William McMurry’s Cow Pasture River home, part 2

In part 1 of this series, I explored the available evidence for clues as to where William McMurry and his family settled on the Cow Pasture River in what is now western Virginia in the late 1750s to early 1770s (and probably beyond). I ended that post with an uncertainty as to how to interpret the surveyors’ bearings on three of William McMurry’s land patents.

The surveyors used the metes and bounds method of describing parcels of land, in which the perimeter of the parcel is described using distances and directions. To express direction, the surveyors had used statements such as “south eighty eight degrees west,” and every way I interpreted those bearings resulted in an unclosed polygon. To proceed, I had to first figure out how the surveyors had intended those bearings to be read.

In looking for insight, I found a great body of research called Genealogy of the Berry and Associated Families, by Jim Jackson and Carol Vass (last revised November 11, 2013). In it, they show how such bearings should be interpreted, and they present several worked examples of parcel reconstruction. With this help, I learned that bearings such as “south eighty eight degrees west” were meant to be read as 88° west of due south. Below is an illustration I made to help make these older style of bearings more understandable:


With this resolved, I now have all the prerequisites to be able to interpret the William McMurry parcel descriptions:

  1. Knowing what a pole is (it’s 1/320th of a statute mile or 5½ yards);
  2. Knowing which described trees and other natural landmarks might still be present on the landscape;
  3. Understanding the intended meanings of the compass bearings that were used.

With that, I reviewed the parcel description and went ahead and mapped out the three parcels from these descriptions:

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

1770-parcel-literal Well, at least one of these descriptions results in an almost-closed polygon. As for the other two… yikes. Either something is wrong with the parcel descriptions, with the transcriptions of the descriptions, or with the interpretations of these transcriptions—or perhaps these parcel maps were meant to be rendered in n-dimensional hyperspace. I think we can safely rule out the latter. I’ve double-checked the transcriptions, so that leaves just errors in the parcel descriptions and incorrect interpretations of the transcriptions. I think both of these factors may be in play in the above illustrations.

In reviewing the figures presented in Genealogy of the Berry and Associated Families, it became clear that geometrically impossible parcel descriptions were not at all uncommon at that time and in that same general area of western Virginia. In their Berry research, Jackson and Vass present a method for reconstructing a parcel by finding the best fit configuration of several adjacent parcels. Figures 47 and 48 from the Berry genealogy are reproduced below with permission from the authors to illustrate a best-fit reconstruction of adjacent parcels: Jackson Berry Fig 47 best fitting of parcels Jackson Berry Fig 48 best fitting of parcels So, imprecise and/or inaccurate parcel descriptions may well be responsible for some/much of the messiness of my initial parcel reconstructions, especially for the 1761 parcel description, which left no room for interpretation.

The 1769 and 1770 parcels, however, leave room for interpretation, and some of the errors in my initial parcel reconstructions may be due to my misinterpreting the somewhat vague directions ‘upriver’ (“up the several courses of the river”, 1769) and “downriver” (1770). Why did the surveyors use these imprecise terms instead of the more usual compass bearings? I suspect it is because the corresponding segments weren’t actually linear, but instead changed directions many times to stay parallel to the river and thus didn’t have a single direction.

Without knowing (yet) where on the Cow Pasture River these parcels were located, I don’t know exactly which directions were implied by “upriver” and “downriver.” For sake of example only, here are two ways that incorporating a hypothetical curvilinear river course into one leg of each of the 1769 and 1770 parcel descriptions could result in both parcels being both true to their descriptions and still resulting in closed polygons:

1769-parcel-nonlinear1770-parcel-nonlinear While drawing the “upriver” and “downriver” legs as curvilinear features gets these maps to agree, at least nominally, with the original parcel descriptions, it creates a new problem for the 1769 parcel map. The first, “upriver,” leg of the parcel description is now running almost due south and then making a sharp turn to run northwest. This means that it would have to be located at a point where the Cow Pasture River flows southeast and then turns sharply to flow almost due north. No area of the current river follows that pattern, although five areas come moderately close (identified by stars on the map below):

Northern flows

Only two of these incidences of nearly reversed flow direction exist within the lower Cow Pasture River region—one is about one mile north of Nicelytown, and the other is about four and a half miles south of Nicelytown.

Before proceeding with the assumption that the revised, reconstructed map of the 1769 parcel is correct and that we need to look for an area where the river flows in an almost reversed direction, let’s compare the 1769 parcel map with the 1770 parcel map.

Both parcels share a corner (marked by two white oaks) and the direction of a line that joins that corner. There are only two corners marked by two white oaks on the 1769 map, and only one anchors a line with the same direction on both maps. Lining up the two parcel maps, we can see that something is quite wrong: conjoined-parcels-overlapping As you can see, the two parcels overlap, the river is in two different places, and it’s clear that my reconstruction of the 1769 parcel is fundamentally wrong. Somewhere along the line, one or more errors have crept into the process and made a mess of the parcel description.

If you can see a way to interpret these parcel descriptions that results in neighboring parcels that can co-exist, please let me know in the comments.

Taking a different approach

Since I’m at a bit of a dead-end with trying to reconstruct the William McMurry parcels on their own, I’ll try to take more of a best-fit approach using neighboring parcels. The first thing I need to do is figure out who William’s neighbors were. The Chronicles of the Scotch-Irish settlement of VA (on pages 450–451) contains a transcription of a processioning document from the August County, Virginia, court records, dated October 12, 1765. This document states:

Page 405.–12th October, 1765: As it has pleased your Worships to send an order to nominate four Persons in the Cow Pasture to mark the lines of the Several plantations there, we the subscribers, hereof, have gone from the Forks at James River upwards to Joseph Mays (Maes) and Thomas Feemster and William Black, from there to the head of the waters. There is many places that there is no livers in and others that doth not know their lines. The names of such as we found their lines are as follows: James Scott, William Gillespy, John Handly, Wm. McMurry, James Beard, Cap. Jno. Dickinson, James Hamilton, Ralf Laferty, John Cartmill, James Hugart, Robert Stewart, James McCay, Charles Donelly, Thomas Gillespy. James McCay, James Scott. N. B.–The above is as exact as we could make it to ye Worshipful Court.

A slightly different transcription is presented by Oren Frederic Morton on page 65 of his Annals of Bath County, Virginia, published in 1917:

Annals of Bath County Oren Frederic Morton 1904

Combined, these transcriptions make it clear that William McMurry’s land-owning neighbors were (as of October 12, 1765):

  • Joseph Mays/Mayse/Maes—nearest the fork of the James/Jackson/Cow Pasture Rivers
  • Thomas Feemster/Feamster and William Black—next nearest to the fork
  • James Scott
  • William Gillespie/Gillespy
  • John Handly
  • William McMurry/McMurray
  • James Beard
  • Cap. Jno./John Dickinson/Dickenson
  • James Hamilton
  • Ralf/Ralph Laferty/Laverty
  • John Cartmill
  • James Hugart/Hughart
  • Robert Stewart/Stuart
  • James McCay
  • Charles Donelly/Donally
  • Thomas Gillespie/Gillespy

I was only able to find parcel descriptions for four of his listed neighbors—three from the early 1760s, and one from the late 1780s. I transcribed the parcel description portions of their patents below (the dates given are the patent dates):

Joseph Mays (1761-02-14), 182 acres: “beginning at a sugar tree and hickory on the east side of the river and running thence south eighty seven degrees east ninety six poles to a white oak and walnut, thence north east thirty poles to a walnut and hickory on the bank of the river thence down the river north twenty three degrees west one hundred and four poles crossing the same to a double beech on the west side of the river further the same course sixty six poles to a white walnut and sugar tree thence south sixty four degrees west seventy poles to two white oaks thence south forty degrees west one hundred and sixty poles to two white oaks saplings thence south eight degrees east ninety two poles crossing the river to the beginning”

William Gillespie (1761-02-14), 320 acres: “beginning on the north side of the river opposite to a steep mountain at a poplar gum and white oak and running thence north ten degrees west two hundred and twenty two poles to three pines thence north twenty two degrees west one hundred and sixty eight poles to two white oaks north one degree and an half east two hundred and fifty four poles to two pines on the point of a hill above a run north seventy five degrees east sixty poles to two pines between the mouth of a run and the river thence down the several courses of the river to the beginning”

Ralph Laverty (1788-12-04), 45 acres: “beginning at a black oak and hickory on the top of a hill near a sinkhole and thence south thirty degrees west one hundred forty four poles along near the top of the hill to a black oak, south eighty two degrees west twenty six poles crossing the hill to a white oak north seventy degrees west forty poles to a pine on the side of a hill and along the same north thirty six degrees east one hundred fifty six poles to two pines south seventy seven degrees east forty two poles crossing the end of a hill to the beginning”

John Cartmill (1760-09-26), 300 acres: “beginning at three hickories on the east side of the river above Lafertys Gap and running thence up the several courses of the river north eighty five degrees west forty four poles north sixty degrees west one hundred and twenty poles north fifty degrees west one hundred and eighteen poles north fifteen degrees east fifty six poles north eighty degrees east sixty two poles to two sycamore trees on the river bank thence south east sixty two poles north east six poles crossing the river south east forty six poles north east six poles to two lynns at the foot of a hill near the river south twenty degrees east sixty two poles to two white oaks south seventy three degrees east one hundred and ten poles to two pines south sixty nine degrees east one hundred and seventy poles to a hickory and two dogwoods on the east side of the Indian Draft thence one hundred and fifty four poles to the beginning”

Alas, there’s not enough information (at least, not yet) to do a best fit of neighboring parcels, as the patents don’t make it clear who borders whom, and on which side(s) (if, indeed, any of these parcels were actually adjacent). What was present, however, were two named landmarks—Laferty’s Gap and Indian Draft. If I could locate these landmarks, I could narrow in on a more specific location for at least one of William McMurry’s named neighbors.

Indian Draft appears to have been a trail segment that ran for a little over 10 miles from just north of the mouth of Stuart’s Run, paralleling Stuart’s Run for most of its length, and then heading northwest to ford the Cow Pasture River a short distance upriver from Fort Lewis. I could not definitely locate Laferty’s Gap, but I believe it was named after Ralph Laverty, and that it was located about 1–1¼ miles upstream from the mouth of Stuart’s Run, where Stuart’s Run cuts through an unnamed ridge that is the southwest continuation of Chestnut Ridge.

Both of these named features are located in the lower portions of Stuart’s Run, the mouth of which is located 28.6 miles upstream from (=12.4 linear miles northeast of) Nicelytown. That’s quite a bit further north than I would have expected for William’s neighbors, but still well within the southern (lower) end of the Cow Pasture River. This area was part of the Dickenson settlement.

According to Oren Frederic Morton on page 36 of his Annals of Bath County, Virginia,

The Dickenson settlement may be considered as extending along the Cowpasture from the gorge below Fort Lewis into the bend at Griffith’s Knob, and as including the lower course of Stuart’s Creek and the occupied part of Porter’s Mill Creek. The more conspicuous of the earlier names associated with this belt are Abercrombie, Beard, Clendennin, Coffey, Crockett, Daugherty, Dickenson, Donally, Douglass, Gay, Gillispie, Graham, Hicklin, Insminger, Kelso, Kincaid, Laverty, Madison, Mayse, McCay, McClung, McDannald, Millroy, Mitchell, Muldrock, O’Hara, Porter, Ramsey, Scott, Simpson, Sitlington, Sloan, Stuart, Thompson, Waddell, Walker, Watson.

Visible among this list of names are the names of many of William McMurry’s neighbors: Beard, Dickenson, Donally, Gillispie, Laverty, Mayse, McCay, Scott, and Stuart. In fact, the only neighbors not listed by Morton as being among the more “conspicuous” residents of this area were: Black, Cartmill, Feemster, Hamilton, Handly, and Hugart.

Morton mentions another Cow Pasture River settlement on page 36 of his Annals of Bath County, Virginia,

The Fort Lewis settlement began a little above the mouth of Thompson’s Creek and extended up the Cowpasture to Laurel Gap. Here we find the names, Benson, Black, Cartmill, Cowardin, Dickey, Feamster, Francisco, Frame, Hall, Hughart, Jackson, Knox, Lewis, Mayse, McCreery, Miller, Montgomery, Moody, Moore, Wallace.

With at least 9–10 of his 16 neighbors listed as living in the Dickenson settlement, and at least 4 of the remaining 6–7 neighbors (Black, Cartmill, Feamster, and Hughart) listed as living in the Fort Lewis settlement, it seems probable that William McMurry lived in a location that was close to (on within) these two settlements. Originally having only 20 acres to his name, William McMurry was apparently not considered “conspicuous” enough to enumerate among the named residents.

From the sparse descriptions in Morton (1917), I’ve estimated the extents of these two settlements. First, the Dickenson settlement (Indian Draft is shown as a light yellow line):

Dickenson Settlement

It’s not entirely clear where “the gorge below Fort Lewis” that Morton refers to is located, but there is a rather narrow gorge about four miles south of Fort Lewis, so I used that as the tentative northern boundary of the Dickenson settlement. “Into the bend at Griffith’s Knob” is also not entirely clear, so I’ve extended the boundaries to the most distant bend near Griffith’s Knob.

My best estimate for the extent of the Fort Lewis settlement is shown below:

Fort Lewis Settlement

The mouth of Thompson Creek is fairly unambiguous, although the only Thompson Creek I could find was well into the area I had previously outlined as the Dickenson settlement. I could not find a ‘Laurel Gap’ on any old documents or maps, so I continued searching upriver until I came to the first feature that could be considered a gap, and called that the northern boundary of my estimate of the extent of the Fort Lewis settlement.

In the images below, the brighter green area marks the overlap of my estimates of the extents of the two settlements. Based on his having neighbors in both settlements, I’d guess he lived somewhere in the northern portions of the Dickenson settlement or in the southern portions of the Fort Lewis settlement.
Betwixt settlements wide Betwixt settlements closerUsing the information supplied by Morton on pages 27–35 of his Annals of Bath County, which contains remarks about the location of landowners’ parcels to their neighbors, and to geographical landmarks, I worked out the relative location of 53 early (pre-1770) Cow-Pasture-River-area landowners. I plotted all of these out on a map (below), highlighting William McMurry’s listed neighbors in red (the pink line is the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road, mentioned in earlier posts). For each landowner, the size of the parcel in acres is given in parentheses:

Relative parcel locations

William McMurry’s neighbors appear to have lived on or near Stuart’s Run (then Stuart’s Creek), or nearby, on Thompson’s Creek (see map below).

Relative parcel locations closer

I still don’t know where William McMurry’s farm was, but the above evidence indicates that I should be looking further north than the Nicelytown area. My current best guess for where William’s farm was located is within about five miles of the intersection of Stuart’s Creek and the Cow Pasture River.

Identifying the location of McMurry’s Creek would be a big help in narrowing down the location of the William McMurry farm, but so far neither I nor fellow McMurry cousin and family history researcher John Drye have had any luck locating the eponymous creek. In the meantime, I’m trying to find the name of every tributary in the Cow Pasture River area, to help narrow down which tributaries aren’t McMurry Creek. So far, I’ve used historic maps, topographic maps, hydrographic maps, regional gazetteers, and local history texts to identify the names of 43 local waterways. Of course, this approach won’t help if McMurry Creek has been renamed, but even if it doesn’t help, at least I’m assembling a good collection of local geographic place and feature names that may come in handy at some point.

To be continued….

16 thoughts on “William McMurry’s Cow Pasture River home, part 2

  1. It’s not clear to me that you are noticing that the two larger surveys, of 1769-70, though adjacent to each other are specified as on the main James River, neither Cowpasture nor McMurry’s Creek are mentioned. I don’t think your protractor work on the 1769 one is very accurate, did you use a T-square etc., or is this some digital cartography program? I’m not familiar with those. One technique is to close the survey first, and then see which compass call has to be wrong; often it’s just a typo or transcription error (east and west look a lot alike, in manuscript). You may have more clues as to McMurry’s location relative to other grants, such as those in the Annals of Bath (and start on p. 24, not p. 27). Other branches of this family moved to KY and TN earlier than yours, and they went in company with several specific families from this VA enclave (of Presbyterians): Muldraugh, Simpson, Kincaid, and Gillespie spring to mind, there are several more. In KY the first claims by William, John and Samuel McMurry were on Rolling Fork of Salt River (then Nelson, subsequently I think Marion Co.) in 1776. In TN a couple of these McMurrys (Wm. and Samuel) signed the Cumberland Compact, 1780, as the first permanent Anglo-American settlers in Middle Tennessee.

    One more thing that could be helpful is the current or very recent controversy about fishing rights, the VA game and fish people have some sort of map that shows where wading (by trout fishermen, since a dam on the Jackson River has made that water cold enough for trout) is prohibited because Crown Grants conveyed the riverbed to the grantee, and those rights can still be enforced. They may, or may not, know which Crown Grants are where. It depends on which property owners have run their chain of title, found a Crown Grant, and complained about the fishermen.

    • I was recently made aware of your work and blog by my dad. We are originally from Kansas but I now live in Eastern VA and have been interested in finding old family historical places in VA. I was wondering if you’ve had any luck narrowing down Williams farm since Dec 2013 when you posted Cowpasture parts 1 and 2. Thanks for the work and digital recreations.

      • Hi Jeremy,

        Thanks for the comment. I haven’t done enough additional work to merit a new post, but I’m chomping at the bit to do so. We’ve got a baby on the way, and I’ve spent the vast majority of my free time over the last several months (and will probably spend much of the next two months) rebuilding much of our house in anticipation of our soon-to-be-enlarged family. As soon as that’s done (or I sideline myself with an injury…), I’ll be back on the family history wagon.
        Thanks for stopping by, and please let me know if you find anything that may be relevant to my search for the McMurry homestead(s).

        All the best,


        • I was recently through Fincastle VA and noticed a road named McMurry off US 220 in Daleville. The road seems to follow a creek bed but it’s nowhere near Cowpasture River. There are several houses on the road including a business named McMurray Surveyors. I haven’t had a chance to call the surveyor yet. I was hoping a s a MxMurray and a local surveyor he might have some info.

  2. On 22 Jan 1770,Wm Mcmurry sold 20 acres to Jacob Passenger (Persinger), where the latter lived until his death in 1789. [For what it’s worth. Persinger surveyed on 04 Dec 1769 310 acres on the Cowpasture. Mentioned William McMunay (probably Mcmurray).] I’m trying to locate Persinger’s 20 acres. Botetourt land tax records show Persinger paying tax on 40 acres — from 1782 until through 1793. While Persinger owned other property in Botetourt, I can account for its all being sold, except for the 20-acre Mcmurry property. Can you locate the location of the original 20 acres Persinger bought? Any ideas how he might have acquired an additional 20 acres from Mcmurry? Thanks for any help. Walter

    • Hi Bert,

      I’m afraid that “active” has taken on a very different meaning now that I have a young daughter, but yes, indeed, my interest in this is still active. In fact, just today I’ve been working on questions about William’s son and grandson (William Jr. and Thomas) who left Cowpasture for the wilds of Kentucky around the time of the Revolution.

      I’d love to hear about any work you’ve done and/or questions you’ve got.

      All the best,


      • Hi Michael,

        I live along the Cowpasture (River Rd close to the double bridge), and your research here has helped me immensely. I think my property may have been owned by the Mayse family up into the early 20th century. I’ll be making a trip to the courthouse to look at deeds.

        I saw in your Ft. Lewis track research there was doubt where Laurel Gap was. I remember seeing a Forest Service map from 1949 that shows a Laurel Gap Church along the Cowpasture north of Williamsville. I’ve included a link that I hope pastes to here ok. (I think the address is coming out as 2 lines instead of one.)


        Thank you for your research. It’s very well done.

        • Thank you very much, Bert. Thanks also for the topoview map link. For my day job I’ve started to use topoview’s georefererenced maps and I’m looking forward to applying that resource to family history questions like this.

  3. I am having some trouble locating the Ramsey track a400 acre track of Land on the cowpasture that Includes the big lick on both side of the wagon road also stops at Griffiths knob any Information would be helpful and very appreciated

  4. Hi Richard,

    I’m traveling out of the country until early September, but I’ll look through my notes when I return and will let you know if I find anything relevant.


      • hi Michael,
        I found that information in the Alleghany county court house when William ramsey took over the 400 acres in the mid 1800’s , but still cant find the coordinates to Jacob cox land or any other neighbors that may be connecting to his property. was Jacobs land in bath county? this was a land grant that james ramsey had bought from Richard Gilliam, also I have a map that could help you in your quest that I could email you thanks

        • Hi Tony,

          I don’t yet have anything in my records about the land holdings of Jacob Cox, and my only record I currently have of Ramseys in the area is what I presented above—the excerpt from the Annals of Bath County. Sorry I can’t be of more help at the moment. I’ll send you a separate email with my email address, as I’d love to see the map you have.

          Thanks for reaching out,


  5. I LOVE THIS .My fifth grandfather Thomas Gillispie was buried on cow pasture.He was born in Scotland 1709 ,Deceased 1779.
    I am very much into Ancestry. Do you know how I can find out where graves may be on Cowpasture ?
    I have my family back into 1300 & maybe 1100.
    This may not be a good question for. Any infro,would be great.

    Reba Gillispie Huffman from WV.

    • Hi Reba,

      Thanks for the kind words. I still don’t know anything yet about the exact locations of William McMurry’s parcel or those of his neighbors, including Thomas Gillispie.

      As far as the location of Thomas’ grave, that’s going to be a tough one. The two most likely possibilities are: 1) he was buried in a church cemetery somewhere; and 2) he was buried on his property somewhere.

      On the church burial possibility, and from just a light surface scrape of the evidence, I’ve found that a Presbyterian minister, the Reverend Edward Crawford, preached in and around the Cowpasture River area during this time period. In fact, he even took his ministry on the road in May and October from 1775 to 1780, serving the town of Covington, Virginia (see http://firstprescovingtonva.org/history/). The Bullpasture river area also had a Presbyterian church built around 1784 (see https://www.jstor.org/stable/4246715), so there was enough of a population and congregation at the time Thomas died to support a church and possibly a church cemetery. I’d recommend talking with the Virginia Museum of History and Culture (known as the Virginia Historical Society before 2018) to see if they know of early church cemeteries in the Cowpasture river area.

      On the homestead burial possibility, this is going to be much more difficult, if not impossible, to determine. In my own family, I know of many people who were buried on their own land 150+ years ago, but in only a couple of cases do I know specifically where those graves are. In one case, it’s because the area became (and still is) a family burial plot. In the other case, it’s because a cousin who was interested in family history visited the gravesite over a hundred years ago (when the grave were *merely* a hundred years old) and wrote down the specifics of the gravesite including that they were buried in an old Indian burial mound. Having researched exactly where their land was, I was able to use satellite imagery to locate the only mound in the area. I still don’t know where on the mound they’re buried, but as the mound is only 40-50 feet across, I was able to get pretty close.

      As archaeological technologies improve and become more widespread, there’s always the possibility that non-invasive methodologies like geophysical surveys (for instance, using ground-penetrating radar) will be able to uncover the location of long-lost graves. Of course, to do that you’d have to have permission of the landowner, an archaeologist or technician who’s willing to do the work, and money to pay for it all. But even to get to that point, you’d need to have already done the archival research necessary to locate the parcel of land and hopefully find historical mentions of the circumstances of the burial.

      I’d recommend starting with getting in touch with other Gillispie descendants who are interested in family history to see if anyone knows anything about the circumstances of Thomas’ burial. That, and talk with local and state historical societies to see if they might preserve documents that shed any light on burials in the late 1790s in the Cowpasture river area.

      Good luck!

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