Tidbits of Shelby County History: The International Boundary Line between Texas, United States

July 30, 2020 - The northern and western boundaries of the Republic of Texas were vastly different from present day Texas and included the following areas. From the mouth of the Sabine River north to the 32nd parallel, then due north to the Red River, west to the 100th meridian, north to the Arkansas River and present day Dodge City, Kansas, then west to the headwaters of the Arkansas River near present day Leadville, Colorado and then north to the 42nd parallel, near present day Rawlins, Wyoming. From Silverton, Colorado the western and southern boundary then followed the course of the Rio Grande River. Its total length is approximately 1,896 miles.

Both France and Spain claimed the area of the present state of Texas and in 1716 the Spanish presidio of Los Adaes which was the capital of Tejas on the northeastern frontier of New Spain from 1729 to 1770, was located a few miles from the French outpost and trading center at Natchitoches (1714). Its primary purpose was to block French encroachment upon Spain's southwestern possessions. Part presidio (fort) and part mission, this outpost was intended to keep the French out of New Spain and to bring Christianity to the Caddo Indians and their neighbors.

The Arroyo Hondo, a Red River tributary between the Sabine River and Natchitoches, as the boundary between Louisiana and New Spain. This boundary was recognized by French and Spanish higher authority and the provincial capitol of Texas was located at Los Adaes. After Louisiana was ceded to Spain in 1762, (by secret Treaty of Fontainebleau), the Arroyo Hondo continued to be the boundary between the province of Louisiana and the province of Texas.

Having lost Canada, King Louis XV of France proposed to King Charles III of Spain that France should give Spain "the country known as Louisiana, as well as New Orleans and the island in which the city is situated”; Charles accepted on November 13, 1762. When the United States purchased Louisiana in 1803 the boundary, while recognized for nearly 100 years, was still not clearly defined and President Thomas Jefferson decided the purchase included all territory to the Rio Grande. The Spanish entered counter claims based on the historic boundary at Arroyo Hondo – a short, non-descript stream near Natchitoches - and moved troops in 1806 east of the Sabine River to repel an anticipated invasion of Texas by Aaron Burr. In 1806, another confrontation between Spanish and American troops occurred on the Sabine River. The two commanders decided to agree to disagree rather than fight. They declared that the land between the Sabine River and the Arroyo Hondo (between Los Adaes and Natchitoches) would belong to no one—it would be a neutral strip—a no-man’s-land.

The boundary question remained far from solution when the Orleans Territory became the State of Louisiana in 1812. The new state proceeded to describe its western boundary as running along the “Middle” of the Sabine River “to the thirty-second degree of north latitude – thence due north. Although two Congressional Acts – the Enabling Act and the Act of Admission – acknowledge the same western limits, the United States continued to observe the neutral zone.

In 1819, the Adams-Onis Treaty between Spain and the United States recognized Spanish sovereignty over Texas. The treaty finally defined the eastern boundary of Texas; “as at the mouth of the Sabine River, continuing along the west bank of said river to its intersection with the 32nd parallel of latitude; thence; by a line due north to the degree of latitude where it strikes the Rio Roxo (Red River)”. The south bank of the Red River formed part of the US–Mexico border until the Texas Annexation. Although the two nations had reached an agreement relative to this stretch of international boundary, a joint Spanish-American survey would be required to mark the actual line.

The treaty was ratified in 1821 by Spain, but by that time Mexico was independent and refused to be bound by the treaty. The Arroyo Hondo and (unconnected) Calcasieu River were the eastern boundary, with the Sabine River serving as the western boundary. The southern boundary was undoubtedly the Gulf of Mexico, and it can be assumed that the northern boundary was the thirty-second parallel, approximately. To avoid a war, the two countries agreed that the land in contention would remain “neutral and free” of armed forces from either side. The lawless area became inhabited by desperadoes. This region stretched from Sabine River to Arroyo Hondo and encompassed the land that now makes the present-day Louisiana parishes of De Soto, Sabine, Natchitoches, Vernon, Rapides, Beauregard, Allen, Calcasieu, Jefferson Davis, and Cameron.

As this new line was to run due north from the point where the thirty-second parallel hit the western bank rather than where it hit the middle of the Sabine River, it was relocated a few feet west of the boundary line originally claimed by the state of Louisiana. That is how the former capital of Spanish Texas, Los Adaes, ended up in Louisiana.

The following year after the Adams-Onis Treaty was ratified, the Americans established an army outpost, Cantonment Jesup, which operated from 1822 until 1846, in the old neutral zone and began issuing land grants to settlers in the area. A new Mexican American treaty was signed in 1828 recognizing the boundary of 1819. Once again, the ratification of the treaty was delayed, this time until 1832. Before Mexico and the United States got around to surveying the line, the Americans acquired a new neighbor to the west – the Republic of Texas.

The new Republic was formed by the defeat of Mexico in the Texas Revolution and claimed borders that encompassed an area that included all of the present State of Texas, as well as parts of present-day New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, and Wyoming. During its short life, the Republic of Texas was plagued with boundary problems with Mexico and the United States. The boundaries had been in dispute for many years. One of the most troublesome spots was the north-south line that ran – or to be more accurate, supposedly ran – between the Red and Sabine Rivers in East Texas. Confusion prevailed. Settlers, and even entire communities, had no way of determining whether they were in the United States or in the Republic of Texas.

In April 1838, W.J. Stone shook hand with the President in Washington, D.C. and promised to complete his appointed task “with all due speed and accuracy.” Stone had just been charged with the responsibility of charting a boundary between the Republic of Texas and the United States of America. The epic journey to complete the survey had begun.

The commission met in New Orleans and began to gather provisions and arrange transportation to the mouth of the Sabine River. They convened on October 15, 1839 and had problems. Major J.D. Graham and Lieutenant T.J. Lee had not arrived with the astronomical apparatus and other equipment needed. A page from the commission journal showed why it took so long for the men to arrive with the instruments – and provided a good example of what John Milton meant when he wrote, “Confusion worse confounded”.

Graham did not receive his orders in Washington detailing him to this service until November 1, 1839. He then had to proceed to collect and pack up the astronomical instruments necessary for the execution of his duties. Water transportation was needed to ensure safe passage for the delicate instruments, so they sent a messenger to tell the commission they would be delayed. The messenger left on December 29 but did not reach the commission’s campsite until January 21, 1840. In the meantime, the US commissioner had gone to New Orleans on business and had already met with Major Graham and Lieutenant Lee. By this time, the pair had arranged for “an excellent 47-ton sloop,” and were ready to sail on January 27. Three days later they reached the Sabine campsite.

They immediately “commenced the necessary astronomical observations for determining the latitude and longitude of the junction of the west bank of the Sabine with the sea, and the dip and declination of the magnetic needle”.

Finally, on May 21, 1840, demarcation of the boundary was begun. It was marked by a mound of earth about 50 feet in diameter and seven feet high and surmounted by a 36-foot high pole with a keg on its top, and the site was marked “A” on a map. They continued tracing the boundary up the river, often making astronomical observation long past midnight, especially when the nights were clear. Many obstacles had to be overcome to complete the commission job of surveying the boundary line.

Then – success! They reached the Red River. It was reported in the journal on June 24 “the meridian portion of this boundary has been achieve amid difficulties of no ordinary character, arising as well from the nature of the country through which it passed, as from the unpropitious season of the year. The plans or maps of the whole extent of the boundary are determined and authenticated by the signing of this journal by the joint commission.” The United States and the Republic of Texas had its boundary. The papers and other data buried in them have long since disappeared, but the journal lives on, a memorial to the men’s fortitude and forbearance. The actual maps, certified by J.W. Stone, are in the US Archives, but the State of Texas Library has photostatic copies.

The boundary disputes of Texas with the state of Arkansas continued. As one boundary dispute was settled, another was created. On June 5, 1841, the Joint Commission marked the location of the thirty-third parallel as – 1,692 feet north of the 69th mound – and erected a marker there. Unfortunately, this parallel, which separated Arkansas from Louisiana, had previously been placed about 3,205 feet further north, or just south of where the 70th mound was erected. This new border problem was not resolved until 1895, when the western six miles of the Arkansas-Louisiana border was surveyed along the original line.

The boundary was made by mile markers placed from the mouth of the Sabine on the Louisiana-Texas border to the Red River on the Arkansas-Texas border. A granite marker set on the west side of the Sabine fell into the river years ago when the sandy bank crumbled. A second granite marker was located at the 32nd parallel about 100 feet of FM 31 north of the road, between Deadwood and Logansport on the Louisiana-Texas border. This unique boundary marker was a granite shaft set on April 23, 1841. No other America boundary has gone through contests between France, Spain, the United States and Republic of Texas. On the west side, the marker is engraved with a R. T. standing for the Republic of Texas. On the east side are the letters “U.S.”. On the south side, the marker is engraved “Merid. N T Boundary, established AD 1840. The small granite shaft was one of several placed from the mouth of the Sabine on the Louisiana-Texas border to the Red River on the Arkansas-Texas border. The dated 1840 marker is the only remaining sign of a survey crew which charted the boundary between the Republic and the U.S. from 1838 to 1841.

What a story this simple granite shaft could tell if it could speak. It traveled many weeks with the joint commission on a flooded river, through malaria infested swamps and “snakey” cane brakes. Even in recent years some illegal trophy collector attempted to dig up the marker and apparently gave up the task because of the depth of the foundation.

The smaller shape of today’s Texas was defined with the Compromise of 1850, in which Texas gave up its claims to vast tracts of western land in exchange for transferring its crushing public debt to the United States. This debt/land exchange resulted in the modern-day shape of the State of Texas.

Note: This is just a summary of the information on the boundary of Texas in the Shelby County Museum. Most of this report was taken from information gathered by Evelyn Biggars, a pamphlet given at the dedication of the International Boundary Park in 1976, “The Elusive East Texas Border” by Thomas F. Roffin and numerous newspaper articles.