bill Hathaway makes a compass consultation before carefully measuring from US 29 Business at the state line, in order to find the exact spot of Col. Byrd's campsite discussion (location 6 above) with Ned Bearskin. Mr. Hathaway's on-the-ground calculations, utilizing the local U. S. Geological Survey map along with Byrd's diaries, provided the basis for the granting of the marker.

Prior to campsite

The state line crosses this low ground before climbing the hill to the Byrd - Bearskin campsite (location 7).

State Line Bridge

Here at the State Line Bridge location the Byrd party could find no place to cross the Dan River, so had to travel upstream to find a ford, and along the way spotted Saura cornfields (location 8).

Dan River downstream from State Line Bridge

Looking downstream from the bridge, it is evident that no fording locations are close at hand.

Dan River upstream from State Line Bridge

Looking upstream, the situation is the same.

Upstream at Cascade Creek

The little cascading waterfalls are visible as far as one can see upstream (here) as well as downstream, making the reason for Col. Byrd's name for the creek obvious (location 9).


This website is sponsored by Mitchells Publications and the Sims-Mitchell House, Chatham, Virginia.