New York Borders


(This 938th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on March 15, 2009.)



New York State and its Neighbors


Mark Stein's book, How the States Got Their Shapes (Smithsonian), relates the interesting history of the boundaries of each of our fifty United States. I have drawn on his and other accounts to describe how New York State got its odd outline.


The Colony of New York began when the British wrested the region from the Dutch between 1664 when Peter Stuyvesant surrendered to British forces and 1674 when the British finally gained full control. King Charles II then gave the portion north of New Jersey to the Duke of York. This region encompassed the Hudson River watershed east to the Connecticut River and thus included not only the western half of Connecticut and Massachusetts but all of Vermont.


In 1664 Connecticut accepted an agreement that Long Island was part of New York and in 1683 a complicated arrangement was reached between the two states about a north-south border 20 miles east of the Hudson, but with a panhandle that left Greenwich and Stanford to Connecticut. In exchange for this panhandle, a long narrow slice of land following the northern section of the boundary was ceded to New York. This thin pie-shaped slice running all the way to Massachusetts is called "the Oblong".


In the case of Massachusetts, England had to intervene to settle matters. In 1759, the British declared that the NY-Mass boundary was to be a continuation of that survey line 20 miles east of the Hudson River.


But not quite. If you examine the map you will see that a small triangle is snipped off the southwest corner of Massachusetts. The hamlet of Boston Corners was cut off by mountains from the rest of the state and was only reached by roads and railroads from New York and Connecticut. Isolated from Massachusetts law enforcement, it became what came to be known as a criminal "city of refuge". After a celebrated fight between boxers John Morrissey and James Sullivan in 1853 led to a riot there, local citizens petitioned to New York for annexation. Between 1853 and 1855 this was accomplished, New York promptly enforced the laws and the outlaws were driven away.


New York gave up Vermont in 1789, twelve years after Vermonters declared their independence and two years before the state was admitted as the fourteenth of the United States. The survey line south of the Lake Champlain border was finalized in 1812.


At the end of the French and Indian War in 1763, England gained the Canadian Province of Quebec and important access to the Great Lakes through the St. Lawrence River. Worried about upsetting the largely French population of Quebec, the British established the northern boundary of the then Colony of New York as the St. Lawrence and, to provide a buffer for Montreal, the east-west 45 Latitude line.


Later the 1783 Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolutionary War established the Niagara River border between New York and Ontario and confirmed that northern boundary as well.


New Jersey's northern border with New York was also contentious, but shortly after the Revolutionary War a line running from the Hudson at 41 North Latitude to the point at which the Delaware River turns northwest was established. As you might expect, negotiations were tougher in the New York City area. Finally a complex agreement gave New York Staten and Ellis Islands, but when New York extended Ellis Island to take care of additional immigrants, that same agreement gave New Jersey the right to the new area.


The location of our long southern border with Pennsylvania was complicated by a claim by Connecticut for these same lands. Two confrontations called the Yankee-Pennamite Wars fought over this boundary. Those were finally settled in 1788, but then a disagreement arose over which parallel of Latitude would serve as the NY-Penn border. Here math played an odd role. Pennsylvania claimed 43, New York 42, quite a difference because 43 would have made Buffalo part of Pennsylvania. Finally it was agreed to round down to 42, only because Pennsylvania had a similar argument with Virginia to its south.


Only one bit remained. A triangle was ceded to Pennsylvania to give the state access to Lake Erie. By agreement, the north-south line cutting this off from New York is the same longitude as the western end of Lake Ontario.-- Gerry Rising