Today’s article is prompted by a reader question, to wit, “Dear Mr. So-Called History Person: I’m told that the east branch of the Pearl River was chosen as our border with Mississippi because an empty whiskey barrel thrown in upstream emerged from that stream’s mouth. What do you think?” Well, I do have a so-called answer, but first a little gratuitous information.
As every schoolboy knows, Louisiana is shaped like a boot. Well, maybe more like an orthopedic shoe … with the toe blown out … that needs half-soling because of coastal erosion. Located on the U.S.’s soft underbelly, it looks like the eastward-pointing foot of America, just as the Midwest is our heart and the east coast is our face to most of the western world. Using this same anatomical analogy, I’m not sure what that would make California, but it is the last place in the Lower 48 to see the sun shine every day. I have been asked not to discuss what other states might, or might not, represent.
Anyway, although our great state may look like some sort of small, misshapen footwear today, this has not always been the case. At one time, we looked like some sort of large, misshapen footwear – an enormous hip boot lodged in the gut of our continent. I refer, of course, to the great swath of territory acquired in the 1803 Louisiana Purchase - arguably the last acquisition by a government purchasing agent that resulted in taxpayers getting value for their money.
Two hundred odd years ago, the Louisiana Territory comprised over 825,000 square miles; today there’s a little over 50,000 square miles of territory within our state’s borders. How did we allow this to happen? Why hasn’t the Legislature done something?
Actually, the “Big Shrink” occurred almost immediately after the Purchase. In 1804, the vast area was divided into two parts: the Territory of Orleans and the District (later Territory) of Louisiana. The former became the State of Louisiana in 1812, and the latter eventually became all or part of 14 states.
The dividing line between the two territories was the 33rd parallel of latitude. Why? Because using latitude and longitude as state boundaries was all the rage after the Public Land Survey System was adopted in the late 1700s (that’s why there are a lot of straight lines as borders for our western states.) Because the 33rd parallel was between New Orleans and St. Louis, the other great city in the territory. Because most of the people at the time were in the southern part, and this division created a manageable chunk for a territory. Who knows all the reasons, but the 33rd parallel became, and still is, our border with Arkansas to the north.
One would think that defining our southern boundary would be easy. The Gulf of Mexico, right? However, as we’ve sadly discovered, this boundary between Gulf and land is ever-changing. However, notwithstanding continuing disputes over offshore mineral rights, our actual geographic boundaries were pretty well delineated when Congress added us as a state in 1812: “Beginning at the mouth of the River Sabine, thence by a line drawn along the middle of said river, including all islands to the 32d degree of latitude; thence due north to the northernmost part of the 33d degree of north latitude; thence along the said parallel of latitude to the River Mississippi; thence down the said river to the River Iberville (Bayou Manchac and the lower Amite River), and from thence along the middle of said river and Lakes Maurepas and Pontchartrain to the Gulf of Mexico; thence bounded by the said gulf to the place of beginning, including all islands within three leagues (18 miles) of the coast, etc.” A lot of this is under water now, but it is actually still a part of our state and not our coastal waters.
The quoted language above is interesting. At the time it was written, a good bit of southwestern Louisiana east of the Sabine was not considered by many (particularly Spain) to be part of the Louisiana Purchase, and consequently, the state of Louisiana. Despite the generally good relations between Spain, France and the United States in Louisiana’s colonial and early statehood periods, the boundary between Louisiana territory and the Viceroyalty of New Spain in what is now the western and southwestern U.S. was always in dispute. The matter wasn’t settled until the very one-sided Adams-Onís Treaty of 1819, by which Spain ceded Florida and a big hunk of the west to the United States. As a result, Louisiana’s western border extended from the Gulf up the Sabine River to the 32nd meridian of latitude, and due north from there to the 33rd meridian. That’s where it is today.
Most of our eastern boundary has always been the Mississippi River, and except for a few disputes involving land created, destroyed or shifted from one side of the river to the other by the Mississippi’s meanderings, this edge of our state has been pretty clearly defined. And that brings us to Louisiana’s southeastern border, the Florida Parishes, and the Pearl River.
Remember that the Florida Parishes were probably not intended to be part of the Louisiana Purchase. They were French Louisiana until the French and Indian War, then British West Florida until the American Revolution, then Spanish West Florida until 1810, then the independent Republic of West Florida for a few months, then the U.S. Territory of Orleans, then part of the state of Louisiana when Congress amended the state’s legal boundary description a few days after the original version was approved to add, “Beginning at the junction of the Iberville with the River Mississippi; thence along the middle of the Iberville, the River Amite, and of the Lakes Maurepas and Pontchartrain to the eastern mouth of the Pearl river; thence up the eastern branch of Pearl river to the 31st degree of north latitude; thence along the said degree of latitude to the River Mississippi; thence down the said river to the place of beginning, shall become and form a part of the said state of Louisiana.”
Why the 31st degree of north latitude? After the Revolution, when West Florida had been returned from the British to the Spanish, Spain had been forced to agree to this as the northern limit of their border with the American territory that was to become Mississippi. So it became the northern boundary of our Florida parishes with the state of Mississippi. When Mississippi petitioned for statehood, they asked that the portion of West Florida between the Pearl and Perdido Rivers be split off from Louisiana so that Mississippi and what was to become Alabama would have seacoasts.
But what about the whiskey barrel story? Although whiskey barrels may well have been the cutting edge of hydrological research equipment at the time, the story is probably apocryphal. The “eastern branch of the Pearl” is specifically mentioned in the Congressional language. With swamp to the west and drier land to the east, it was also probably a much more logical demarcation line in those days than the western branch. Today, the Pearl and Bogue Chitto, along with their tributaries, distributaries, sloughs, etc. created by flood control, navigation, and other water-management projects form a tangled web, with the West Pearl frequently carrying more flow and appearing to be the major river, but in the early 1800s, the East Pearl ruled. That’s my so-called answer, but I would love to hear from anyone who knows more about the whiskey barrel float trip.