The Merrick Strip

On May 31, 2011 · 7 Comments

It’s still not too late to enter the Iconic View contest. We have heavy representation from the U.S. Pacific Northwest, but only one entry from Europe and nothing from Canada. The deadline is Thursday at 5:00 pm U.S. Eastern Time. Moving along…

Three cheers for longtime reader Pfly for pointing out the Merrick Strip in a recent comment. Did you miss the comment? Are you wondering what I’m talking about? Then check out the northwest corner of Merrick County, Nebraska.

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Notice what almost looks like an antenna protruding from the main body of the county. It’s an odd appendage that rises due north for nine miles. Merrick is full of strange boundaries. A knob rests atop the northeast corner. A chunk of land can be found on the "wrong" side of the Platte River, probably signifying a change in the river course somewhere in the past. However, it’s that narrow sliver that rises to the top of the geo-oddities list.

Narrow Strip of Merrick Co., Nebraska
SOURCE: Nebraska Department of Roads

I found an even more precise map provided by the Nebraska Department of Roads. The distance running north conforms to what one would expect in the Public Land Survey System township/range model. The width, however, is quite unusual. It’s not nine complete sections stacked atop each other like blocks. However, the width of each segment seems to be only 2/3 of a mile (notice where the strip attaches to the rest of the county and compare to the section structure found there). Sections are generally split in halves elsewhere – e.g, half section, quarter section, and the like. Something based on thirds is a bit strange.

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I’d like to be the guy who lives at the tip of the strip. He’s hemmed-in by different counties on three sides: Howard County to the west and Nance County to the north and east. I love the way he’s positioned a center-pivot irrigation device on his parcel. The pivot is wider than the parcel so he can’t quite make a complete a circle. He’s had to lop off the edges on three sides to wedge it in to the parcel!

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I was hoping that this might also be a practical exclave. However, it doesn’t appear to be the case. This Street View image peers from the Howard-Merrick-Nance tripoint back into the tip of the Merrick County strip. Notice the dirt road heading south towards the horizon. It rides the spine of the Howard-Merrick boundary for nine miles to the main body of Merrick County, providing a razor-thin means of public access.

The unusual shape hasn’t gone unnoticed. Its origin is pretty easy to determine as a result. One of the better descriptions was compiled as part of a small booklet in recognition of Merrick’s 100th anniversary in 1958.

With a “panhandle” about 200 rods wide and nine miles long extending up between Nance and Howard Counties, Merrick is one of the most peculiarly shaped counties of Nebraska. There is another panhandle, 5 1/2 miles wide and six miles long at the northeast end of the county, Most of the northern boundary is a series of jogs, and very little of it coincides with section lines, and much less, township lines. The county line cuts across farmers’ fields in more cases than not.

The strip came about through a rapid series of events during the mid Nineteenth Century. I used the above source plus my favorite Atlas of Historical County Boundaries (Nebraska page) and various other online references to create a basic timeline.

  • 1854: Nebraska became a territory. County structures began to form
  • 1857: the U.S. Government established a reservation for the Pawnee Indians along the Loup River in Nebraska
  • 1858: Merrick County formed. Its northern border consisted of a straight line running directly through the Pawnee Reservation; the southern half of the Pawnee land then fell within Merrick Co.
  • 1867: Nebraska became a state
  • 1874-1876: Nebraska exercised its state powers, seized and sold the reservation lands, and used the funds to relocate the Pawnee Indians to Oklahoma
  • 1879: Nance County was formed from the former Pawnee reservation. Merrick’s northern border changed to its current peculiar form

Once again the story involves a broken treaty with a Native American tribe. This time the Pawnee Nation got the poor end of the bargain. However, it doesn’t explain why the western edge of Merrick County didn’t conform to the border of the Pawnee Reservation upon its establishment. Why were they 2/3 of a mile out of alignment?

I have a theory. Let’s consider that many of Nebraska’s internal borders were forming, moving and re-forming at a frantic pace in what amounted to a four-year period, 1854 through 1858. Imagine a scenario where the boundaries of the Pawnee Reservation were laid-down hastily. The following year surveyors would have come through the area a second time to mark the western edge of the newly-formed Merrick County. It clearly coincided with the township grid along with other counties forming at the time. If there was an error it wouldn’t really matter because the southern half of the reservation fell within Merrick regardless, and Nebraska probably wouldn’t want to hand-over ownership to the Indians anyway. We’ve seen that state boundaries formed during this period deviated by similar distances so it’s not so strange to consider that it might also happen at the county level too.

Merrick abruptly lost 180 square miles in 1879 when the remnants of the reservation were lifted from its borders by the state government. Would anyone really blame Merrick for holding onto their narrow strip? I don’t know if that’s the actual reason but I do know that people hate to lose land. Has anyone found the real story?

On May 31, 2011 · 7 Comments

7 Responses to “The Merrick Strip”

  1. Bill Harris says:

    I think your theory about the Loup strip is correct, but upon closer examination of the boundary along the Platte River shows that the chunk of land on the “wrong side of the river” is actually an island in the river.

  2. Doug R. says:

    It looks like the N-S road along the west edge of the strip does not cross the Loup river — therefore it is not possible to drive to the Merrick Strip from the “main body” of the county!

  3. Check out the western appendage to Tom Green County in Texas. It’s about a mile north-to-south, about 15 east-to-west.

    Tom Green County was once much larger, but one new county–Irion–was created in such a way that it would have cleaved Tom Green into two discrete halves. Thus, the north boundary of Irion was set so that a narrow strip of land would connect the main (east) part of the county (which includes the city of San Angelo) and the western half. For a time, it had a dumbbell shape. The west half later formed into Reagan County, but the vestigial strip remained in place.

  4. Fritz Keppler says:

    Back in August 2008 I drove along Nebraska 22 for the specific purpose of crossing the new lines involved there (Howard/Greeley, Howard/Nance, Nance/Greeley, Nance/Howard, Howard/Merrick and Merrick/Nance). It was a bit involved driving as far as I could on the shoulders of 22 to cross the Howard/Nance line both ways! And the dirt road north of 22 along the Nance/Greeley line was in poor shape, but I managed to drive a mile along it.

    I did try once to cross the Tom Green/Reagan line in Texas at that western panhandle, but not having a good map GPS at the time, I was unable to find it. I hope to return there at some future point.

    Also, during my recent trip to Florida and other areas of the South I managed to get across 143 new lines. The most difficult ones were across the Baker FL/Ware GA line, since the forest there at the National Wildlife Refuge had been burned over a few seasons before and it was quite dusty and my jeans got very sooty. And in crossing the Newton/Leake MS line, there were no fences or “no tresspassing” signs, but there was no trail either, and my legs got all scratched up from blackberry and other brambles. It would have been better to try to traverse it during the winter.

  5. Fritz Keppler says:

    And don’t you just love how Nebraska is the only state that has resisted aggrandizing its division responsible for getting from one place to another? Most states now have Departments of Highways, or of Transportation, or both!

  6. Dave C says:

    Noticing the section numbers for the strip, and working in a business where memorizing the PLSS is a must, a township contains 36 sections, typically (and supposed to) have 1 square mile per section. The exception is all sections located on the top and western sides of the township. These sections are adjusted for the curvature of the earth. Look up a section map of any county in western Nebraska, particulary Box Butte or Morrill counties. It is kind of hard to place a flat piece on a sphere without distortion, and some parts of the lesser developed areas received more distortion than the populated place. Merrick’s case, the western edge of the original county plat was all that remained after Nance county formed.
    6 5 4 3 2 1
    7 8 9 10 11 12
    18 17 16 15 14 13
    19 20 21 22 23 24
    30 29 28 27 26 25
    31 32 33 34 35 36

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