Accounts of historic survey offer glimpse of American colonial life

SHARON, Pa. -- Early accounts of an historic surveying expedition along the border between Virginia and North Carolina are the focus of a new book by Kevin Berland, associate professor of English and comparative literature at Penn State Shenango.  "The Dividing Line Histories of William Byrd II of Westover," a scholarly edition of narratives written by an early 18th century Virginian, provides a window for modern readers to view life in the English colonies.

Berland’s book, published by the University of North Carolina Press, is the product of a decade of research and presents Byrd’s two different accounts of a 1728 survey to determine and mark the border between Virginia and North Carolina.

“One of the two accounts of the exhibition, the ‘Secret History,’ was filled with jokes and scandals," said Berland. "This manuscript, which was never really meant to be published, was for private reading only.”

According to Berland, Byrd worked diligently on another, public version for 16 years, cultivating a sense of authority and scientific scope. Byrd intended to have “The History of the Dividing Line” published in London, confident it would bring him recognition as a political leader and contributor to scientific fieldwork. However, it was never completely finished and remained unpublished when he died in 1744.

Berland received permission to work with 18th century manuscripts in Virginia, Pennsylvania, California and at the British National Archives. During that time, he said, he realized his true passion for archival research.

Through his in-depth study and use of online resources, Berland discovered that Byrd added to his eyewitness account a wide range of material appropriated from earlier authors. Byrd employed these passages, Berland believes, to build a sense in his potential readers of respect for his expertise. In Byrd’s time it was not unusual for historians and travel-writers to “borrow” information, using past resources to improve the treatment of their subject.

“Using earlier authorities as raw material was very different from literary plagiarism as we know today,” Berland said.

In "The Dividing Line Histories," Berland describes Byrd’s writing as performance: “He writes as the narrator, creating a literary image of himself.” Byrd was concerned with impressing his readers as a highly cultured man, knowledgeable in the natural sciences, colonial politics and literature.

Berland’s edition of Byrd’s narratives crosses traditional boundaries of scholarship, combining history, literary studies, the history of science and medicine, and the history of authorship. Work on the project was supported by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Philosophical Society, the Gilder-Lehrman Institute for American History, the Library Company of Philadelphia, the Virginia Historical Society, the Rockefeller Library at Colonial Williamsburg and Penn State Shenango’s William P. McDowell Endowment.


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Last Updated January 09, 2015