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Mason-Dixon Line

posted Apr 23, 2010, 5:44 PM by James Wise   [ updated Sep 2, 2010, 10:12 AM by Travis Wise ]

MASON and DIXON'S LINE This is a locality, marking a boundary line between Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia, much referred to in modern times by political disputants, and but little understood by the mass of the people. It refers to a line of division between those states, run and settled as such, by Mason and Dixon, two English surveyors who run and determined it in the year 1761. Previous to that time, it was a subject of frequent controversy and hard feelings for many years, between William Penn and Lord Baltimore and their several successors, from the time of the grant of Pennsylvania to William Penn in 1680. The king of England made his grant of Pennsylvania to William Penn in 1680, beginning at the 40th degree of north latitude up to the 42d degree -- bounded by the Delaware on the east, and to extend westward five degrees of longitude. On the south a previous grant had been made to Lord Baltimore in 1632, including ALL of the 40th degree as far west as the meridian of the "first fountain" of the River Potomac, which made the five degrees of west longitude to extend beyond the meridian of the Potomac. William Penn conceded the width of a degree to Lord Baltimore as the older grantee, but claimed that portion west of his meridian, down to the completion of the 39th degree of latitude, five degrees long, and from thence in a line parallel with the River Delaware in all its meanders, to the 42d parallel of latitude. Virginia, meanwhile, claimed that the western boundary of Pennsylvania should be a parallel of five degrees west of the River Delaware, where the 42d parallel cut that stream. This involved, as the great subject of controversy, the right to Fort Pitt, which had been garrisoned by Virginia as its own domain, in 1752. Their ensign and his command of forty men were there captured by the French, and then they in turn were made prisoners by General Forbes acting for the British government, in 1758. It was afterwards evacuated and stood defenceless until the year 1773; when John Conally, acting under Lord Dunmore, as the governor of Virginia, took possession. Conally was arrested as a trespasser by Arthur St. Clair, (afterwards a general) then a justice of the peace for Westmoreland county. Lord Dunmore, the governor, then contended that Pittsburg was fifty miles within the colony of Virginia, to which the Ohio country was supposed to belong. On the other hand, the governor of Pennsylvania proved, by surveys, that it was six miles within the five degrees of longitude from the River Delaware, due east from the fort. Conally, who had given his bond to the court, being released on bail, returned to the court at its sitting on 5th April 1774; but to their surprise, brought with him 150 armed men, and actually broke up the court ! Troops were thereupon raised, and mutual arrests, and releases by force, ensued for a time. But after much mutual recrimination, a line was agreed upon by commissioners fixing it as it now stands. The Maryland line was produced to five degrees of longitude, measured upon that parallel, being 30† 43' 42' north, and for the west line of Pennsylvania, a meridian of longitude was drawn to Lake Erie. If William Penn's construction of the grant to him had been adopted, the state of Ohio would have approached within six miles of Pittsburg. To those who are minutely curious on the subject, there is a lengthened memoir by James Dunlop, Esq., published in the papers of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, which they may consult with profit. See, also, the case as stated by W. Murray, of 1737, reprinted in Hazard's Register, vol. ii., page 200, in 4 pages royal 8vo. Lord Baltimore alleged that the 40th degree of north latitude had been ascertained, and part of the line run in 1681, in pursuance of a letter of the king; but Penn denied that any such line had been ascertained. The claims of Maryland were asserted with continued acrimony, violence and occasional bloodshed, until they were finally abandoned in 1760, by the mutual agreement of the parties. The original parties had two personal interviews in America but with no satisfaction to either of them. At length, in 1685, one important step was taken by a decision of King James' council, which ordered "that for avoiding further differences, the land lying between the bay of Delaware, and the eastern sea on the other side, and the Chesapeake bay on the other, be divided into equal parts, by a line from Cape Henlopen to the 40th degree of north latitude". Mutual agreements were made between the successors or heirs of the parties, on the 10th May 1732. By this celebrated agreement it was determined, that a semicircle should be drawn at twelve miles around New Castle; -- that an east and west line should be drawn beginning at Cape Henlopen, (Cape Cornelius) and to run westward to the exact middle of the peninsula; and thence northward, so as to form a tangent with the periphery of the semicircle at New Castle, drawn with the radius of twelve English miles; and that from such semicircle, it should be run further northward, until it reached the same latitude as fifteen English miles due south of the city of Philadelphia; -- and from the northern point of such line, a due west line should be run across the Susquehanna river and twenty-five miles beyond it, and to the western limits of Pennsylvania, when occasion, and the improvements of the country, should require it. This agreement, however, became the subject of much after litigation and cavil, as may be frequently noticed on the records of the Minutes of Council, if consulted. The Penns were evidently gainers by the agreement, inasmuch as they made no concession of territory; and but for it the Maryland claim would have reached so far as to cover several parts of the present counties of Philadelphia, Chester, Lancaster, York, Adams, Franklin, Bedford, Somerset, Fayette and Greene. Finally, the matter in dispute, went into Chancery and was not decided until 1750, when the lord chancellor decreed a performance of the articles of agreement as being their best guide and foundation as a measure before fixed by themselves. Some subsequent cavil however ensued -- when finally, Frederick, Lord Baltimore, tired of the litigation, entered into articles of agreement with Thomas and Richard Penn in 1760, which at length effectually closed all further altercation and dispute. In consequence of such agreement, Jeremiah Dixon and Charles Mason were appointed to run the unfinished line in 1761; and they extended the western line between the two provinces 230 miles, marking 130 miles of the same by stone pillars. It was called in subsequent history "Mason and Dixon's line" to distinguish it from the "Temporary line", so called, -- run in 1739. In the controversy, it is seen, that William Penn and his successors manifested the most tact and patience -- by which they eventually made the best of the bargain. Some of the original papers in these matters are not now to be found, but the facts in the case are admitted in our courts, as evidence without proof. To our forefathers, the controversy, while it lasted, was as stirring and exciting as a state of actual war on a small scale. Source: Watson's Annals of Philadelphia And Pennsylvania, 1857