Virginia and West Virginia: Commentary

West Virginia Atlas of Historical County Boundaries

John H. Long, Editor; Peggy Tuck Sinko, Historical Compiler; Gordon DenBoer, Historical Compiler; Laura Rico-Beck, GIS Specialist and Digital Compiler; Peter Siczewicz, ArcIMS Interactive Map Designer; Emily Kelley, Research Associate; Robert Will, Cartographic Assistant.

Copyright The Newberry Library 2003

The Colonial Period

In Virginia, the process of creating new counties was established in 1634, when the colonial legislature created the first eight counties, or “shires” as they were called. These represent the first counties created in the North American colonies. Settlement spread upstream along the major river systems and into western areas of the colony, and the legislature accommodated the pioneers by detaching the eastern, or "lower," parts of the existing counties and creating new counties in the western remainder. As exploration and settlement advanced, the Blue Ridge Mountains gradually became the accepted western boundary of new counties. It was not until 1735, when Orange County was created, that territory in present West Virginia was specifically included in Virginia county creations. The eastern, northern, and southern boundaries were typically defined in the session laws, but the western limits were largely undefined.

The initial legislation named the first eight shires but did not provide any boundary descriptions (Hening, Statutes at Large, 1:224). This project used boundary descriptions found in Lyon Gardiner Tyler’s, Cradle of the Republic (1906), the source also used by Charles Francis Cocke for his three volumes on the parishes of Virginia. According to Tyler, Charles City County was bounded by the Appomattox River, Henrico County extended indefinitely westward, and no boundary description was provided for Charles River (now York) County. Since the mapping program used by this project does not allow for open-ended counties, the western limit of these early counties is based on the head of the Appomattox River. This ensures that all areas of early European settlement are included within these estimated boundaries (Tanner, Settling of North America, 46).

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Virginia relied on its colonial charter of 1609 to claim vast areas of North America, including all of the present states of Kentucky and West Virginia, part of Pennsylvania, and everything east of the Mississippi River, north of the Ohio River, and south of the Great Lakes. One way to exert jurisdiction over these areas was to create counties, and this compilation includes all counties created by Virginia, both within its modern boundaries, as well as those counties created outside its current borders. For example, Kentucky was part of Virginia until 1792. In 1776, the Virginia legislature created Kentucky County, comprising all of present Kentucky, and later carved nine of the state of Kentucky’s counties from that original county. Virginia's creation in 1778 of the enormous Illinois County encompassed all land claimed by Virginia north and west of the Ohio River (all or part of six states); in 1784 Virginia ceded that territory to the United States, which, in turn, created the Northwest Territory in 1787. The overlapping of several Virginia counties (now in West Virginia) with western Pennsylvania counties and the attempt by some North Carolinians in present Tennessee to attach themselves to Virginia, reflect the reach of Virginia in the colonial period.

A pre-Revolutionary boundary line in what is now West Virginia illustrates the challenges in mapping early counties. On January 31, 1770, Virginia created Botetourt County from Augusta County. The dividing line ran easterly from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the head of “Carr’s Creek” (Kerr’s Creek in modern Rockbridge County, Virginia), “thence north fifty-five degrees west, as far as the courts of the two counties shall extend it” (Hening, 8:396). This fifty-five degree line extended over one hundred twenty-five miles across all of modern West Virginia to the Ohio River and remained part of the boundary of numerous counties until 1856 when Roane County was created. The southern end of a line running at the prescribed angle through the source of Kerr’s Creek matches up with the small (mile long) “notch” that still exists between Webster and Pocahontas Counties, West Virginia, and the entire line fits the requirements of several boundary descriptions prescribed for other counties in the 1820s and 1830s. Sharp-eyed readers will notice that this line lies about five miles north of the line Edgar Barr Sims plotted for this boundary in the maps of historical West Virginia counties that he published in the 1950s. The compilers nearly always have agreed with Sims’s versions of the old boundaries, but in this case they believe the evidence favors the version rendered here.

Creating New Counties

As in other states, creating and changing counties in Virginia is the responsibility of the legislature. Until 1851 there were no constitutional limits on county creations in Virginia. The state constitution of 1851 required (1) that new counties contain at least 600 square miles; (2) that the counties from which they were created not be reduced below 600 square miles by such creations; (3) that no county with less than 5,000 white residents could be deprived of more than one-fifth of its population; and (4) that no county with more than 5,000 white residents could be reduced below 4,000. The constitution of 1864 continued these restrictions, whereas the constitution of 1870 changed only the population requirements: no county with less than 10,000 population could be deprived of more than one-fifth of its population, and no county with more than 10,000 population could be reduced below 8,000. The constitution of 1902 maintained the population stipulation that no county could be reduced below 8,000 inhabitants. The 1971 state constitution has no restrictions on county size or population.

West Virginia broke away from Virginia in 1861, but was not admitted to the Union as a separate state until 20 June1863. Most county creations and changes in present West Virginia occurred prior to 1863 under the authority of the Virginia legislature. The basic process of creating new counties that was established by Virginia was continued by West Virginia. The West Virginia state constitution of 1861 required that each new county, and the counties from which it was taken, have at least 400 square miles and 4,000 white residents; the current constitution (1872) raised the resident requirement to 6,000, and stipulated further that no new county could be formed without the consent of a majority of the voters residing within the boundaries of the proposed new county. These constitutional provisions complicated the process of creating new counties. For example, the boundaries of Lincoln County (created in 1867, from four counties) were altered, redefined, and clarified six times before 1955, when the legislature again "defined and established" Lincoln's boundaries.

The many legal boundary adjustments, clarifications, and redefinitions in both Virginia and West Virginia reflect the rapidly expanding population and often inadequate geographical knowledge that lay behind those changes. The laws frequently defined boundaries that ran along mountain ridges, between river systems, and to the "heads" of rivers or streams—directions too often vague and imprecise. Also, county boundaries often involved landmarks that cannot be identified today, e.g., the property of named individuals, roads, water fords, ferries, mills, and river landings. Finally, some boundaries were ephemeral, disappearing completely in later boundary changes and sometimes in existence for only a brief time. Judging by the many boundary disputes and the stated reasons for specific boundary changes, it also is apparent that many county boundaries were not surveyed or clearly marked. For these reasons, some historical county boundaries are unavoidably conjectural. Such lines are considered to be “estimated lines,” and are noted as such in the attribute table, but cannot be so marked on the Interactive Map.

Independent Cities in Virginia

The 1902 state constitution authorized the establishment of independent cities, a phenomenon found only in Virginia, Maryland, Missouri, and Nevada. Virginia created a total of forty-five independent cities, some of which have become extinct or reverted to town status. Initially, cities were divided into two classes: first-class cities (more than 10,000 population) were completely autonomous and operated in all respects like counties; second-class cities (5,000–10,000 population) had all the powers of first-class cities, except that they did not have a court system separate from the county in which they were located. Since 1902, most territorial changes between independent cities and counties have been gains by the cities from the counties. Conflict has developed between cities, which generally wished to expand, and counties, which wanted to protect and maintain their territory. Since the 1980s, additions to the Virginia Code have made it more difficult for independent cities to engage in hostile annexations of county territory, and the number of boundary changes had slowed, but not completely stopped, by 2000.

Mapping the independent cities creates special problems because the annexation process by which these cities expand principally is based on judicial rather than legislative proceedings, and the amount of land involved is often very small. There appears to be no single, comprehensive repository that recorded all independent city annexations, and the Atlas of Historical County Boundaries Project has gathered information from various sources. For annexations from 1902 to the mid-1960s, the compilers relied on Chester W. Bain’s, Annexation in Virginia (1966). Additional information was acquired from the U.S. Census Bureau, Virginia county and city officials, and from the Virginia Commission on Local Government, which is charged with developing “advisory reports on local boundary change and governmental transition issues for localities and the courts.” Despite these efforts, the compilers suspect there may be some omissions.


From the early years of Virginia’s existence, virtually all boundary changes were made by the legislature. The laws for the period 1619 (the meeting of the first legislature) through 1792 were collected by William W. Hening and published in thirteen volumes of Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia, from the First Session of the Legislature in the Year 1619 [to 1792]. Published in Richmond, 1819–1823, they have become a classic and a standard. Hening's pioneering work was continued by Samuel Shepherd, who carried the series through the 1807–1808 session. Some additional laws, not in Hening (or in Hening by title only), are printed in Morgan P. Robinson, Virginia Counties: Those Resulting from Virginia's Legislation (1916), and Waverly K. Winfree, ed., Laws of Virginia: Being a Supplement to Hening's Statutes at Large, 1700–1750 (1971). Hening does not include the dates of passage for laws approved before 1787; in this compilation those dates are taken from Robinson’s, Virginia Counties. Early laws related to counties now in Kentucky and West Virginia, but created by Virginia, are also included in Hening.

A number of secondary works were valuable in the compilation of Virginia and West Virginia county boundaries. Michael F. Doran, Atlas of County Boundary Changes in Virginia, 1634–1895 (1987), has maps, by decade; while Edgar B. Sims, Map of Present State of West Virginia (1954), has nine maps showing county boundary changes by decade, from 1769 to the present. Sims's Making a State (1956) has a valuable index and summary of county boundary changes in West Virginia, supplemented by ten maps (essentially the same maps as in his Map of Present State...). For background on the Virginia independent cities, see Chester W. Bain, Annexation in Virginia: The Use of the Judicial Process for Readjusting City-County Boundaries (1966), and Bain, "A Body Incorporate": The Evolution of City-State Separation in Virginia (1967). For parish boundaries, Charles Francis Cocke's three volumes are invaluable: Parish Lines: Diocese of Southwestern Virginia (1960); Parish Lines: Diocese of Southern Virginia (1964); and Parish Lines: Diocese of Virginia (1967).

Historical maps do not frequently play a large role in this sort of work. Occasionally they are indispensable for lost landmarks and names no longer in use, but seldom for interpretations of boundary descriptions. A useful modern source was the large-scale, up-to-date county map collection published by the Virginia Department of Transportation, County Road Map Atlas (1987). These maps are reliable compilations of the details of boundaries, roads, natural features, and other landmarks.


Every effort has been made to give the day, month, and year (e.g., 25 February 1785) for all county creations, boundary changes, and other events. Occasionally it is impossible to date an event so precisely, but a reasonable estimate is possible. When the precise date is not known or an approximate date is more appropriate, the date is generalized to the month and year (e.g., February 1785) or to the year alone. A lack of evidence may make it impossible to give any date at all for a county's creation, and its occurrence can only be confirmed by the record of a later, related happening, such as the appointment of a sheriff. In such a situation, the date of the later event is used with the simple addition of "by" (e.g., by 25 February 1785) to indicate that the county creation or other event occurred no later than that date and probably earlier. The dating standard used is the legally effective date of change, whether it be for the creation of a new county or for the alteration of lines between existing counties.

Dating events before 1752 is a problem because the calendar then in use is very different from the one in use today. Whereas by 1600 most of Europe had adopted the Gregorian calendar, as the modern system of reckoning the days is called, England observed the Julian calendar until 2 September 1752. Under the old Julian calendar the last day of the year was 24 March and the first day was 25 March, which means that in England and its colonies, including Virginia, the day after 24 March 1750 was 25 March 1751. In its databases this project uses the modern, Gregorian year for dates that fall within the period from 1 January through 24 March, because software cannot handle dual-year dates. But dual dates are cited in the text portion of an entry, since original documents may record the date according to the Julian calendar. Thus the date, 1 January 1735, may appear in the “Date” column of the attribute table and database, but the descriptive entry for that date would show the date as 1 January 1734/1735, indicating that people of the time still considered this date to be in the year 1734.


City and county officials, local historians, and librarians throughout Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky contributed to the completeness and accuracy of the data and maps by answering questions and providing maps and documents. For Virginia, special thanks go to: Professor Chester W. Bain, University of South Carolina, Columbia, for sharing his knowledge about the state's independent cities; Professor Warren R. Hofstra, Shenandoah College and Conservatory, Winchester, for excellent research on the Clarke/Warren boundary; Stuart Layne, Department of Transportation, Richmond, for providing historical maps of many independent cities; Ted McCormack, Commission on Local Government, Richmond, for providing valuable (and difficult to locate) data about the independent cities; and Minor T. Weisiger, Virginia State Library and Archives, Richmond, for providing copies of maps and county plats.

For answering specific questions about county boundaries and Virginia's independent cities, the compilers thank: John M. Altman, Jr., Director of Development, City of Hopewell; Janis C. Augustine, Salem Public Library; Lynwood L. Barbour, Director of Real Estate Assessment, Danville; Ruth G. Blevins, Giles County Historical Society; Malcolm A. Booker, Jr., Circuit Court, Buckingham County; Norma J. Duty, County Commission, Amelia County; Jimmy English, CBO, CPCA, City of Bedford; Lee Garman, City Planner, Danville; Kenneth C. Gillie, Jr., Director of Planning Division, City of Danville; Henry J. Jablonski, Board of Supervisors, Montgomery County; R. Glennwood Lookabill, Circuit Court, Pulaski County; Sandra V. Robertson, Pearisburg Public Library; Beckie Sparks, Cartographer, City of Radford; Gertrude Stead, Newport News Public Library System; and Stacy H. Turner, Director, Planning and Community Development, City of Harrisonburg. Finally, special thanks are due to the many independent city officials in Virginia (city planners, planning commissioners, and real estate assessors) who furnished maps of their cities and answered questions about the annexation process. They shed much light on a unique Virginia institution.

For West Virginia, thanks go to: David Armstrong, Elkins; Frederick H. Armstrong and Robert Taylor, Division of Culture and History, Charleston; Sandy Bumgardner, Upshur County Public Library; Brenda Dean, Wyoming County Commission; Rudolph D. Jennings, Mercer County Commission; Arlene Mossor, Assessor's Office, Ritchie County; Ed Rauh, Jackson County Library; Hettie A. Roush, Hamlin-Lincoln County Public Library; and Louella Stalnaker, Gilmer County Commission. For Kentucky, the compilers thank: J. Trace Kirkwood, The Filson Club, Louisville, and Anne McDonnell and Mary Winter, Kentucky Historical Society Library, Frankfort.