States and Straight Lines

On Cecil’s column How did the states establish long straight borders before GPS?

Two critical books.

Measuring America: How the United States Was Shaped By the Greatest Land Sale in History, by Andro Linklater.

How the States Got Their Shapes, by Mark Stein.

The history is a whole lot more complicated and much more interesting than Cecil could go into over a short column. Linklater’s book is the more technical, covering everything having to do with surveying. Stein’s is a quick read, dealing more with political decisions on where to place boundaries, but it answers all those questions about why jogs and moves and glitches are found in state boundaries.

Thanks for those recommendations.

I liked the comment in Cecil’s column about a smart kid back then being considered a likely prospect for surveying. George Washington made a name for himself as a capable surveyor before going into Virginia politics.

I think part of the reason for going into surveying was that you would be the first to find the best bits of land, so you could either acquire them yourself, or sell the information about them to your friends so that they could acquire them.

The Arkansas-Oklahoma Conway Line is a particularly notorious case. (Once when I was reading the slushpile for a theater I read a vaguely Faustian drama giving a fictional explanation. I passed on it, for, while it was good enough that I still remember it after more than thirty years, it had structural problems; I find, however, that it was eventually produced in Arkansas.) The error is not the obvious bend in the boundary at Fort Smith, but that the line running south from Fort Smith tends slightly to the west, until it is four miles out of the true line by the time it meets Texas at the Red River. No authenticated explanation is known; it may simply have been a case of ripping off the Choctaw (who, several generations later, received $1.25 per acre in compensation).

We were taught, perhaps in grade school, that the Arizona border with Mexico was some surveyors idea to rip off the Mexicans of another several square miles of - what - I doubt if they appreciated fine cactus.?

Just wondering - if the agreement signed in Washington (or wherever) said “follow latitude X from here to there” and the surveyors wandered - wouldn’t one state or the other come along and demand the line be corrected once the mistake was known?

Or was it a case of too many people already started building towns and farming and it was too late to fix the titles?

I mean, you’d think someone would say within a year or two “How come the 40th parallel jogs 12 miles here?” Or at least, someone in the state capital would hear about it before the whole area was wall-to-wall people. It should be obvious as soon as they draw up a real map - which they’d probably need to hand out farmland.

The whole point is that the surveyors, which were the only people who could check, were themselves wrong. Their map says they drew the line right on the right spot, but the actual line was off.

What you are talking about would require someone else to come back and resurvey the land, to try to make a new map. Sure, these surveyors might notice, but they’d make their own mistakes, too.

It’s really not until we got satellite imagery that we could tell the borders were off. And by that time, it was so entrenched that people didn’t bother fixing it.

You do have a point, though. If the actual contract says, for example, the 45th parallel separates Vermont from Quebec, why do we not have to go back and fix it now that we know it’s off by 1 km?

An interesting bit of case law along these lines is Washington v. Norman, involving three people who were arrested by U.S. Customs officers for possession of controlled substances & stolen property. They argued that since the customs post was located north of the actual 49th parallel, the U.S. customs officers didn’t have jurisdiction over them. If I’m reading the decision correctly, the Washington Supreme Court basically found that any legal references to “the 49th parallel” were really meant to refer to the already-existing border as earlier accepted by federal & international law — in other words, where the survey markers were, not the “real” 49th parallel. The defendants were thus sent up the river — not that one would have expected a different outcome, although one does have to admire their inventiveness.

Presumably, what you were REALLY taught in school was that the border runs the way it does thanks to the Gadsden Purchase. :dubious: :smack:
It should be noted that border disputes can be solved three ways:

  1. The states get together and agree on a surveyed boundary. Example: North Carolina and South Carolina in the early 1800s. This requires an act of Congress to approve.

  2. Congress passes a law establishing the border. This only works when one of the “parties” to the situation is not already a state, and the reformed border doesn’t result in loss of land for the party that is a state. An example: the notable dispute between Ohio and the incoming state of Michigan, solved by the compromise that gave Toledo to Ohio and a significant chunk of the UP to Michigan.

  3. The Supreme Court decides a case between the disputing states. This is one of the best examples of the court’s original jurisdiction. Where the dispute is over the application of various treaties or enabling grants, the Court makes a mostly legal determination. Where the issue is application of an agreed description to a specific batch of land (a dispute over surveys), the Court appoints a special master to determine the facts, which may involve re-surveying the boundary, then issues a decision, usually adopting the findings of fact from the special master.

See, for example, the recent Ellis Island dispute: NEW JERSEY v. NEW YORK 523 U.S. 767

The Wiki article on the Gadsden Purchase doesn’t mention it so maybe it isn’t true, but when I was a kid I was told that Santa Ana offered a bigger chunk – essentially the border would run due west instead of making that turn to the north-west – for a little more. Gadsden turned him down. We coulda had a beach on the Sea of Cortez!

There is a very real dispute between Georgia and Tennessee about this very issue.

See here for an article in the Chattanooga paper.

And see here about why this is so important. Atlanta has two and a half years to figure something out before the taps are turned off! :eek:

Gadsden was authorized to make a number of different offers at different prices. The whole story of the Purchase is surprisingly complex.

I’ve wondered if any of George Washington’s survey work still exists. Perhaps some permanent geographical landmarks or markers he left behind. I’m not sure if history even knows what areas he actually surveyed.

Little Rock has a Baseline Rd. My instructor in a real estate class told us it actually follows one of this regions main survey baselines.

I grew up in an Ohio town not far from this landmark:

Here is a prior thread more or less on point, with a decent war story from me.

In connection with that thread, I can say as a poll worker that, in New Jersey, you vote and pay taxes where your bedroom is.

As suggested in that thread, in the US, the mailing address is worthless. It is fairly common for all or part of municipality A to be serviced by post office B, even should municipality A have a post office of its own, and the mailing address follows the mail.

I think we found it. :smiley: