Boundary Disputes Between States

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BOUNDARY DISPUTES BETWEEN STATES. At the time of the adoption of the Constitution of the United States, apparently only Pennsylvania and Maryland, of the original thirteen states, had no pending question as to the correctness of their boundaries. They had resolved their dispute in 1769 with the ratification of the Mason-Dixon line as their common boundary. Pennsylvania had also resolved colonial disputes with Virginia and Connecticut. Since the formation of the nation, however, more than half of the states have been involved in some kind of boundary disagreement with one or more neighboring states. These disputes have been mostly minor and have been settled by common agreement—with or without the consent of Congress, by congressional action alone, or by the Supreme Court. In large measure, the disputes over boundaries have developed because of the interpretation of colonial grants or charters, of treaties, or of general international law. A few controversies have arisen about boundaries established by Congress either before or at the time of the admission of new states.

Of the disputes having their origin in colonial arrangements, probably the first to be settled was that between North Carolina and South Carolina. This dispute was ended by a survey in 1815 that extended the 1772 line to the corner of Georgia. The Massachusetts–Rhode Island dispute originated in the Plymouth colony grant of 1630 and the Rhode Island charter of 1663. In spite of an 1846 Supreme Court case that Rhode Island lost, the dispute was not settled until the two states later agreed on a boundary line, an agreement to which Congress assented in 1858. The states revised the compact in 1899 by mutual consent and established a line that could be more readily marked. The boundary dispute between Connecticut and New York, which began before 1650, was settled by the two states in 1880; Congress approved their action in 1881. The Massachusetts–New Hampshire boundary controversy, which originated in the Massachusetts charter of 1629, was settled in 1895 by an agreement on the generally

recognized boundary of the time. Cases decided by the Supreme Court concerning boundaries of colonial origin include Rhode Island v. Massachusetts (1846), Georgia v. South Carolina (1922), Vermont v. New Hampshire (1933), and New Jersey v. Delaware (1934).

The disputes that have been settled by congressional action alone have related chiefly to boundaries originally established between territories by acts of Congress. No-table among these controversies are those involving the boundaries of Michigan. Congress moved the Michigan-Indiana boundary north by the 1816 act admitting Indiana to statehood, in order to give that state an outlet on Lake Michigan. The act admitting Michigan to the Union in 1837 ended the serious and long-running dispute with Ohio by moving the Michigan-Ohio boundary north to put the Toledo area in Ohio. As recompense for its loss of the disputed territory, Michigan was given what is now the upper peninsula of that state. A protracted Illinois-Wisconsin dispute was settled with the admission of Wisconsin into the Union in 1848.

The Supreme Court has settled many boundary disputes between states. Where specific treaties have been involved, these have been interpreted and followed by the Court. This was true in the dispute between Missouri and Kentucky; the Court ruled that, since the treaty signed by France, Spain, and England in 1763 set the Mississippi River as the boundary, the boundary "has remained … as they settled it" (Missouri v. Kentucky [1871]). The 1783 Peace of Paris that ended the war with Great Britain set the western boundary of the United States, and its terms were followed in setting all or part of the boundaries of the states along the Mississippi River. This same treaty also determined the northern boundary of Florida and set the Chattahoochee River as part of the Alabama-Georgia boundary. The 1819 treaty with Spain defined the Oklahoma-Texas boundary (except the Panhandle portion) and the southern boundaries of Oregon and Idaho. The Rio Grande portion of the New Mexico–Texas boundary was a heritage from the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of 1848.

In the determination of boundary questions between states not involving specific treaties, the Supreme Court has applied the principles of international law. In the many disputes involving water boundaries in rivers and bays, the Court has held that the doctrine of the thalweg (that is, that the main—and deepest—channel of navigation is the middle of a river rather than a line equidistant between the two banks) is applicable between states unless the boundary has been fixed in some other way, such as by agreement, practical location, or prescription. The Court used this principle in its determination of the boundary between New Jersey and Delaware on the Delaware River in 1934. Along the unstable Missouri River, the Court has applied the rules of international law concerning river change by avulsion or accretion—for example, in Nebraska v. Iowa (1892). The Court followed still another rule of international law to determine the Ohio River boundary. According to the rule regarding cession of territory on a river boundary, the boundary set by this river is the north, or far, bank at low water. The Supreme Court held that when Virginia ceded to the United States territory to the northwest of the Ohio River (the territory involved now makes up Kentucky and West Virginia), Virginia must have intended to retain the river (Handly's Lessee v. Anthony [1820], Indiana v. Kentucky [1890]).

In several controversies, the riches lying in the water or underneath the land motivated the rival parties. Oyster beds were at least partly the cause of disputes decided by the Supreme Court in Louisiana v. Mississippi (1906), which concerned the boundary from the mouth of the Pearl River to the high sea. The same issue was involved in Smith v. Maryland (1855). Fishing rights were among the questions involved in Supreme Court decisions in 1926 and 1935 on the Michigan-Wisconsin boundary in Green Bay and Lake Michigan (Michigan v. Wisconsin [1926] and Wisconsin v. Michigan [1936]). Oil wells in the bed of the Red River made the precise location of the Oklahoma-Texas boundary very important, and the Court decided this matter in Oklahoma v. Texas (1926).

While disputes over boundaries between states have been somewhat heated in a few instances—as in the Georgia–North Carolina dispute over Walton County in 1803, the Ohio-Michigan dispute of 1818–1837, and the Iowa-Missouri controversy in 1839—in general, boundary questions, as distinct from regional disputes, have not had a disrupting effect.


Danson, Edwin. Drawing the Line: How Mason and Dixon Surveyed the Most Famous Border in America. New York: Wiley, 2001.

De Vorsey, Louis, Jr. The Georgia–South Carolina Boundary: A Problem in Historical Geography. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1982

Nathan, Roger E. East of the Mason-Dixon Line: A History of the Delaware Boundaries. Wilmington: Delaware Heritage Press, 2000.

Onuf, Peter S. The Origins of the Federal Republic: Jurisdictional Controversies in the United States, 1775–1787. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983.

Scott, James Brown. Judicial Settlement of Controversies Between States of the American Union. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1919.

Skaggs, Marvin L. North Carolina Boundary Disputes Involving Her Southern Line. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1941.

Van Zandt, Franklin K. Boundaries of the United States and the Several States. Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1976.

Paul C.Bartholomew/c. p.

See alsoInternational Law ; Mason-Dixon Line ; Michigan ; Ohio ; Pennsylvania ; Rivers ; Supreme Court ; Territories of the United States ; Treaties with Foreign Nations .