Wednesday, February 26, 2014

William Churton, Orange County’s First Register of Deeds

When Orange County, North Carolina was first created in 1752, the Governor appointed several prominent land owners in the new county to organize their first county government.  Among the offices to be filled by them was the Register of Deeds – the person to whom the land records of the people of Orange County were to be entrusted.  To fulfill this role, the new county government chose Orange County’s pre-eminent surveyor, William Churton. In addition to being Register of Deeds, Churton would serve at various times in his life as Surveyor General of North Carolina, surveyor for Earl Granville’s Land Office, and a member of the lower house of the colonial Assembly.[1]

William Churton was born in 1710 in London, to a Gloucestershire family. He came to America in the 1740s, but the exact date is uncertain. Churton’s educational background is also not known with certainty, but he may have attended the Naval officer school at Christ Hospital in London. Regardless, it is clear from his life’s work – the hundreds upon hundreds of surveys he made – that he was 1) very well-educated, 2) artistically talented, and 3) mathematically gifted.  He was also a man with much practical knowledge of the craft of surveying.  Not only are Churton’s surveys detailed and accurate, but they are so numerous that they make up a significant percentage of the North Carolina Piedmont.

The Jefferson-Fry Map

In 1749, the Colony of Virginia and Earl Granville appointed surveyors to extend the colonial boundary west from Peter’s Creek where William Byrd et al. left off in 1728. North Carolina’s delegation consisted of William Churton and Granville County Clerk of Court Daniel Weldon; Virginia's appointees were Peter Jefferson and Joshua Fry. Peter Jefferson had to leave his 6-year-old son at home during this survey, but young Thomas would grow up to be an outstanding surveyor himself.[2] Churton, Weldon, Fry and the father of the future President surveyed another 90 miles to Steep Rock Creek near the Holston River.[3],%20New%20Jersey%20and%20North%20Carolina.%20Drawn%20by%20Joshua%20Fry%20%26%20Peter%20Jefferson%20in%201751.

Churton apparently shared much of his knowledge of North Carolina with Fry and Jefferson. The Virginians published their classic map of Virginia just two years later, including the northern parts of North Carolina - clearly using data obtained from Churton. The 1755 second edition of the Jefferson-Fry map apparently includes still more detail supplied by Churton.[4]


Bishop August Gottlieb Spangenburg of the Moravian Church sought to establish a Moravian settlement in the North Carolina Piedmont in the early 1750’s. Churton was the surveyor for the 98,925 acres that Granville granted the Unitas Fratrum. That land was named Wachau or Wachovia and includes much of what is now Forsyth County, NC.[5]

Although Spangenburg’s Diary referred to Churton as "certainly a reasonable man" and "excessively scrupulous," Spangenburg was not entirely impressed by Churton’s policies:
“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. 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 . . . 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 . . .”[6]

“[O]rdinarily 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.”[7]
Granville granted William Churton 663 ac in trust for Francis Corbin in 1754 and the Town of Hillsborough was established on this land. The year before, Granville had likewise granted Churton and Richard Vigers 635 acres on which to create the Town of Salisbury.[8]

Enoch Lewis helped Churton in the surveying of Hillsborough and James Taylor may also have helped.[9]
Churton lived year-round in Hillsborough from 1757 until his death in 1767. From 1752 to 1763, Churton was the Register of Deeds of Orange County, though deputy register William Reed often filled in while Churton was away on surveying expeditions. Churton served in the legislature from 1754 to 1762. Churton also served on the Hillsborough town board from 1759 to his death.[10]

The Collet Map

From 1757 or before, Churton had been working on a new map of North Carolina – with a great amount of new and corrected detail based upon his own surveys. Because he was the surveyor of the Granville District – the northern 40% of North Carolina – he was less familiar with the southern areas. For that part of his map he relied upon old maps that he had collected. But the southern portions of the map proved to be highly inaccurate – or at least unacceptably so for Churton. So in 1767 he ripped off the southern half of the map and began surveying in the southern part of North Carolina in an effort to complete the map. Near the end of that year, Churton died suddenly.[11]

Churton's will was probated in January 1768.[12] He left several town lots and a rural tract to certain heirs in London. Churton left to Edmund Fanning the rest of his significant land holdings and all of his papers except the manuscript map. The still incomplete map of North Carolina Churton left to Governor Tryon, who remarked upon it: "I am inclined to think there is not so perfect a draft of so extensive an interior country in any other colony in America."[13]

To complete Churton’s map, Tryon hired Captain John Collet of Fort Johnston. Tryon seems not to have been entirely satisfied with Collet’s corrections, but the map was nevertheless published in London in 1770 as "A Compleat MAP of NORTH CAROLINA from an actual survey of Capn Collet.” It’s well known today as the Collet map, but perhaps should more properly be called the Churton-Collet map.[14]

It’s interesting to note that while many officers of Earl Granville’s land office were widely reputed to be corrupt, Granville’s Surveyor from 1749 onward William Churton was never implicated. The Assembly’s report on the misdeeds of John Bodley and Francis Corbin details several improprieties on the parts of Corbin, Bodley and John Carter (Churton’s predecessor), but Churton came through unscathed.  Writing to Earl Granville in 1756, Harmon Husband complained of Carter, but conceded “latterly Orange was given to William Churton who does much better.”[15]

[1] Bedini, Silvio A, William Churton (fl. 1749-1767) North Carolina Cartographer, Professional Surveyor Magazine, July/Aug/Sept 2001.
[2] Although Thomas is perhaps better remembered as founder of the University of Virginia, author of the Declaration of Independence and the third President of the United States.
[3] 4 Colonial Records of North Carolina xiii. Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, entry on Daniel Weldon, volume 6, page 157.
[4] Smith, Marshall L, The Young Man from Mitre Court, William Churton, Surveyor, 1710-1767, Hillsborough: self-published, 1998.
[5] Bedini. Smith. 
[6] The Diary of Bishop Spangenburg, 5 Colonial Records of North Carolina 4.
[7] The Diary of Bishop Spangenburg as cited in Bedini.
[8] Bedini. Smith.
[9] Bedini.
[10] Bedini.
[11] Bedini. Smith.
[12] Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, entry on Edmund Fanning, volume 2, page 182.
[13] Bedini. Smith.
[14] Smith.
[15] Ekirck, A Roger, A New Government of Liberty: Hermon Husband’s Vision of Backcountry North Carolina, William & Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Vol XXXIV, No 4, October 1977, page 638.


  1. Wonderful post! William Churton and Jonathan Price are my two most favorite NC surveyors/cartographers.

  2. Glad you enjoyed it, Tar Heel Tiger. This is the first in a series of profiles of various Registers of Deeds of Orange County. That means later posts will profile Edmund Fanning, James Munro and perhaps others.