The True Story of the Southwick Jog

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If you were very bored one day and built a 3D model of the state of Connecticut, then ran your hand along the top, you’d get to a place, just north of the town of Granby, where your hand would fall into a strange little pocket. This is the “Southwick Jog,” a two-square-mile plot of land where an otherwise straight border between Connecticut and Massachusetts breaks and dips itself a little south.

Almost everyone living on either side of the Jog has a story to explain it. One legend says that the border dips because the Congamond Lakes on the land had to be given to Massachusetts since their source waters were further up in her territory. Another story goes that the surveyors who set the border were drunk the whole time; when they sobered up and realized they had laid the line too far north, they gave Massachusetts that little pocket to make up for the lost land, instead of re-surveying. A joke explanation given in Massachusetts is that the Jog is there to hold the commonwealth in place, lest it slide into the sea. Still other stories give reasons like complicated tax evasion schemes or bizarre royal feuds.

The real reason for existence of the Jog is at once much simpler and more complicated than any of the folk tales from the area. The story spans more than 150 years and five different border surveys, but starts with one lesson: Surveying is a job best left to professionals.

In the Beginning

In the mid-17th century, English explorers moving through the Connecticut River Valley founded a farming community they called Southwick. To assert its sovereignty in the area, the Massachusetts Bay Colony sent two men to survey and mark the colony’s southern boundary in 1642. Instead of hiring professional surveyors to walk the boundary line, though, Massachusetts hired Nathaniel Woodward and Solomon Saffery, who were described as “skillful and approved” artists. Connecticut was less enamored by the men’s skills, but kept its mouth shut and allowed the survey to be done.

Line #1

According to the Massachusetts Charter, the colony’s southern border was to run west “from a point three miles south of the most southerly branch of the Charles River.” Woodward and Saffery botched the job right from the start—thanks in part to their lack of experience and their crude, inaccurate tools—by beginning at a point a few miles too far south. They made things worse as they moved west and decided that, rather than walking the line like other surveyors would marking it as they went, they would save time and effort and avoid confrontation with native tribes if they traveled by boat. They went back to the coast, sailed around Cape Cod, down into Long Island Sound and then up the Connecticut River. When they reached what they thought the proper latitude, they fixed the line and established the boundary, skipping all that walking in between the two points.

The line wound up being fixed too far to the south (as much a seven miles below the true line). Connecticut was suspicious of the survey, but wouldn't even receive a royal charter for several years, and again stayed quiet on the issue.

By 1662, Connecticut had its charter, which clearly defined her northern border as being above Woodward and Saffery’s line, but was still hesitant to fight Massachusetts over it because she was already involved in border disputes with Rhode Island and New York.

Meanwhile, the land between the two lines continued to fill up with people who had only a hazy conception of which colony they lived in.

Line #2

After a few decades occasional sparring over the border(s), Connecticut asked Massachusetts to help it fix the problem and complete a joint survey. Massachusetts refused, maintaining that the 1642 survey was correct.

Connecticut decided to strike out alone, hiring John Butler and William Whitney—real surveyors—to run the line according to its charter. They conducted their survey in a very orthodox fashion and reported in August 1695 that the previous line had been laid too far south. Connecticut confronted Massachusetts with the report, but Massachusetts only responded to say that the report was unnecessary, since the border had already been established in 1642.

Line #3

In 1702, Connecticut commissioned two men from that colony and one from Massachusetts to run another line according to the Massachusetts charter. Their result coincided almost perfectly with the line Connecticut had run just a few years prior and confirmed again that Woodward and Saffery’s line was too far south. Massachusetts did not want to accept the results and give up territory, but it was also reluctant to argue a survey conducted by one of its own citizens according to its own charter. Eventually, Massachusetts decided that the survey was invalid and she could not accept the border, as the Massachusetts surveyor had never received power to represent the colony.

Line #4

In 1713, a joint commission made up of representatives from both colonies divvied up control of the towns in the disputed territory. When the residents of some of these towns complained about where they’d wound up, the two colonies finally agreed to a joint survey of a new border according to their charters. Not surprisingly, it fell far north of Line #1 and closer to Lines #2 and #3.

Massachusetts, much to Connecticut’s shock, accepted the line and relinquished its claims to much of the disputed land. The new line laid north of several Massachusetts settlements, though, and presented the problem of which colony they would belong to: the one that first settled them or the one that now had the land they sat on. Another commission decided that Massachusetts should retain control of these towns, including the area of Southwick. This resulted in some adjustments to the line, including that little pocket of Massachusetts dipping below the rest of the border. Connecticut, meanwhile, was reimbursed with an equal amount of land from within Massachusetts. To everyone involved it seemed a fair decision.

Line #5

Everyone, that is, except the inhabitants of these towns, who were not given any say in the matter of which colony they went to. It was too late to do anything, though, since the agreement was already signed, stamped and sealed. The border seemed settled, finally, so the jilted townspeople regrouped and came up with a plan.

Right when things had settled down and the colonial governments thought that that the border issue was done, the General Assembly of Connecticut received petitions from people living in several of the Massachusetts border towns in the previously disputed area. The petitioners claimed that if their land had laid below the accepted line, then they should, and wanted to, be part of Connecticut (mostly because taxes were lower there). The General Assembly saw no flaw in the argument and approved the petition.

As conflicts with England came to a head in the colonies and the war of independence broke out, the border dispute was set aside. After the war, Connecticut got back around to dealing with the towns. She argued to Massachusetts that these towns were clearly below the boundary that had first agreed upon and had been given to Massachusetts only out of Connecticut’s generosity. Furthermore, the residents of the disputed lands had requested to be part of Connecticut. Massachusetts countered with the fact that Connecticut’s premature approval of the petition and assumed jurisdiction over the towns directly violated their 1713 compromise. The Bay State was willing to overlook this faux pas, however, if Connecticut stopped pressing it to give up any more land.

The situation was left at that until 1801, when another agreement was hammered out to soothe lingering tension: The area around Southwick would be divided in two, with the Congamond Lakes as the boundary. The portion east of the lakes would go to Connecticut, and the portion to the west would go to Massachusetts. The two states agreed, the area was surveyed again, the Jog got its current shape and, after one hundred and fifty-nine years, the border was established. For good this time!, everyone swore.

Or was it?

Oh jeez.

Today, there remains a small, half-serious movement of Connecticuters who want to “take back the notch” and set the border as laid out by lines #2 and #3—they're even selling t-shirts—so the Jog’s story might have a few more chapters left in it. Stay tuned.

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December 26, 2012 - 8:00am
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