William Churton (fl. 1749-1767) North Carolina Cartographer, Part 2

William Churton (fl. 1749-1767) was an English trained surveyor who emigrated to the American colonies in the 1740s employed by the Granville Land Office in Edenton, North Carolina. In addition to his work for the Land Office, Churton also served as a commissioner for North Carolina in extending the boundary with Virginia in 1749, surveyed tracts of land for the Moravians, and was appointed public register of Orange County.


Held Many Positions in Community
From 1757 until his death Churton was a permanent resident of Childsburgh. During the next few years, until 1763, he occupied the post of register but in actuality a deputy register, William Reed, served in his place. Churton was a representative to the colonial legislature from Orange for some eight years, from 1754 to 1762, and he also served as town commissioner of the newly incorporated town of Childsburgh from 1759 until his death in 1767. Churton was also officially appointed surveyor of Orange County in 1757 and served as justice of the peace after 1757.

In 1759 Churton received four one-acre lots by legislative grant "in Consideration of the many Services he hath performed for the Inhabitants of the said Town, and his Labour, Expence and Pains in laying out the said Town." This gift of land was reaffirmed in the 1766 legislative bill renaming the town Hillsborough to honor the Earl of Hillsborough. The lower portion of the street running north and south near Churton's lots had apparently been named Churton Street even before 1759.

The area described as the Metcalf Lands consisted of 20 tracts totaling between eleven and twelve thousand acres scattered along the water courses of Rowan and Orange Counties. In 1762 the Earl of Granville had granted these tracts of land to his surveyor general, Churton, who in turn sold them to an English Moravian named Charles Metcalf. Portions were sold by Metcalf to various individuals, and by 1780 the land had become the property of the Moravian Unitas Fratrum.

It had been noted in an entry for September 1752 in the Spangenburg Diary that there was a great need for "a general surveyor's map of the Granville District." It appears that Churton was engaged from 1757 on the production of just such a topographical map of the Province of North Carolina, which he showed to the Governor Tryon. He personally had not surveyed the southern and coastal areas, however, and had relied for this data upon available "information and old maps" that he had collected. The northern half was based on almost twenty years of Churton's work. In November 1766 Governor Tryon laid the finished Churton map before the General Assembly, which allowed Churton the handsome gratuity of £155 Prov. towards having it printed in England. Tryon further assured Churton that if he would endeavor "to complete and make perfect the southern and maritime parts of the province," he should, with Tryon's approval, take the map with him to England and there present it to the Board of Trade.

When Churton began actively surveying the coastal regions in 1767, he discovered that the lower part of his map, which he had drawn based upon secondary sources, was so defective that he "condemned and cut off that section." During that year he made several journeys into the southern region of the seaboard to correct errors he had noted in the old maps he had used for making that part of the map. While in the field engaged upon these maritime surveys, he informed Governor Tryon that in the event that some accident should befall him, he was leaving the map to the governor. In December of the same year Churton died unexpectedly, and the map, as far as he had progressed, was left to Governor Tryon. Of the manuscript map left by Churton, Tryon said, "I am inclined to think there is not so perfect a draft of so extensive an interior country in any other colony in America."

Churton Goes Unrecognized
In October 1768 Tryon wrote to the Earl of Hillsborough in England, stating that he had commissioned Captain John Collet, commandant of Fort Johnston on the Cape Fear River, to continue the work on the map. Collet had redrawn it from Churton's charts, and was taking it to England to submit it to His Majesty with the hope of having it printed. Tryon noted that the lower part of the map was still not satisfactory, however, and he suggested that Collet be commissioned to return to make the additional surveys that were required. It does not appear that this was done, nor whether the map was printed as drawn. Collet published the map in London in 1770. The map, titled "A Compleat MAP of NORTH CAROLINA from an actual survey of Capn Collet," measures 3 feet 8 inches by 2 feet 7 inches. Featured in an elaborate design in the lower right hand corner are the English coat of arms, and figures of an Indian, a wildcat, and an alligator. It bears the inscription "To His Most Excellent Majesty George III, King of Great Britain, [etc.]. This Map is most humbly dedicated by His Majesty's most humble obedient and dutiful Subject, John Collet."

Churton's last will and testament was probated in January 1768. He had left six of his Hillsborough town lots as well as another tract of land to four London heirs. The remainder of his estate, including his papers, went to Edmund Fanning. Although Churton was as much responsible as anyone in his time for extending knowledge of North Carolina's interior, his name does not appear as the author of any published map. The entire length of Hillsborough's north south street, now its main street, was eventually renamed "Churton Street," and apparently is the only memorial in North Carolina to the Granville surveyor whose important early cartographic contributions have been virtually unacknowledged.

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.

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