One of the more interesting side stories about states’ borders are the cases in which disputes about these borders continue long after the state is admitted into the union. Surveying errors, disagreements about markers, and disputes about which state is entitled to certain tracts of land can force state governments to pursue judicial relief long after the issue is supposedly settled. As recently as 1998 New York and New Jersey were squabbling over who owned Ellis Island and it took a Supreme Court ruling to grant the majority of the island to New Jersey.
A disagreement between South Dakota and Nebraska was typical of the kinds of ongoing border disputes the courts have seen. A portion of the border that separates Nebraska and South Dakota is defined by the meandering route of the Missouri River.
Back in the 1800’s both states essentially gave a handshake agreement on that declaration, but they never officially ratified the treaty. In the meantime the Missouri River acted as rivers often do – it continued to meander. Floods caused erosion of the banks and the force of moving water changed some of the curves on the course. In the 1950’s dams were built that settled things down a bit.
But the gradual changes caused some anxiety on both sides and everything came to a head in 1977 when the Missouri River was named a National Recreational River. Suddenly the spotlight was on fishing and waterfowl hunting laws that hadn’t mattered before. South Dakota had a law they called the “Duck Bill” that banned waterfowl hunting by non-residents. The problem was that over the course of decades, some of the land that Nebraskans had always hunted on was now on the South Dakota side because of flooding.. The urgency to ratify the treaty and settle it once and for all ramped up and eventually a compromise was reached that allowed a limited number of permits for Nebraskans to hunt on their old favorite spots.
The river’s changing course had caused other problems resulting in homeowners losing land too. St. Helen Island used to be on the South Dakota side of the river but a flood shifted it to the Nebraska side. Additionally a parcel of land called Elk Island was no longer an island after a shift in the river left it attached to the South Dakota bank. This became a problem because landowners were still paying taxes to Nebraska.
Watch for some other ongoing border disputes in future posts.