Today in 1910: The Supreme Court resolves Maryland and West Virginia’s longstanding border dispute

February 21, 2014

Today in Legal HistoryThose familiar with college football may be aware of the longstanding rivalry between Maryland and West Virginia, which stretches back for the better part of a century.

However, there was another longstanding contention between the two states, one that stretches back to the birth of West Virginia in 1863.

That dispute was one over the location of the boundary line between the two states, and one that was settled by the Supreme Court 104 years ago today in Maryland v. West Virginia.

Technically, though, this border dispute actually predated the existence of West Virginia: in the 17th century, two land grants from two different Kings of England created the Province of Maryland (later the state of Maryland) and the Colony of Virginia (later the U.S. state of Virginia).  The boundary for each of these territories was set at the Potomac River.  Unfortunately, no one realized at the time that the river split into a North Branch and South Branch.

The dispute was not just over the north-south distance between the two branches, though: Maryland’s original land grant stated that the headwaters of the Potomac River were to mark the territory’s western border, and the South Branch extended westward for many more miles than the North Branch.

Deakins line map

“Deakins line” (in red)

Over time, the river’s North Branch became widely accepted as its main branch, and in 1746, Lord Thomas Fairfax sent surveyors to determine the headwaters of the Potomac River.  The area they believed to be this location was marked by the “Fairfax Stone,” into which the surveyors carved the letters “Ffx” and Lord Fairfax’s coronet.  In 1787, Maryland sent Francis Deakins to establish the north-south meridian that would mark the state’s western boundary.  As anyone familiar with a map of Maryland may have noticed, though, the state’s western boundary doesn’t run in a perfect north-south direction, but veers to the east somewhat – which is the result of how the Deakins line was originally drawn in 1787.

Despite its flaw, the Deakins line was regarded as the western boundary of Maryland.  In 1850, however, Maryland claimed that the western edge of the colonial grant was the South Branch of the Potomac River, not the North Branch.  In 1863, West Virginia took Virginia’s place in the border dispute with Maryland.

In 1891, Maryland sued West Virginia to settle the dispute (since the dispute was between two states, the U.S. Supreme Court had original jurisdiction hear the case).  In 1897, while the case was pending, Maryland set its own marker, the Potomac Stone, at the headwaters of the South Branch to dispute the Fairfax Stone’s similar role marking the headwaters of the North Branch.

On February 21, 1910, the Court issued its unanimous ruling, finding the border would begin about a mile north of the Fairfax Stone, where the Deakins line crossed the Potomac North Branch (causing the Fairfax Stone to fall completely within the boundaries of West Virginia).

Although the Court noted “much documentary and other evidence” relating to the contention that the South Branch is the true southern boundary of Maryland, it didn’t address this issue in its opinion because the claim was “not pressed” in Maryland’s “briefs and arguments made…in this case.”

Thus, the Court only ruled on the much narrower question of whether the Deakins line or another line (drawn in the 1850s by U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers Lieutenant Nathaniel Michler) that was more accurate since it ran directly north-south.

On this question, the Court found that the Deakins line was the actual boundary, noting that, although the Michler line was technically more correct, both the law and regional custom had long regarded the Deakins line as the official border between the two states.

Thus, the Supreme Court set the states’ borders as we know them today, and as they had been up until the decision.  However, it’s no coincidence that the Court reached the decision that maintained the territorial status quo; in fact, it was one of the prominent rationales behind the conclusion.

Had the Court taken a different path and perhaps entertained – and agreed with – Maryland’s contention that the South Branch marked the actual border, maps of the two states would look very different  than they do now.