Stair Step Border

On May 29, 2011 · 12 Comments

A jagged border can be found between Perry and Yell Counties in Arkansas, complete with fifteen perfectly-aligned steps rising northeasterly like a superhuman staircase drawn upon the landscape. The path traverses land and lakes alike, in a noticeably precise pattern.



It seemed rather unusual to me. More commonly one would expect to see a border drawn along a straight, diagonal line rather than move through sequenced steps. The general history of each county provides few clues. Yell County, the one towards the west of the sawtooth, formed on December 5, 1840 and was named for an early governor of Arkansas. The bit of trivia most frequently cited is that it actually has two county seats, Dardanelle (western district) and Danville (eastern district) although the county courthouse is located in Dardanelle.

Perry County was created thirteen days later, on December 18, 1840. It doesn’t have dual county seats but they named it for a more interesting character: Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, a hero of the War of 1812. He was also the brother of Commodore Matthew Perry who was credited with opening Japan to the western world in 1854.

Both counties are dry. That means I won’t be stopping in either place for long when I visit them someday in pursuit of my county counting adventures.


Crawford and Pulaski Arkansas in 1821

Formation stories for neither county mention a zig-zag border. That’s because the steps seems to be a much more recent phenomenon. For that turn of events I consulted a favorite tool, the Arkansas page of the Atlas of Historical County Boundaries. It is a wonderful public resource provided by the Newberry Library of Chicago, and one I use frequently for another of my other hobbies, Genealogy. Knowledge of previous county boundaries is indispensable to tracking down relevant government records.

From this, I determined that the sawtooth does have some grounding in a much older, much longer line. Notice that I used the word "line" specifically, as in a single line and not a bunch of them cobbled together to form a staircase. The tool imposes historic county boundaries (black) atop the current boundary structure (white). The line appeared with an adjustment between Crawford County — which extended well into present-day Oklahoma at the time — and Pulaski County, that occurred on October 24, 1821. It’s the northeastern half of what I’ve enclosed in the red box.

Crawford and Pulaski still exist today as an aside, albeit with greatly diminished forms. Crawford is the county just north of Fort Smith, AR, with its seat in Van Buren (yes, Van Buren! — don’t you love how all these articles intertwine eventually?). Pulaski is more well known. It is the home county for the Arkansas state capital, Little Rock.

I checked all manner of historic maps of Arkansas online and I went through the Newberry tool adjusting various dates. I observed that it remained a single diagonal line throughout much of the Nineteenth Century, even as various other county boundaries changed and solidified elsewhere within Arkansas. Newberry finally displayed a sawtooth beginning April 8, 1891, which I used to search the the Acts of Arkansas on Google Books. On that date, Act CLXV ("to Define the Lines Between the Counties of Yell and Perry") came into existence. It also moved a small triangle of southwestern Perry into neighboring Yell.

The Act was full of references to townships/ranges and sections familiar to those who have ever had to work with the Public Land Survey System (again, very important for genealogists and personal historians). I then used a tool provided by Earth Point to superimpose the existing Arkansas township grid upon the Arkansas county line structure in Google Earth.


Arkansas Townships and Sections

Orange lines denote townships/ranges and purple lines denote sections (notice the classic 36 sections, a mile on each side, within each township). The sawtooth boundary between Perry and Yell appears as a faint whiter line rising diagonally from the southwest corner heading to the northeast. Sure enough, it snaps directly onto the township grid.

This explains the basis for the weird county boundary but not the reason. That will require greater research than I could muster using sources easily available to me. I could speculate that it saved the state money because the new county boundaries didn’t need to be resurveyed. Also it would have simplified land ownership and taxation records because township sections would fall entirely within one county or the other. Who knows, maybe even a wealthy or influential individual wanted all of his land to be placed within a specific county. Stranger things have happened.

Whatever the reason, it’s one of the more unusual boundaries I’ve ever seen.

On May 29, 2011 · 12 Comments

12 Responses to “Stair Step Border”

  1. Pfly says:

    There’s a few similiar examples in Oregon and Washington. The border between Grant County and Douglas County, Washington, has two stairstep sections, along township lines, hugging the edges of Moses Coulee and Grand Coulee. Multnomah County, Oregon, is pretty bizarre, with a number of township-based stairsteps. The Washington-Tillamook county border has an odd stairstep bulge, which appears to approximate the Wilson River watershed.

    In Canada, the Manitoba-Saskatchewan border has a surprising number of steps, following Canada’s township grid. I think you posted about that once.

    I would bet you are right that the reason for these things is because it would be silly to define boundaries that differed from the PLSS grid, once the grid had been surveyed.

    • The Multnomah County border you mentioned – at the interface between Multnomah and Washington Counties – is interesting for two other reasons, at least to me: it runs strictly in very rugged (for a city, anyway) country (the Tualatin Mountains-Portland’s “West Hills” and alongside Portland’s Forest Park) and the stairstep follows section lines as well, which is appropriate, as the beginning place for the SE-NW staircase is the Willamette Stone – Oregon and Washington’s Public Land Survey IP, intersection of Willamette Baseline and Meridian.

  2. Mr Burns says:

    “… it actually has two county seats…”

    Cool! My Ozark hillbilly ancestors are from Carroll County, Arkansas. Carroll County also has two county seats: Berryville and Eureka Springs. Makes me wonder how common that is in Arkansas, and how common it is in the rest of the country. Perhaps a subject for a future article … … ?

    • Alex H says:

      Ten counties each in Arkansas and Mississippi, plus a few others in other states like Iowa and Kentucky. Wikipedia gives a list: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/County_seat#U.S._counties_with_more_than_one_county_seat Sometimes people can’t agree on what the county seat is. Campbell County, KY’s Wikipedia page lists two county seats but the “County Seat” page says there’s only one.

      • Peter says:

        Suffolk County, New York, where I am, is a de facto case of a county with two seats. Riverhead is the official county seat. It has the main courthouse, the jail, and a few other offices. But most of the county offices are in Hauppague, which is more centrally located than Riverhead.

  3. Alex H says:

    Danville also has a courthouse: http://www.flickr.com/photos/courthouselover/357636723/ The Dardanelle one looks nicer tho: http://www.flickr.com/photos/courthouselover/357636717/in/set-72157625325085919/

    My guess is the border’s because of tax records. It’s a hassle when your property’s in two counties or states.

  4. Pfly says:

    Also, weather satellite imagery sometimes makes it seem as if some county lines in the Pacific Northwest are based on cloud cover: http://pfly.net/pfly/counties-clouds.jpg — where political lines, terrain, and weather patterns are inter-related…

  5. This is very similar to the Saskatchewan/Manitoba border, which zigzags slightly to the west along township/range lines for more than half of its length: (http://esask.uregina.ca/entry/boundary_surveys.html)

  6. Pfly says:

    A quick look for other stairstep county borders turned up several with a lot of stepping, but none as perfectly “diagonal” along townships, like this Perry-Yell example. A few extra steppy counties I noted were Washington County, OR, Plumas County, CA, and in Montana, the Wibaux-Dawson county border.

    But I stumbled upon the strangest shaped county I think I’ve seen: Merrick County, Nebraska. It has two odd “panhandles” on its northeast and northwest sides. The northwest panhandle is a perfectly rectangular, very narrow (about 0.6 mile) strip extending due north about 9 miles. It looks like it matches the township grid (the strip being one township wide), but the townships in this strip are non-standard, much more narrow than normal. That EarthPoint tool you mentioned seems to indicate some of the townships extend out of the strip into the neighboring county, but I can’t quite tell. Very strange!

    • from Wikipedia says:

      “When first formed, the county was bounded on the south by the Platte River, and by straight lines on the north, east, and west. It thus included 180 square miles of the Pawnee Reservation, established one year before the county. In 1873, the state legislature removed these reservation lands from the county, leaving it with a jagged northern border from which narrow panhandles extended northward from the northeast and northwest corners. In 1897, the Pawnee Reservation became Nance County.” – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Merrick_County,_Nebraska

  7. mike says:

    we have a similar border close by- the border between Crawford and Venango Counties in PA. ( http://mapq.st/lebiEL )

    The thing is, that border was established before the PLSS every existed. Still trying to figure that one out. Especially since it looks very poorly drawn, even by today’s standards….

  8. Jacob says:

    I know how much you love when people come on here and use the search bar to find obscure topics. I also know you love it even more when people comment on articles from years ago. So today (or rather tonight) I will gift you with both.

    I was doing some mindless map looking at various ski resorts across the nation, because it is getting to be that time of year and I am itching to get my board out and hit the slopes. I’m not sure if you recall, but on your recent article “Counting Down” I commented and said that I had been wanting to snowboard into a new county. Just as a small side note, in case any other county counting skiers or boarders are interested in accomplishing this feat, this IS possible. Not only can you ski across a county line, but at Ski Heavenly, near Lake Tahoe, you can also cross from California into Nevada or vise versa.

    Now, back to what I really wanted to say about the stair step county borders. While I was looking at google earth with county lines imposed, I noticed that just east of Lake Tahoe there is a very nice stair step border between Lyon and Churchill counties in Nevada. I would have to imagine this has something to do with the township grid, especially since this is so far west, but I have no idea as to the actual reason.

    Sorry for the long comment just to point out a nice stair step. My inner geo-nerd came out while writing this.

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