Any Disputed US State Borders?

Are there any state borders which are subject to dispute and uncertainty as to which state they belong to?

And if there are - or if there theoretically would be - how would this be resolved?

US Supreme Court

The NH-ME border around the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard had been in dispute for decades before being decided by the Supreme Court in 2002.

Check out my hometown’s own story about just this problem!

Actually now that I think about it, ISTR that the Statue of Liberty was the subject of a dispute between NY & NJ.

Absolutely. There is a whole Wikipedia Category on Internal territorial disputes in the United States.

The border dispute between Tennessee and Georgia has revived somewhat in recent years. Georgia seeks to have the border adjusted in such a way that they would have access to the waters of the Tennessee River to feed the needs of northern Georgia and even a possible pipeline to Atlanta.

Another dispute, between North and South Carolina, seems closer to resolution. This issue is being settled by mutual agreement of the two states.

Yes, this has been in the news a lot in the last few years, especially during periods of drought. It’s a little funny to think that even in the 21st century, border disputes still often come down to who gets the water.

Yeah, the local border is quite poorly defined (I live less than a mile from the NC-SC border, in the little enclave of SC known as Indian Land; see: border dispute at breakup of the Carolina colony for details :rolleyes: ). Several properties who’s owners thought were in NC are actually in SC, and vice versa. Fortunately, the states appear to be quite reasonable about solving the situation, both amicably resolving the inter-state dispute and at the same time protecting the property owners from the unexpected consequences, to the extent reasonably possible (things like, who supplies your electricity and gas?).

The borders that are the worst are the east-west borders of the states east of the Mississippi River. That’s a combination of three things:

  1. It’s HARD to draw East-West lines on the face of the Earth. I always got quizzical looks from my Geometry students about this (I mean, look at the map, you just go, you know, WEST!). Then I had them attempt it in Google Earth. They soon got the point: to go West, you have to constantly turn (to see this best, look at a polar projection map). In the 18th Century, when many of these borders were being delineated, that wasn’t easy.

  2. It’s not easy to draw borders through forested hills/mountains. The border between the Carolinas, from just west of Charlotte on, exemplifies this problem. Unlike the border to the east (which suffered from the third problem on the list), it was surveyed by reasonably competent people. But it wanders, because going straight while going up and down hills and around trees ain’t easy.

  3. Surveyors weren’t always the best back then. The border between NC and SC in the eastern part was notorious for being surveyed by men who were (allegedly) drunk on more than one occasion. This may account for the fact that they couldn’t draw a straight line, even on relatively flat ground. Might also account for the fact that they turned straight west about five to ten miles too soon. :eek:

There’s a reason that the Mason-Dixon Line is famous, and it ISN’T because of the fact that Maryland was a slave state. It’s well-known as an example of really good surveying work. See for a general explanation the article in Wikipedia.

The way the Twelve Mile Circle border is drawn has led to endless wrangling between Delaware and New Jersey. Rather than using the thalweg for the river border, it awards the the entire Delaware river to Delaware inside the circle.

Note that after the 1935 opinion they turned up in court again in 2007 anyway.

It’s complicated.

The original borders of New Jersey and New York were defined in separate documents and had overlapping claims. This was settled in 1834 by an agreement that said the border between the two states passed through the halfway point of the waterway but that all islands in the waterway belonged to New York. This resulted in the situation where several islands which belong to New York are located in New Jersey waters.

Complicated but workable. However in a 1997 court ruling, it was decided that this agreement only applied to islands that existed in 1834. Any land in New Jersey waters that was build up after 1834 belonged to New Jersey.

This decision applied mainly to Ellis Island. The majority (about 90%) of Ellis Island is artificial and that portion was given to New Jersey. New York retained the smaller original portion of the island. But running the island as two separate legal entities proved unworkable and eventually the two states agreed to a form of joint administration.

Meanwhile, there’s Liberty Island. New Jersey did once file a legal claim for Liberty Island but this was before the 1997 ruling and their claim was denied.

Liberty Island, like Ellis Island, was also partly build up from its original size but to a much smaller degree (about 28%). So in theory, the 1997 ruling would apply and a portion of Liberty Island would belong to New Jersey. But Liberty Island wasn’t specifically mentioned in the ruling so its legal status remained the same. I’d speculate that if New Jersey chose to refile its suit, it would win this time.

This wouldn’t change the status of the Statue of Liberty itself; it’s on the original portion of the island which is clearly New York’s. But the restaurant and souvenir shop on Liberty Island are located in the artificial portion of the island. If New Jersey got ownership of that portion of the island, it would be entitled to the sales taxes collected in those establishments.

You wouldn’t think that it would be all that difficult to have two states sit down with a map and say “this line here is the border between our two states”, but you’d be surprised how many problems they’ve had doing that over the years. The Mason-Dixon line, as DSYoungEsq mentioned, is a good example of this. Pennsylvania said the line was in one place and Maryland said it was in another. For a long time, nobody really cared, but then folks started settling in those areas and towns that were close to each other each claimed they were in another state. Things got heated to the point where groups from one faction would take over the courthouse of another faction at gunpoint and would refuse to leave until that county agreed that they were part of the other state. When PA and MD finally did sit down and agree where the line would be, they didn’t trust the locals to measure it out properly, so they hired two astronomy and surveying experts all the way from London, named Mason and Dixon, to put down official markers every few miles so that everyone would know where the line was.

Hanover PA, where I live, got its charter from Lord Baltimore and was originally part of Maryland. As a result of the above, it’s now in Pennsylvania.

Another example is the Pennsylvania and Viriginia (now West Virginia) border. Virginia claimed the border followed a river, and Pennsylvania said the line went straight west. As folks started settling those western areas, they noticed that the two lines intersected. You wouldn’t know it now, but the small town of Wheeling WV (where I grew up) was actually a major point for folks heading west, as it had one of the few decent bridges crossing the Ohio river. Fort Pitt was also a major military stronghold (the city of Pittsburgh eventually grew up there). Folks thought it was unfair for either state to get both major places, so they drew a line down the middle and Virginia got Wheeling and Pennsylvania got Fort Pitt. And that’s why West Virginia has that goofy panhandle at the top of it.

This map shows the disputed areas (plus some others):

These two examples are far from rare cases. Almost every state has had some border dispute somewhere. Historically, most have been solved by the two states getting together and coming to some sort of agreement over it. Congress got involved in the Toledo War that Jimbabweosu mentioned.

The big territory disputes, like the Pennsylvania/Virginia border dispute, have all mostly been settled, but numerous smaller disputes still remain. With the invention of GPS and more accurate surveying, many people have found that they aren’t actually in the state that they thought they were in. In some cases the states have agreed to let the borders stand where everyone thought they were. In other cases, people’s homes have actually switched states.

Here’s an article about a current dispute between North Carolina and South Carolina that you may find interesting (I think it’s the same dispute mentioned upthread):

New SC-NC border will affect some residents

I think there are still a few in places where rivers changed course, such as the Mississippi. I recall it was just a couple of decades ago that Missouri and Kansas finally settled the precise location of the state line in a place where people in St. Joseph had to cross the Missouri River to the Kansas side, to get to the St. Joseph airport which remained in Missouri,

In Arkansas v. Tennessee (1970), the court recognized that the change of a sate line may depend on whether the cause of a river changing course is a result of accretion or evulsion. So, there may be ongoing or future cases in which there is a dispute over whether accretion or evulsion is the agent of river course change. The difference is described here:

To this day the Buckeyes and Wolverines are still at war.

The Southwick Jog, between CT and MA.

Carter Lake is the only Iowa city west of the Missouri river: the river changed course after a flood.,_Iowa

I just had a look at that area on Google Maps. The boundary cuts right through neighbourhoods, even lopping off the ends of tiny cul-de-sacs. That seems pretty crazy - half a dozen houses at the end of a dead-end street are in NC while the rest of the road is in SC (confirmed by checking addresses online - it’s not just a mapping glitch). Presumably that means they are in a different town from their next-door neighbours, have their bins emptied by a different neighbourhood, pay different taxes, vote in different local elections, have different utility companies, send their kids to different schools and so on.

Due to shifts of the Red River, the border between Oklahoma (which includes the Red River) and Texas has spawned many issues over time.

Forget that. What about the poor sods who own a house that sits in both states? How do they assess property taxes on something like that? On the weirder side, which cops get called in a domestic dispute that ranges all through the house?

The entire house is deemed to be in the state where it’s “front door” is. The same applies to any surrounding dooryard and any outbuildings, which are in the same state as the front dor of the main houser. As a guess, I’d say this is also grandfathered, so you can’t move your house from one state to another just by bricking in the front door and putting your doorbell in the back. That also defines your state of residence for purpose of car plates and insurance, no matter where you park it.

I’ve been thinking for a while that with GPS all lower 48 states plus Congress should agree to a compact to resurvey all boundaries and abide by new surveys.