Livin’ on the Wedge: The Long, Strange History of a Disputed Border

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The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, my home sweet home, is home to its fair share of oddities (see exhibits A, B, C and D). But one of the strangest stories involves our southern border and the controversy that surrounded it for more than a century.

The Wedge, also known as the Delaware Wedge is a 1.068 square-mile, roughly triangular chunk of land that sits at the point where Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland all bump up against each other. Born of the shortcomings of a survey to settle another border dispute, the Wedge was disputed territory almost as soon as the colonies were established, and Delaware and Pennsylvania’s battle over the land wasn’t completely resolved until 1921.

Here’s a timeline of the birth of—and battle for—one of the country's weirdest little plots of land.

1632: The charter for the colony of Maryland gives the Calvert family the entire Delmarva Peninsula between the 40th parallel to the north and Watkin’s Point to the south (basically, everything between Pennsylvania and Virgina). Several Dutch and Swedish settlements sit within this territory along the Delaware Bay and River. While the Calverts want them removed, the Crown refuses because of the foreign relations row it would create for England. By 1655, the Dutch, led by Peter Stuyvesant, took over the New Swedish colony and incorporated it into their New Netherland.

1664: The Dutch are driven from the area by British forces led by Sir Robert Carr and under the direction of The Duke of York. The Duke, figuring he had won the land in battle, added it to his proprietorship of New York.

But Cæcilius Calvert, 2nd Baron Baltimore and Proprietor of Maryland claimed ownership of the land, but since the Duke was the brother of King Charles II, he did not press the matter.

1681: William Penn receives his charter for Pennsylvania, which grants him a chunk of land west of the Delaware River with a southern border identical to Marlyland’s northern border, the 40th parallel. Excluded from Penn’s grant was any land that fell within a 12-mile circle radiating from New Castle, land that belonged to the Duke of York. The grant demonstrates how poorly the area was charted and how little the men involved knew of the area. The land grant indicates that Charles II and Penn thought that 40th parallel would intersect the Twelve-Mile Circle, but New Castle actually lies about 25 miles south of the 40th parallel. Additionally, the site that Penn had already chosen for his colony's capital city, Philadelphia, was also a little south of the parallel.

1682: The inconsistencies of the Pennsylvania grant stop being problems when Penn receives an additional grant for the New Castle lands from the Duke of York, referred to as the '”The Lower Counties on the Delaware,” and to be administered as a separate entity from Pennsylvania While this land had been part of Maryland’s original grant, the Calverts had failed to confirm their hold on it by surveying it or establishing loyal settlements. Penn’s claim on the Lower Counties begins almost 100 years worth of litigation between the Penns and Calverts, and their heirs.

1763: The fixing of the borders and settlement of the legal battles begins when the Penns and Calverts agree on some demarcations of their lands.

- The Twelve-Mile Circle around New Castle as the northern and (somewhat) western boundary of Delaware.

- The Transpeninsular Line (approximately 38°27? N) as Delaware’s southern border.

- The Tangent Line connecting the middle of the Transpeninsular Line with the western side of the Twelve Mile Circle marking the border between Delaware and Maryland.

- An east-west line sitting about 15 miles south of Philadelphia, running along 39°43’ N (a compromise on the 40th parallel) as the border between Maryland and Pennsylvania, which meets the…

- North Line running from tangent point north to 39°43’ N, marking the eastern border of Maryland.

- Any land west of the North Line that still falls within the Twelve-Mile Circle remains part of Delaware (a segment is known as the Arc Line).

The complexities of determining these borders required outside help, and so astronomer Charles Mason and surveyor Jeremiah Dixon were hired. While establishing the borders in the Penn-Clavery dispute, they also surveyed what became known as the Mason-Dixon Line—the division between the American North and South.

When these borders were agreed upon, apparently no one had a clear idea of what the shapes of the territories would be, because when the dust settled and surveying was complete, there was wedge of land tucked between 39° 43' N, the Twelve-Mile Circle and the North Line that didn’t clearly belong to anyone. Maryland had no claim to it, because it was east of the Tangent, North and Arc lines. While the land is below the PA-MD border, its place in between Maryland’s eastern edge and the Twelve-Mile Circle gives Pennsylvania a pretty strong claim to it (see image, from a United States Geological Survey map, via Wikimedia Commons).

Because Pennsylvania and Delaware were both owned by the Penns, though, there was no rush to figure out which one owned this wedge. The Wedge became a lawless no-man’s land, providing shelter for illegal bootlegging and gambling operations.

1776: America gains its independence and Delaware is separated from Pennsylvania. The two states immediately begin fighting over the Wedge. Pennsylvania claims the land because it is beyond the Twelve-Mile Circle, but past Maryland’s side of the North Line. It’s neither part of Maryland nor Delaware, and so should be part of Pennsylvania by default. Delaware, meanwhile, claims it because it is below Pennsylvania’s southern border with Maryland—and while the border is not officially established there, Pennsylvania should not be allowed to dip below that line at any point. Because the wedge is also east of the North Line, it's not part of Maryland and it defaults to Delaware.

The argument over the land continued for decades, with Delaware exercising jurisdiction over the area for most of that time, if only because the Wedge is a better geometric fit for it.

1892: A survey by the Office of the U. S. Coast and Geodetic Survey extends Mason and Dixon’s southern boundary of Pennsylvania east for about 0.79 miles until it intersects the Newcastle Circle, clearly cutting Pennsylvania off from the Wedge (see image, by Wikimedia Commons user Lasunncty).

1889: A joint committee appointed by the two states awards the Wedge to Delaware.

1897: Pennsylvania recognizes Delaware’s claim to the Wedge and ratifies the committee’s decision.

1921: Delaware and the United States Congress ratify the decision and the Wedge officially becomes part of Delaware.

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February 8, 2011 - 5:51am
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