Those of us researching roots in southwest Pennsylvania and adjacent sections of Ohio and West Virginia often find conflicting information on which state or colony some settlement was in. The following article explains the cause for the confusion.


A Short History

By Robert B. Van Atta
TRIBUNE-REVIEW Sunday, November 12, 2000
Reprinted with permission from the Tribune-Review, Greensburg, PA

Some 237 years ago this week, two English astronomers arrived in Philadelphia with their geodetic and other instruments to begin determination of the southern border of Pennsylvania. Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon worked for 58 months in plotting much of the line between this state and Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia (which included what is today West Virginia). However, that survey was not finally completed until 1782 by Col. Alexander McClean of Fayette County.

Mason and Dixon arrived Nov. 15, 1763, and by the time the line was accepted by Virginia, the task had consumed 23 years. During that interval, there were many major events caused by the border dispute, even a war. The boundary dispute dated as far back as 1681, generated by exploratory titles or grants, inadequate maps, geographic errors, and carelessness of English kings in making land grants. The 1681 date came from the charter granted that March to the Penns for a territory "between Maryland and New York." When that Penn charter was granted, Lord Baltimore (a titled member of the Calvert family of Maryland) was advised to confer with William Penn to establish a boundary. It was recognized that the grant language was geographically impossible in its descriptions. Conferences by their representatives went on for some time, with numerous ramifications and strategic actions by both colonies to strengthen their claims. Various actions were taken by English kings to try to spur settlement.

The situation was further complicated by changes in Maryland by Calvert family members and inconsistent inheritance provisions after William Penn's death. Taxes were difficult, if not impossible, to collect in the disputed area and border incidents increased, particularly with Virginia. A court case initiated in 1735 in England had a 1750 decision that was unrealistic from both survey and scientific standpoints. In 1760, as problems increased following start of southwestern Pennsylvania settlement, commissioners were appointed to see the survey through, but could not meet legal requirements.

As chaotic conditions persisted, the colonies' proprietors sought the aid of England's royal astronomer. The result was the appointment of Mason and Dixon. After their arrival in November 1763, they began a prescribed and quite scientific procedure for resolving the boundary. They slowly and thoroughly with their party surveyed westward until they reached Dunkard Creek, near later Mt. Morris in what became Greene County, at about the point where Interstate 79 today crosses the border with West Virginia. The Indian escort informed the group that the Indian chiefs' commission ended there, and in 1768 Mason and Dixon considered their work completed.

That work was not resumed until 1782, but the political aspects of the border dispute heated up. As other colonial problems and eventually the Revolution intervened, Virginia and Pennsylvania had major problems. Both had government and court systems in southwestern Pennsylvania. The same land, in many cases, was conveyed to two different owners by the two states after land grants in this portion of Pennsylvania became possible in 1769. Incidents involving the courts, including violence, were frequent in Westmoreland County after it was formed in 1773 to include all of southwestern Pennsylvania.

When in 1771 the king of England appointed John Murray, Earl of Dunmore, as Virginia governor, trouble accelerated. What was called Dunmore's War started in 1774 when the earl issued a proclamation asserting the claim of Virginia to all the territory west of the Laurel Hill mountainous area. Virginia's interest in the area had accelerated greatly from the Ohio Company's expansion of trade, beginning with Gist and Washington explorations. The effort stirred reaction from Gov. Penn, and a series of events that make it a chapter in history itself.

Dunmore dispatched a relative named John Connolly to enforce the earl's edict. Connolly raised militia forces, ostensibly to protect against Indians, but actually to advance Virginia's interests. They took brief possession of Fort Pitt, and changed its name to Fort Dunmore. Connolly was arrested by Westmoreland County officials and jailed at Hanna's Town, the county seat. Released after posting bail, he returned to Hanna's Town with 150 armed men, arrested some of the county justices, and took them to Virginia. The "bandit gang," as locals called the Virginians, cut a wide swath locally that summer of 1774. Justice Gen. Arthur St. Clair raised militia, built forts and blockhouses, and regained Fort Pitt.

Connolly returned that fall and released all Westmoreland prisoners, including two murderers, and arrested a Pennsylvania colonial official. The Continental Congress and others tried to work out a truce until borders could be definitively established. Because of the unrest, not many crops could be planted that summer, and a severe winter of 1774-75 caused more problems for area settlers.

At one time during the dispute, the governors of Pennsylvania and Virginia set up a meeting for their commissioners. The Pennsylvania members proposed for the western boundary a line to be drawn north from the end of Mason and Dixon's line, parallel to the winding eastern Delaware River border. Among other problems, this line would have left almost all of Washington County and substantial portions of those north and south in the Virginia Panhandle that became West Virginia. But Virginia refused the proposition, claiming that the western boundary line should be east of Pittsburgh.

The Revolutionary spirit against England developing in 1775 slowed the "war" down, but didn't stop it. In 1776, Virginia proposed a settlement that would have given that state much of Fayette, all of Greene, and substantial amounts to the north. This was rejected by Pennsylvania.

Finally, in 1782, McClean was appointed by the Pennsylvania Supreme Executive Council to finish the work, along with Virginia representatives. He had worked with the original Mason-Dixon party, and had resided briefly at Stoystown before moving to Fayette. That work was completed for both southern and western boundaries, and finally accepted by Virginia in 1786.

At times through the years, national historians have pointed out the importance of these and other actions in southwestern Pennsylvania history unrecognized for their importance in national history. Last month, the Westmoreland County Historical Society and University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg, with the help of others, initiated a program to advance that knowledge for both local residents and the proper place in national history.

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