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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: An Enduring Line

By Tom Morrow

In 1763, two rather obscure surveyors settled a border dispute involving Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. Today, the demarcation line drawn for the map of Colonial America serves as a border for the above three states, plus West Virginia.

The names of those two surveyors have lived on through a civil war to present-day America. The survey line drawn by Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon is the unofficial cultural border separating the north from the southern states. The term “Dixie” came into being and has since been a term designating the southern states.

The dispute was created in 1681, by King Charles II, when he granted a colony charter to William Penn. Previously, a 1632, royal decree had granted Charles Calvert, Baron of Baltimore, the colony of Maryland.

Maryland’s charter granted the land north of the entire length of the Potomac River up to the 40th parallel. Charles’ Pennsylvania grant caused a problem. His grant defined Pennsylvania’s southern border as identical to Maryland’s northern border, but described it differently because the King relied on an inaccurate map.

The terms of the Pennsylvania grant indicated that Charles II and William Penn believed the 40th parallel would intersect the so-called “Twelve-Mile Circle” around what is today New Castle, Delaware, when in fact it falls north of the original boundaries of the City of Philadelphia, the site of which Penn had already selected for his colony’s capital city.

In 1681, negotiations began to solve the problem. The next year, King Charles II proposed a compromise, which might have resolved the issue, however, it was undermined by Penn when he received the additional grant of the “Three Lower Counties” along Delaware Bay, which later became the Delaware Colony, a satellite of Pennsylvania.

Years later, in 1732, the proprietary governor of Maryland, Charles Calvert, 5th Baron of Baltimore, signed a provisional agreement with William Penn’s sons, which drew a line somewhere in between and renounced the Calvert claim to Delaware. But later, Lord Baltimore claimed the document he had signed did not contain the terms he agreed to, and refused to put the agreement into effect.

In the mid-1730s, violence erupted between settlers claiming various loyalties to Maryland and Pennsylvania. The border conflict became known as Cresap’s War.

Progress was made after a court ruling affirming the 1732 agreement, but the issue remained unresolved until Frederick Calvert, 6th Baron of Baltimore ceased contesting the claims on the Maryland side and accepted the earlier agreements. Maryland’s border with Delaware was to be based on the “Trans-peninsular Line” and the “Twelve-Mile Circle” around New Castle. The Pennsylvania-Maryland border was defined as the line of latitude 15 miles south of the southernmost house in Philadelphia (on what is today South Street).

To settle the dispute, Penn and Calvert hired British astronomer Charles Mason and surveyor Jeremiah Dixon to survey the newly-established boundaries between the Province of Pennsylvania, the Province of Maryland, and the Delaware Colony. It cost the Calvert family of Maryland and the Penn family of Pennsylvania an enormous amount of money to have the 244-mile border surveyed, but the two families considered it money was well-spent because there was no other way of establishing land ownership between the two colonies.

After Pennsylvania abolished slavery in 1781, the western part of the colony and the Ohio River became a border between Virginia (today West Virginia), separating slave and free states. Delaware retained its slavery until the 13th Constitutional Amendment was ratified in 1865.

Today, various survey markers can be found along the four-state borders, some of private property, so owner permission is necessary to see them.


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