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Texas Geography

Source: The Handbook of Texas Online


In the middle of the twentieth century the boundaries of Texas were 2,845.3 miles long, counting the great arc of the Gulf Coast line and only the larger river bends. If the smaller meanderings of the rivers and the tidewater coast line were followed, the boundary was 4,137 miles long and enclosed 263,644 square miles of land and 3,695 square miles of water surface.

The location of Texas boundaries has been the subject of international and interstate conflict resulting in treaties, litigation, and commissions from 1736 to the present. Controversy over details continues, as the tidelands controversy and the Chamizal disputeq illustrate. In 1995 the state legislature authorized a Red River Boundary Commission to fix the boundary between Oklahoma and Texas, where the still-shifting Red River has frequently changed course and muddied the issue for two centuries.

As defined in the Adams-Onís Treaty of 1819, the northern and northwestern boundary of Texas followed the course of the Red River westward to the 100th meridian and north along that meridian to the Arkansas River, the whole line as depicted in the Melish map of 1818. Then the Compromise of 1850 placed the north line of the Panhandle at 36°30". No problem arose over this boundary until 1858, when A. H. Jones and H. M. Brown, who had been employed to locate the 100th meridian in making surveys of grants to various Indian tribes, discovered that the Melish map had erroneously located that meridian 100 miles too far east.

In 1852 Randolph B. Marcy discovered that there were two main branches of the Red River lying between the Melish line and the 100th meridian. The supposedly correct meridian was surveyed in 1860, the same year that the Texas legislature decreed Greer County. Because of the Civil War and Reconstruction, Greer County was not organized until 1886 and was in process of being settled when the United States land commissioner protested the Texas claim to the land north of the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River. The controversy went to the United States Supreme Court, which ruled on March 16, 1896, that the Texas boundary was the south or Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River and the astronomical 100th meridian.

The northern boundary again became controversial in 1919, when Texas drillers discovered oil in the bed of the Red River just north of Burkburnett. Oklahoma claimed the bed of the river and sued Texas for title in the Supreme Court. The Greer County case had defined the Texas boundary as the south bank of the Red River, but Texas claimed that the south bank in 1919 was not the same as the south bank at the time of the Melish map and the treaty of 1819. The contest became a three-cornered suit, with Oklahoma claiming the entire riverbed, Texas claiming title to the south half, and the United States disputing both claims and asserting ownership of the south half as trustee for the Indians.

The decision in the four-year suit was rendered on January 15, 1923. In it the Supreme Court defined a riverbank as the bank cut by the normal flow of water, or where vegetation stopped, gave Oklahoma the north half of the bed and political control of the entire bed, and gave the United States the south half of the bed as trustee for the Indians, but allowed Texas to retain control of the oil wells in the floodplain between the riverbanks. To prevent further dispute, the court ordered a survey of the south bank as it was in 1819 and the placing of concrete markers along the survey line. The report of Arthur Kidder and Arthur H. Stiles, the commissioners who made the survey, was accepted on April 25, 1927.

In the meantime, in 1920 Texas sued Oklahoma on the grounds that the surveys of the 100th meridian made in 1858 and 1860 had erroneously placed that meridian a half mile too far west. Surveys made in 1892 and 1902 had not solved the problem of ownership of an area 134 miles long and between 3,600 and 3,700 feet wide. One Oklahoma resident complained that she had not moved a foot in forty-five years but had lived in one territory, two states, and three counties.

In 1927 the Supreme Court ordered Samuel S. Gannett to survey the meridian. He worked from 1927 to 1929, largely at night to avoid the aberrations of heat waves, and placed concrete markers at every two-thirds of a mile. The court ruled in 1930 that the Gannett line was the true meridian. Oklahoma tried unsuccessfully to buy back the strip that the Texas legislature incorporated in 1931 in Lipscomb, Hemphill, Wheeler, Childress, and Collingsworth counties. Higgins was the only town in the ceded area. See also neches river boundary claim, treaties of velasco.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Bunyan H. Andrew, "Some Queries Concerning the Texas-Louisiana Sabine Boundary," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 53 (July 1949). Jacqueline Eckert, International Law and United States-Mexican Boundary Relations (Ph.D. Thesis, University of Texas, 1939). Grant Foreman, "Red River and the Spanish Boundary in the Supreme Court," Chronicles of Oklahoma 2 (March 1924). Herbert P. Gambrell and Lewis W. Newton, A Social and Political History of Texas (Dallas: Southwest Press, 1932). Charles W. Hackett, ed., Pichardo's Treatise on the Limits of Louisiana and Texas (4 vols., Austin: University of Texas Press, 1931-46). J. Evetts Haley, The XIT Ranch of Texas and the Early Days of the Llano Estacado (Chicago: Lakeside, 1929; rpts., Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1953, 1967). Webb L. Moore, The Greer County Question (San Marcos, Texas: Press of the San Marcos Record, 1939).


This page was last updated January 9, 2014.