William McMurry’s Cow Pasture River home, part 1

cowpastureriverpostcardWhile writing the last post, on the McMurry family’s migrations from Virginia to Kentucky in the late 1770s to early 1790s, I was somewhat vague about where they lived in Virginia. Other than one source—which states that William’s youngest son, Robert McMurry,was born in Fincastle on December 6, 1772—all of the sources I’ve seen state that William McMurry and his family lived on the Cow Pasture River. The location has been more specifically described as being on the lower Cow Pasture River and near a stream called McMurry Creek.

From what I’ve been able to learn so far, there is no tributary to (or anywhere near) Cow Pasture River that is still called anything like “McMurry Creek.” A distant cousin and fellow family historian, John Drye, has contacted the local history society for that area to see if they might have any insight into where McMurry Creek might have been, but he’s gotten no information so far. John suspects that the McMurry farm might have been in the area around Nicelytown, and that area is a leading candidate for me, too.

The Cow Pasture River is fairly long—just about 50 linear miles from source to mouth, but slightly over 80 miles as the river flows, because of the meandering nature of the river. It would be great to be able to be able to narrow down possible locations for the McMurry home along this river.

I’ve been reading through some excellent research notes by Don McMurray (a distant cousin), who’s spent much time, effort and money doing historical research on the McMurrys in Virginia, Northern Ireland, and elsewhere. In his notes were a couple of additional clues to the location of the McMurry property on the Cow Pasture River that made me think it might be possible to start narrowing down possible specific locations.

In his notes, Don McMurray stated,

The term “lower Cowpasture” was used in Court records to denote the area where the Cowpasture River flows into the Jackson River at Iron Gate, east of Clifton Forge, Va. The confluence of the two rivers is the headwaters of the James River.

Don also quite helpfully notes that William is on the Tax List and is shown as having 35 acres “in Capt. Beard [Baird]’s Company, assigned to the 27th Military District,” and then stated that,

Burton’s book [Botetourt County, Virginia, Its Men 1780–1786] contains a map showing the 23rd Company’s area as bounded on the south and west by the Jackson River, on the east by the Cowpasture River and on the north by the northern line of Botetourt Co. This means William [VA]’s land was on the west side of the Cowpasture River somewhere between the junction of the rivers [near Iron Gate] and about three miles north, where Burton’s sketch shows the river leaves Botetourt [he says “now Allegheny”] County.

So there are now several hints that may help shed light on the location of the William McMurry farm:

  • The land was in an area described as the “lower Cowpasture”
  • The land was near a creek (then called McMurry Creek)
  • The land was 20 acres (or more) in size
  • The land was a farm, so the land would have to be arable land
  • The land was on the west side of the Cow Pasture River
  • The land was within the modern county of Allegheny

Before going further, let’s take a look at the lower Cow Pasture River area. Modern counties of Virginia are shown on the aerial image below, as are a couple of roads that would have been in use during the time William McMurry lived in the area of the lower Cow Pasture River. The Great Philadelphia Wagon Road is highlighted in pink. The full extent of the Cow Pasture River is highlighted in dark blue on the image below. The locations of the villages of Fincastle and Clifton Forge are also shown.

Cow Pasture and FincastleBelow is a somewhat closer view of the full length of the Cow Pasture River:
Cow Pasture RiverThe image below shows just the lower portion of the Cow Pasture River:
Lower Cow Pasture RiverIf William McMurry was a farmer, he would have needed to have arable land on which he could till and plant crops. The alluvial plain of the Cow Pasture River would have afforded him just that. Given that the Cow Pasture River valley was a relatively sparsely populated area bordering on the frontier at that time, it seems natural that he would have chosen land that he could clear and plant with a minimum of unnecessary difficulty, such as the relatively narrow alluvial plain near the river, rather than the hilly, steeper land that formed the sides of the valley. Modern farmers have certainly followed this pattern of exploiting the easier-to-farm alluvial plains and have not tried to plant the steeper areas in the adjacent hills.

The image below (with vertical relief exaggerated by a factor of 3 to make it easier to visualize) shows the relatively narrow alluvial plain of the lower Cow Pasture River valley.

Cow Pasture valley topography

The next image shows the topography of the of the lower Cow Pasture River. Nicelytown is in the center of the image, and the modern county lines are shown in light green:

Lower Cow Pasture topographyOn the image below, I’ve outlined all of the arable land along the lower Cow Pasture River. Arable land on the west side of the river is highlighted in yellow, and arable land that is currently on the east side of the river, but which may have been on the west side of the river 250 years ago (due to shifts in the course of the river) is highlighted in tan:

Cow Pasture western land2There’s also the matter of the stream called McMurry Creek. Working on the assumption that the creek would have to have been an active tributary year-round (rather than simply a channel or canyon that had running water for only part of the year), I traced out all tributaries I could find in the lower Cow Pasture River area on the image below. Smaller creeks are highlighted with narrow light blue lines, and larger creeks are highlighted with wider light blue lines. I only traced the creeks part-way up their courses, figuring that the McMurry land would have been on or near the arable land closer to the river.

Cow Pasture western land and creeksThe Nicelytown area is in the center of the previous image and can be seen to have the largest area of arable land in the area, although I could find only one creek in that area, along the southern border of the arable land around Nicelytown.

John Drye tipped me off to two land patents (1769 and 1770) for William McMurry, and kindly supplied his transcriptions of these (below). I found another, earlier land patent for William McMurry dating to 1761, in the online catalog of the Library of Virginia, which I then transcribed. Scans of these three patents (courtesy of the Library of Virginia), as well as the transcriptions done by John and I, are presented below.

MicroForm

Patent granted William McMurry, 20 acres in Augusta Co., VA—14 Feb 1761

Source: Virginia Land Office Patents No. 31, 1756–1761, pp. 976–977

George the third (etc.) To all (etc.) Know ye that for the Consideration mentioned in an order of our trust and welbeloved William Gooch Esquire Late our Lieut Governor and Commander in Chief of our Colony and Dominion of Virginia in said Council of our said Colony Granted to John Robinson Esquire, James Wood Henry Robinson and John Lewis the twenty ninth day of October One Thousand Seven hundred and forty three We have Given Granted and Confirmed and by these Presents for us our heirs and successors Do Give Grant and Confirm unto William McMurry One Certain Tract or Parcel of Land Containing Twenty acres lying and being in the County of Augusta on a branch of the Cow Pasture River called Mcmurrys Creek and bounded as Followeth, to wit, Beginning at three white oaks and Running thence North Ten Degrees East twenty poles to two black oak saplings on a Hill North thirty Degrees West twenty two poles to three white Oaks South eighty eight Degrees West forty eight poles to a white and black Oak North fifty four Degrees West ninety two poles to a Hickory and white Oak North Thirteen Degrees West thirty poles to two white Oaks North fifty Degrees West fifty two poles to two white Oaks South Sixty four Degrees East One hundred and ninety eight poles to the Beginning With all (etc.) to have hold (etc.) To be held (etc.) Yielding and Paying (etc.) Provided (etc.) In Witness (etc.) Witness our Trusty and welbeloved Francis Fauquier Esquire our Lieutenant Governor and Commander in Chief of our said Colony and Dominion at Williamsburg Under the Seal of our said Colony the fourteenth Day of February One Thousand seven hundred and sixty one, in the First Year of our Reign

                                                                                                     Fran Fauquier


MicroFiche

MicroFiche

Patent granted William McMurry, 85 acres in Augusta Co., VA—6 Apr. 1769

Source: Virginia Land Office Patents No. 38, 1768–1770, pp. 595–596

George the Third (etc.) To all (etc.) Know ye that for divers good consideration and considerations but more especially for and in consideration of the sum of ten shillings of good and lawful money for our use paid to our Receiver General of our Revenues in this our Colony and Dominion of Virginia, we have granted and confirmed (etc.) by these presents for us our heirs and successors do give, grant and confirm unto William McMurry one certain tract or parcel of land containing eighty five acres lying and being in the County of Augusta on the main branch of James River and bounded as followeth, to wit, beginning at a white oak and black oak on the north bank of the river thence up the several courses of the river two hundred and eighty two poles to two white oaks on the river, north thirty degrees east twenty six poles to a poplar, south sixty degrees east one hundred poles to a white oak and hickory, north one hundred and sixty poles to two white oaks, east twenty four poles to the beginning, with all (etc.) to have, hold (etc.) to be held (etc.) yielding and paying (etc.) provided (etc.)  In witness (etc.). Witness our trusty and well beloved Norborne Baron de Botetourt our Lieutenant and Governor General of our said Colony and Dominion at Williamsburg under the seal of our said Colony the sixth day of April one thousand seven hundred and sixty nine, in the ninth year of our reign.

                                                                                                     Botetourt


MicroForm

Patent granted William McMurry, 11 acres in Augusta Co.,VA—27 Aug. 1770

Source: Virginia Land Office Patents No. 39, 1770–1771, pp. 170–171

George the Third (etc.) To all (etc.) Know ye that for divers good consideration and considerations but more especially for and in consideration of the sum of five shillings of good and lawful money for our use paid to our Receiver General of our Revenues in this our Colony and Dominion of Virginia, we have granted and confirmed and by these presents for us our heirs and successors do give, grant and confirm unto William McMurry one certain tract or parcel of land containing eleven acres lying and being in the County of Augusta on the north side of James River joining to his own land and bounded as followeth, to wit, beginning at two white oaks corner to his former survey and running with a line of the same north thirty degrees east thirty six poles to two black oaks on a spur, north seventy degrees east fifty six poles along the mountain to two pines, southwest thirty poles crossing a branch to two white oaks on the river, down the river sixty poles to the beginning, with all (etc.)  To have, hold (etc.) be held (etc.) yielding and paying (etc.) provided (etc.)  In witness (etc.)  Witness our trusty and well beloved Norborne Baron de Botetourt our Lieutenant and Governor General of our said Colony & Dominion at Williamsburg under the seal of our said Colony the twenty seventh day of August one thousand seven hundred and seventy in the tenth year of our reign.

                                                                                                     Botetourt


I wanted to sketch out the sizes and shapes of the three parcels to see if they might give additional clues as to where William’s land might have been. The three patents include good descriptions of each of the parcels (here, broken up to make them easier to understand):

1761 parcel

  1. Beginning at three white oaks and running thence
  2. north ten degrees east twenty poles to two black oak saplings on a hill
  3. north thirty degrees west twenty two poles to three white oaks
  4. south eighty eight degrees west forty eight poles to a white and black oak
  5. north fifty four degrees west ninety two poles to a hickory and white oak
  6. north thirteen degrees west thirty poles to two white oaks
  7. north fifty degrees west fifty two poles to two white oaks
  8. south sixty four degrees east one hundred and ninety eight poles to the beginning

1769 parcel

  1. beginning at a white oak and black oak on the north bank of the river
  2. thence up the several courses of the river two hundred and eighty two poles to two white oaks on the river
  3. north thirty degrees east twenty six poles to a poplar
  4. south sixty degrees east one hundred poles to a white oak and hickory
  5. north one hundred and sixty poles to two white oaks
  6. east twenty four poles to the beginning

1770 parcel

  1. beginning at two white oaks corner to his former survey and running with a line of the same north thirty degrees east thirty six poles to two black oaks on a spur
  2. north seventy degrees east fifty six poles along the mountain to two pines
  3. southwest thirty poles crossing a branch to two white oaks on the river
  4. down the river sixty poles to the beginning

Being able to interpret these parcel descriptions depends on:

  1. Knowing what a pole is (it’s 1/320th of a statute mile or 5½ yards)
  2. Being able to find the described trees and other natural features
  3. Understanding the intended meanings of the compass bearings being used

Is it possible that the described trees are still present?

Living in Northern California, where some of the most prominent species of trees live hundreds or even thousands of years, I was somewhat optimistic that I’d be able to spot the boundary marker trees mentioned in the patents above. Alas, according to the Average and Maximum Lifespan of Virginia Trees maintained by Virginia Tech, oak trees in Virginia typically tend to live only 100–300 years, but not more than 200–450 years. The one exception is the white oak, or Quercus alba, which averages 300 years and can live as long as 600 years. The white oak is one of the oak species named in the patents; the other is the black oak, which averages 100 years with a maximum age of 225 years.

The patents were written in 1761–1770, which was 243–252 years ago. The black oak mentioned in the patents would have died long ago (assuming it was already a mature tree in 1761–1770), but there’s a slim chance that the white oaks could have survived until today (assuming they weren’t chopped down in the intervening two centuries).

Poplars and hickories are also mentioned in the patents. According to the Average and Maximum Lifespan of Virginia Trees, balsam poplars live an average of 100 years (maximum 150 years) and yellow poplars have an average lifespan of 250 years (maximum 450 years). All three species of hickories live an average of 200 years (250 for the shagbark hickory), with a maximum lifespan of 300 years for all three species. As the poplars and hickory trees that were used as landmarks were probably mature trees at that time, they would have died a century or more ago, and are almost certainly no longer present on the landscape.

How should the compass bearings be interpreted?

What does “north thirty degrees east” mean? Does it mean 30° east of north or 30° north of east? Does “north” mean exactly north, or just in a more-or-less northerly direction?

This is where I’m stuck right now. I haven’t found a way to interpret the bearings that results in a closed polygon for any of the parcels. At this point, I think I need to find one or more mapped parcels from this period and region and compare their maps with their parcel descriptions to learn how to interpret the bearings.

Continued in part two of the series….

8 thoughts on “William McMurry’s Cow Pasture River home, part 1

  1. I can’t wait to read part 2! I’ve been wanting to start mapping out where my ancestors have lived. Haven’t had much time to do so, but William’s land was at the top my list!

    • I’m working on it now. It’s starting to appear that 18th-century surveyors weren’t nearly as exacting as their later counterparts.

  2. I have a bunch of documentation of these guys, have been looking it over this evening for the first time in about 30 years. I live in VA and go through that area a few times a year, probably should get back into it. Nice to see some new activity on this family. Are you the Michael who was working on the DNA project a few years ago?

    • Hi Dick,

      Pleased to make your acquaintance. I did have my DNA tested about a year ago, but I’m not the Michael who worked on the DNA project. I should see if I can find who that Michael was.

      I’m continually surprised these days by how (relatively) active the McMurry genealogical circles are. I’ve only recently tried to peer into the lives of the early 19th century and late 18th century McMurrys, and I’m really heartened to see so many people sharing my interest. I’d headed to bed now, but we should compare notes at some point soon.

      Thanks for stopping by,

      Michael

  3. I have researched the Mayse, Lewis and Hicklin families on the Cowpasture for years and occasionally check to see if new data has been posted on the internet. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you plotting the location of the landowners on the Cowpasture. In return, I thought I would see if I could give you an assist in finding McMurray’s creek. Here is something that might be helpful: In 1762 Jacob Persinger Sr. married Catherine Pence, widow of Jacob Pence, and is believed to have moved to McMurray’s Creek, a branch of the Cowpasture River, north & east of Clifton Forge, Va. Jacob Sr. bought 20a. on McMurray’s Creek in 1770; 44a. on Wilson’s Creek in 1771 and sold it in 1775; He was appointed overseer from the county line by Cowpasture to the Red Hill in 1770. In 1770, a committee reported it was impossible to establish a road from Jacob Persinger’s to the forks of Dunlap Creek (from a topographic map study, it was concluded that the Jacob Persinger place was east of Beard’s or Little Middle Mtn., hence a road from there across Warm Spring Mtn. appeared unrealistic. Jacob must have found and crossed the mountain at McGraw’s Gap because he had 115 acres surveyed at the mouth of IndianDraft, a branch of the James, in 1767.

    • Susan,

      Thanks for the new hints—just what I need to spur me back into research for the new year. I hope to be able to fold these new clues in this weekend, and hopefully that’ll take us closer to learning who lived where, exactly, in the 18th Century Cowpasture River valley.

      Thanks so much for stopping by and letting me know what you know!

      Michael

  4. Thank you for your research for William McMurry (McMurray)
    My proven 4th ggfather is Samuel McMurry (McMurray) and I show his father is William McMurry. Is this the same William that you are researching? On one of your maps you show William McMurry bordering William McMurry. I show my William McMurry was Scotch-Irish but came to SW Virginia from Pennsylvania.

    Direct link to what I have on William McMurry is
    http://rylandscott.com/cRyS-o/g2/p1273.htm#i1273

    Any help you can give me would be appreciated.

    Have a blessed week
    Ryland

    • Hi Ryland,

      Sorry for the delay in responding. This one’s a real puzzler. From a cursory once-over of your work, it seems that we’re both referring to many of the same pieces of evidence for each of our William McMurrys. The one big difference is that I have no son Samuel in my records. Samuel’s birth comes during a long lull in children in my records (from John’s birth in 1752 to Thomas’ birth in 1765), so it’s plausible that Samuel is a son of William McMurry the younger. I can’t find any evidence in my records to substantiate Samuel, but then again my records for William are woefully thin. It sure would be nice to find his will to help clarify his children’s names.

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