Ten Fun Facts About US State Boundary Blunders and Disputes


Each week I set out to research and document ten "fun facts" on a topic loosely based on the two books I've reviewed that week.  "Loosely" being the operative word. 

This week I reviewed Industries of the Future, a 2016 book about the technologies that will shape the next 20 years, and the 2020 Pulitzer Prize winning The End of The Myth, a brilliant history of America's expanding frontier from it's founding until the mid-20th century, and how the impact of being a frontier nation is felt today in the politics and dynamics around our southern border. 

That means that topics for today could range from the future to the past, and talk about technologies, frontiers, and/or borders. I think I found a topic that encompasses some of all of that. So, read on my friends, and let me know how well you think I did in the comments.

US State Boundary Blunders and Disputes

When America was founded, much of the land west of the original thirteen colonies was wilderness, and would gradually be divided into states admitted to the Union. The land surveying technology available to the original colonies and the new states of the early US was not what it is today. GPS didn't exist and surveying instruments (and the surveyors who used them) were not always reliable or accurate. These problems with technology, combined with vague legal descriptions of state boundaries, have led to many disputes between the states in the past, and these disputes will likely continue into the future given those circumstances. Here then, inspired by this weeks reading, are ten fun facts about US state border blunders and disputes:

  1. Minnesota's "Angle" - Check out the boundary between the US and Canada on a map and you'll see a straight line at the 49th parallel from the Pacific Ocean eastward into the state of Minnesota. But about a third of the way east into Minnesota you'll find a curious northward bump that makes a small area a part of the US that looks like it should be in Canada. This is the "Angle", and it owes it's Americanness to poor maps used by the US to negotiate territory from Britain after the Revolutionary War. Turns out the map wrongly identified the source of the Mississippi River, leading to what the negotiators though would be an east-west line to actually be a north-south line. The Angle is bounded by Canada to one side and Lake of the Woods on the other. It is not accessible by land from the rest of Minnesota without first going to Canada.
  2. The Pig War - That straight line between Canada and the US also bends on the western end, where in 1846 the Treaty of Oregon between the US and Britain (Canada not yet being a nation) set the western boundary at "the middle of the channel which separates the continent from Vancouver's Island". The problem was that the "channel" is really two channels, with the San Juan Islands in the middle, and both sides claimed them. In 1859 an American settler on San Juan shot and killed a pig belonging to the Hudson's Bay Company. The local British authorities threatened to arrest him and to evict the other American settlers on the island, whose land claims they said were illegal. This led to a US Army force coming to the island to protect American claims. British gunboats were then dispatched to San Juan.  No additional shots (beyond the one that killed the pig) were fired. Which is good because when word reached the two nation's capitals, amazement set in that the "murder of a pig" could led to an international incident. Both nations approved joint military occupation of the island, and so it was until 1871 when the Treaty of Washington resulted in arbitration that awarded the San Juan Islands to the US. 
  3. The Walton War - Misunderstandings and confusion over borders between Georgia and North Carolina led to armed conflict and loss of life. The Walton War took place in what Georgia called Walton County and North Carolina called Buncombe County. The county was disputed territory after negotiations between Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina to settle borders between the three states after the Revolution. Settlers in the county had land claims coming from both North and South Carolina states, and were concerned they would be dispossessed of their land claims as Georgia organized the county. Things came to a head in 1804 with militias being called up after a Buncombe County constable was killed by Walton County officials and supporters. By 1807 a boundary commission found that in fact the state boundary was miles south of the presumed line, and that Walton County was actually North Carolina territory. Land grants were honored and all but the 10 men directly involved in the death of the constable were given amnesty for their part in the "war".
  4. A Wedge Issue - The Delaware Wedge was the name given to disputed territory between Maryland and Delaware. The Wedge was a pie shaped territory that owed it's existence to the shortcomings of surveying techniques in the 18th century. The surveyors did not properly lay out the intersection of the Delaware / Maryland line in part due to a unique circular boundary dating back to colonial times. Two more modern surveys - in 1849 and again in 1892 led to both states finalizing the border, but not until 1921, when Maryland finally ceded claim to the Wedge to Delaware.
  5. New York and New Jersey #1 - These two states have had more than one border dispute between them. Even before they were states they were feuding. Starting in 1701 the two colonies waged "border wars" that lasted over 60 years. This included a number of disputes directly between settlers of both colonies, some of them leading to fisticuffs. Finally, having had enough, the King appointed a royal commission in 1769 which established what became the permanent border between the two colonies. These borders were ratified by the two colonies' legislatures in 1772, and approved by the King in 1773.
  6. New York and New Jersey #2 - The two states have tussled over islands between Manhattan and New Jersey since at least 1804. A compact between the two states in 1830 settled the matter for a time, giving the existing islands over to New York. But when the Federal government began expanding Ellis Island through land reclamation in the late 1800s New Jersey claimed that the new land added to the island belonged to it rather than New York. This dispute reemerged with renovations to Ellis Island in the 1980s. The dispute was settled by the Supreme Court in 1998, giving the reclaimed land to New Jersey. 
  7.  The 697 Sided Rectangle - Look at Colorado on a map of the United States and it will appear to be a rectangle (allowing for the curvature of the earth). But if you looked more closely you'll find that those "four" sides are not straight lines. They actually jog around quite a bit, sometimes to accommodate local terrain, sometimes because surveyors goofed up. In fact, surveyors goofed up so much that the famous Four Corners of Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and Arizona is not in fact where Congress decreed it should be. Not to worry about that though, as the Supreme Court ruled that the lines the surveyors drew should be considered the correct borders. According to the Big Think, all those jogging lines lead to 697 sides to the Colorado "rectangle".
  8. The Toledo War - As Michigan was moving from a territory to a state a dispute arose over the proper southern boundary between Michigan and Ohio. Both sides passed laws claiming a strip of land between them known as The Toledo Strip. In 1835, governors of both states rallied state militia and occupied territory within the Strip. Despite federal arbitration, tensions rose leading to the "Battle of Phillips Corners" (shots were fired but no one was killed). Further tensions later that year led to a scuffle between a Michigan Sheriff and the Ohioan Mayor of Toledo, during which the Mayor's son stabbed the Sheriff with a penknife (Ohio refused his extradition to Michigan to be tried). Finally, in 1836 the dispute ended when  Michigan was admitted as a state, but conceded the Toledo Strip to Ohio. In return, Michigan was granted the entirety of it's Upper Peninsula (aka the UP), which at the time was considered a useless wilderness. Michigan got the last laugh though, as copper deposits were discovered in the UP leading to the largest mineral boom in the nation's history.
  9. Panhandle Blunder - The border between New Mexico and Texas was set as the 103rd meridian but a bungled survey marked the line too far west, leaving a portion of territory meant for New Mexico as part of Texas. The New Mexico constitution proclaims the 103rd meridian as the state's eastern border, but this is not recognized by Texas. In 2018 the New Mexico Senate passed a bill to file a lawsuit to reclaim the disputed land, but the bill did not become law. Texas continues to maintain jurisdiction over the disputed territory, which includes the towns of Farwell, Texline and a portion of Glenrio.
  10. Monuments Not Coordinates - In a 2012 article, LiveScience quotes Dave Doyle, chief surveyor of the National Geodetic Survey as lamenting that many boundaries within the US - those of states, or even counties, cities and townships are documented as being between "monuments" - markers set by previous surveys, rather than by reference to longitude and latitude. "It's a very difficult process to perpetuate the boundaries when they weren't defined by coordinates," Doyle said. The problem with monuments and markers is that they get lost over time, so recreating the original survey lines can be challenging. Many localities do not in point of fact know exactly where all their legally defined boundaries are.
So, those are my fun facts for this week. Do you have border trivia or fun facts you can share? Leave a comment below.