I talked about the longest postal route in the United States recently, the saga of Jim Ed Bull and his 187.6 mi (302 km) daily slog from Mangum, Oklahoma extending through the rural countryside. I also discovered an interesting bit of trivia during my research. This little corner of southwestern Oklahoma used to be part of Texas until almost the 20th Century.
I’d stumbled across this historical marker.
Old Greer County Marker by Jimmy Emerson, DVM, on Flickr (cc)
OLD GREER COUNTY. S. and W. of North Fork of Red R. Greer Co. was named and governed as a part of Texas from 1860 until 1896 when U. S. Supreme Crt. decision made it part of Oklahoma Ter. This county area was claimed by 14 different governments from 1669 to Oklahoma statehood in 1907; since then it has been divided into 3 counties and the southern part of Beckham County.
I’ll maybe leave that "14 different governments" claim for another day. Right now I’ll focus on the first sentence, the one about being part of Texas from 1860 to 1896. That seemed easily verifiable and there were a number of sources available. I consulted the Handbook of Texas from the Texas State Historical Association, the Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture from the Oklahoma Historical Society, and of course I went to a primary source, the actual U.S. Supreme Court decision, United States v Texas (1896).
I also took a shot at creating a map showing the approximate footprint of old Greer County, Texas, now divided into Greer, Jackson, Harmon and part of Beckham Counties, Oklahoma. This was the first time I’ve drawn something using Google’s Map Engine Lite now that the former Google Maps "My Maps" capability has been completely deprecated. I guess it turned out acceptably well.
The root of the issue extended all the way back to the Adams–Onís Treaty of 1819, that — among several things such as making Florida a part of the U.S. — formalized the boundary between the U.S. and Spain’s colonial territories in North America. The treaty relied upon the best map available at the time and referenced it by name, "Melishe’s Map of the United States, published at Philadelphia, improved to the first of January 1818."
The Melish Map had been drafted by John Melish, a Scottish immigrant with a penchant for detail and accuracy. He published his "Map of the United States with the contiguous British and Spanish Possessions" originally in 1816. It was the first map to depict the United States as extending to the Pacific Ocean. It also contained a couple of key problems that later created the situation in Greer County: the 100th Meridian was drawn about a degree too far east and the Red River was shown as having only a single branch.
Texas State Line-100th Meridian by Jimmy Emerson, DVM, on Flickr (cc)
Texas inherited the former Spanish boundary (later Mexican boundary) when it became an independent Republic and adhered to it when it became part of the United States. Texas also relied upon the most favorable interpretation of the Treaty. It used the Melish Map and its errors literally when it drew Greer County in 1860 and named it for the state’s former lieutenant governor John Alexander Greer who served 1847-1851. The Federal government disputed Texas’ interpretation. However the Civil War soon broke out and there were more pressing issues to address.
Greer County’s population grew tremendously in the post-war years. Only ten families lived in Greer in 1884 on expansive cattle ranches. Two years later, settlers established a county seat in Mangum. According to the Handbook of Texas, "A school system was set up, and by 1892 sixty-six school districts had been formed with an enrollment of 2,250 pupils." The population jumped from almost zero to several thousand in a decade. That amount of growth could no longer be ignored by the Federal government. President Harrison signed an act organizing the Oklahoma Territory and it contained a provision that required a solution. Otherwise the dispute would complicate eventual Oklahoma statehood. A Commission failed to reach an agreement and the case went to the Supreme Court.
The United States favored the true 100th Meridian and the Prairie Dog Town Fork (i.e., the southern fork; the main fork) of the Red River as the boundary between Texas and the Oklahoma Territory. Texas favored the 100th Meridian of the Melish map and the North Fork of the Red River, relying upon the explicit language of the Adams–Onís Treaty. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the United States and the disputed land became part of Oklahoma.
EPILOGUE: While Texas lost the case and was compelled to recognize the "true" 100th Meridian as its border with that part of Oklahoma, the two states continued to bicker about the accuracy of the survey that established the meridian. They didn’t agree on its permanent placement until 1930.
The full story has been preserved by the Old Greer County Museum in Mangum.