William Churton (fl. 1749-1767)North Carolina Cartographer, Part 1

Although William Churton (fl. 1749-1767) was a major contributor to several of the most important colonial American maps, his contributions were not acknowledged, and his name has been virtually lost to history. Born in England, virtually nothing is known of his background and early history, except that he probably was a native of London with family roots in Gloucestershire. He arrived in the American colonies in the 1740s as a trained surveyor attached to the Granville Land Office in Edenton. In addition to pioneering as a surveyor and cartographer for the Granville District, he served as a colonial official of Orange County and Childsburgh, which later was renamed Hillsborough in honor of the Earl of Hillsborough, and he was also member for Orange County in the colonial legislature of North Carolina.


No Acknowledgement of Churton's Contribution
Daniel Weldon, a Crown lawyer, and William Churton were appointed in 1749 as its two commissioners for North Carolina. Together with Virginia's commissioners Joshua Fry and Peter Jefferson, who had been appointed by Acting Governor Lewis Burwell, they extended the existing Virginia-North Carolina boundary line 90 miles westward beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains as far as Steep Rock Creek. It was probably during this period that Churton supplied the topographical information relating to the Granville District to Fry and Jefferson which they later included in their map in 1751. The second edition of the Fry and Jefferson map, published in 1755, contained significant additions in detail, particularly in the vast area of the survey of which Churton had just surveyed for the Moravians. However, no acknowledgment of Churton's contribution was made in either edition.

Between August 1752 and January 1753 Churton accompanied Bishop August Gottlieb Spangenburg and a party of five Moravians from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania in another arduous expedition to the mountainous western lands in the "Blue Mountains" to the east coast of North Carolina to survey tracts that totaled 98,925 acres which the Moravians purchased from Lord Granville. Bishop Spangenburg (1704-1792) was a son of George Spangenburg, Lutheran pastor of Klettenberg-Hohenstein, Germany. He emigrated to the American colonies in 1735 with Swiss colonists and as head of the American branch of the Unitas Fratrum subsequently became the driving force for the Moravians in America. Churton was mentioned frequently in the Spangenburg Diary and other Moravian records, in which he is characterized as a surveyor who was "certainly a reasonable man," and "excessively scrupulous." The tract was named Wachau or Wachovia, for the ancestral home of the Zinzendorf family of their early church leader near the Wach River. The first settlers came from Pennsylvania and arrived in November 1753, consisting of eleven single men selected to provide the skills necessary to establish a new community. Four others who had accompanied them on their journey returned to Pennsylvania soon after. Additional settlers began to arrive in 1754 and 1755 including the first women.

Diary Excerpt
A particularly interesting entry in the Diary of Bishop Spangenburg related to Moravian settlements in North Carolina:

It is important that I should mention certain things about surveying in North Carolina which will affect all the tracts we may take up.

The surveyors have strict orders from Lord Granville's agent to run lines only north and south, east and west. The agent may have reasons for this which seem to him sufficiently important, and it may be practicable in the eastern counties where there are no hills, or only very small ones, but here it is quite different, and often inconvenient. If a strip of land lies north-west and south-east I have to include corners of land to finish out the north and south lines, even when the land is not worth a heller [a small German coin worth one half cent]. I have spoken much about this to the surveyor, Mr. William Churton, an otherwise tractable man, but he insists that these are his orders and that he dare not disobey them. The only thing he will do is to make offsets in the lines where too much barren land would be included.
When the [Moravian] Brethren come they would find it useful to employ the hunters, whom we have with us to carry the chains and to furnish us with game. These men could conduct them to this and other tracts, and show them where our land lies …

In the third place, I would mention that ordinarily our surveyor measures and marks only three sides of a tract. He considers it unnecessary to run the fourth side, and says it is here a lawful survey when only three sides have been measured. That the Brethren who come here may understand this, and not give themselves useless trouble seeking the unmarked trees, I will report for each tract which side is not marked, and indicate it on the map.

In the fourth place I would say that our surveyor has been very unwilling to measure out small pieces of land for us . . . In the Warrant from Lord Granville it is stated that we are to pay £3 Sterling for the survey of each 5000 acres. He interprets that to mean that we must take tracts of that size … We would be only too glad if that were possible, but here at the edge of the mountains we could only do it by including many, and often barren, hills … .

Although Churton had been appointed in 1752 as the first public register of Orange County, he did not actually qualify until the 12 June court, because he had been absent so much of the time on surveying expeditions. In 1753, Churton and Richard Vigers were granted 635 acres to hold in trust for the establishment of Salisbury, and in June 1754, Churton was granted 663 acres to hold in trust for Francis Corbin to establish a township on the north bank of the Eno River. The township was successively named Orange, Corbinton, Childsburgh and eventually Hillsborough. A number of one-acre lots of the new town were staked out. Assisting Churton was a surveyor named Enoch Lewis and the Quaker surveyor James Taylor also may have worked with him.

About the Author

  • Silvio A. Bedini
    Silvio A. Bedini
    Silvio A. Bedini was a Smithsonian Institution historian who specialized in the history of scientific instruments and mathematical practitioners. A former deputy of the National Museum of American History, he has authored over 20 books and was Historian Emeritus with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. He was also a contributing author at the magazine for many years.

» Back to our July/August 2001 Issue

Website design and hosting provided by 270net Technologies in Frederick, Maryland.