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Geographical Oddities of the United States

In my final year of college I needed something to do while I ate breakfast each morning. Fortunately one of my roommates had a U.S. road atlas. I would pick a state each day, and study it between bites of Kashi Go-Lean. Here are some things I found that made my hair stand on end and my bow-tie spin around.

Point Roberts, Washington State

The Tsawwassen Peninsula juts out into cool Pacific waters of the Strait of Georgia, just south of Vancouver. Most of the peninsula belongs to Canada, but the bottom tip is strangely part of Washington state.

Here’s the deal. Back in the 1840s, the border between the Oregon Territory and Canada was in dispute. There was even some talk of going to war. But cooler heads prevailed, and a treaty was promptly drafted declaring the international border to be the 49th parallel. Everything above was part of Canada, and everything below (excluding Vancouver Island) was part of the U.S. However, at that time knowledge of the area was still a bit iffy. It turned out that the bottom tip of the Tsawwassen peninsula dipped below the 49th parallel, and was thus technically part of the United States.

Seems like one of those cases where you say “whatever Canada, take it”, but a treaty is a treaty. Although only accessible from the U.S. by boat or plane, Point Roberts (as it is now called) is still part of the United States, all 4.9 square miles of it. It has a full border crossing and everything. Canadians flock there in the summer to spend their hard-earned Canadian vacation dollars.

The Northwest Angle, Minnesota

Of the lower 48 states, which is the northernmost? Many people will say Maine, but these people are fools. Washington, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota and Minnesota would all share a tie for first place, with a northern border at the 49th parallel… but Minnesota takes the prize, due to an oddity called the Northwest Angle.

Looking at an outline of Minnesota, it is a point that sticks up at the very top. At first glance your reaction might be WTF. It is separated from the rest of the state by the Lake of the Woods. It’s not an island or anything like that, just a random blotch of land without notable natural resources or settlements.

Its history begins with the Treaty of Paris, which ended the American Revolution. The treaty awarded the newly independent United States with the Northwest Territory, a big hunk of land ready to be carved into new states. It called for the border to go to the northwestern-most part of the Lake of the Woods, then continue westward until it hit the Mississippi River. However, the source of the Mississippi (Lake Itasca) turned out to be farther south than the Lake of the Woods, making this impossible. To fix this, it was later decided that the border should instead travel to the northwestern-most part of the Lake of the Woods, then due south until the 49th parallel, and then due west. This unexpectedly resulted in a small notch of land being included in U.S. territory, and thus the Northwest Angle was born.

Mississippi River, Various States

The Mississippi River, the longest river in North America, helps form the borders of 10 states. The map above shows a close-up of the borders between Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas near Memphis. It makes no sense! Although the state borders roughly follow the river, there are random bits of land all over the place that actually belong to the state on the opposite side.

The Mississippi gradually changes course over time. Normally, the state boundaries change along with it. However, sometimes a flood or other event can suddenly change the course overnight. When this happens, the state boundaries don’t change. It’s confusing and has led to several U.S. Supreme Court cases over the years. But all those pockets of land you see are a history of sudden course changes.

The Southwick Jog, Connecticut/Massachusetts

The northern border of Connecticut with Massachusetts looks like a straight line, but if you look closely in the middle there’s a little notch cut out of it. What the hell? This notch is called the Southwick Jog. Like the Northwest Angle, its origins are convoluted. It dates back to the 1700s when colonial borders were still a bit fluid. Ultimately, this bit of land was given to Massachusetts as compensation to end a tedious series surveying disputes over the years. It still remains.

Conclusion

Despite having more straight lines per capita than most of the world, the U.S. still has it’s fair share of geographical oddities. But it’s a big world out there, and we are just getting started. If you want your mind to be blown, check out the border between the Netherlands and Belgium – we’re talking exclaves inside of exclaves (not joking!). Happy hunting.

Copyright © 2005—2017 Joel Strait. Also at GitHub, Instagram, Twitter.