• Alex Colvin

The John P. Waters Land Grant of 1796: Hypothesizing its location

Updated: Jun 7, 2018

Understanding the lives of mixed race couples in the Antebellum period, such as William P. Waters and Zylpha Thompson, necessitates understanding not only where they lived but also something of their family life. Preliminary data shows William was the son of John Phillip Waters born c. 1770, although his place of birth is unsettled.1 What is known of John is that, like his son, he too was charged with the illegal cohabitation with a women of a different race, Elisabeth Collum. 2 They were separately charged a fine of £25, a considerable sum in 1809 when John was indicted and who subsequently appealed to the North Carolina State Assembly for relief.3 His appeal was rejected and the charges of "fornication [and] adultery" leveled by the Superior Court where he was indicted, affirmed. However, in his petition he noted he had begun living with Elisabeth in 1795 and from which union six fine children were born. But where in North Carolina did they live?

This essay offers a hypothesis of one likely location through both an analysis and reconstruction of a 19th century plat and through an assessment of current Wilkes County Geographic System Information (GIS) data, in order to reveal its probable location.

In January, 1796, John applied for a fifty-acre land grant for which, by 1797, he made the final payment of thirty-five shillings. 4. His official patent, certificate No. 1544, was finally issued January 1, 1798. 5. And although the patent document itself has not survived, several documents related to John’s land grant have. Among them, the “shuck, “or envelope which once contained his grant-related documents. Also extant is the “surveyor’s return” to the state – the survey itself of the fifty-acres which not only gives the metes and bounds, but fortunately for our analysis, featured a small informal plat map drawn by the surveyor in the margin. The significance of the plat is that it depicts not just a body of water, Mulberry Creek, but shows how Wooten Creek intersected with it. This detail takes on even more significance when one considers that one of the boundaries of John’s fifty-acre parcel was the property line of Lewis Wooten. For the purposes of reconstructing the plat and then situating it in on a modern geographic map, that detail proved extremely valuable. And it is based on that seemingly innocuous detail that the hypothesis is strengthened.

The hypothesis is dependent upon two elements: firstly, the ability to reasonably reconstruct the plat using the surveyor’s metes and bounds and secondly, the ability to situate the resulting model within its likely geographic setting.

To that end, the plat was first reconstructed using available software wherein the metes and bounds as well as compass bearings from the surveyor's return were input. [figure 1] The waterbody was hand drawn onto the new plat to replicate the surveyor’s plat.

Figure 1

Next, a search was begun using Wilkes County GIS data along the entire length of Mulberry Creek in order to locate a a confluence that approximated the “fork” shown in the plat. The results showed only one such confluence, it being an extension of Wooten’s Creek which empties into Mulberry Creek at a very specific geolocation. From that location, the GPS coordinates were obtained and the site marked as the likely location. In addition, the original surveyor’s hand-drawn plat map was appended to the new map and rotated on an east-west axis in order to show its comparative similarity between it and the hypothesized vicinity. Most significantly, the waterbody emptying into Mulberry Creek is still known as Wooten's Creek. [Figure 2]

Figure 2

These combined methods have produced what is the likely location of the John P. Waters grant, although additional analysis and measurements will be needed to more precisely place it in situ. However, knowing its probable location, also invites additional research question. Is this where John Waters cohabitated with Elisabeth Collum as a marital couple and if so, is this where his six known heirs – including William P. Waters -- were born? The answer seems obvious, but more precise answers to these questions await additional research.


1. One source, among several which establishes William’s parentage is a 19th century biography of William’s brother, Wilburn Waters. Wilburn achieved fame as a mountaineering bear-hunter in the Blue Ridge mountains. In his 1878 biography of Wilburn, Charles Coale, spent months with his subject who not only described what little he knew of his father, but also how he went to visit his brother, William P. Waters, then a school teacher in White Oak Groves. Wilburn was warmly received by his sibling who availed himself of William’s hospitality and stayed six months in order to receive a rudimentary education. See: Charles B. Coale, “The Life and Adventures of Wilburn Waters,” Steam Book and Job Printers, Richmond, Virginia, 1878, 23

2. John P. Waters and Elisabeth Collum, Bill of Indictment, North Carolina Superior Court, March term, 1809, Wilkes County Criminal Action Papers, (1807-1809) Loose Papers, North Carolina State Archives. Some genealogists have claimed Elizabeth was of Native American decent and John of Western European, although there is little in the way of reliable evidence to substantiate either claim. In none of the court records are their ethnicities mentioned. The indictment of John Waters and Elizabeth charged the couple with, “being persons of evil and immoral habits and regard less [sic] of the laws of God,” and more specifically, “living together in habitual fornication [and] adultery”.

3. John P. Waters petition to North Carolina General Assembly, December 18, 1800, University of North Carolina at Greensboro Special Collections. See also petition No. 11280905, Race & Slavery Petitions Project, at Library of American Slavery,

4. John P. Waters Land Grant receipt for payment, December 26, 1797, File No. 1380, “loose papers”, North Carolina State Archives, hereinafter NCSA.

5. John P. Waters, File No. 1380, Patent Book 96, p 203, NCSA.

Acknowledgements: I am especially grateful to the leader and members of the closed Facebook group, "Descendants of John P Waters and Elisabeth Cullom of Wilkes County, NC," who have been especially generous with their knowledge of period documents regarding John Waters and Elizabeth Collum and their descendents. Their years of compiling data and careful analysis on this couple as well as William P. Waters and Zilphia Thompson and their heirs has both enriched my research and saved me many hours of field work.