I sometimes wonder about unusually-shaped geopolitical boundaries. Sometimes I find it’s due to specific geographic features as with The Gambia. Other times it arises from territorial clashes as with the Temburong exclave of Brunei Darussalam. Generally speaking, the stranger the shape the better the story. So I got to wondering about the Missouri Bootheel, a little knob of land protruding from the state’s southeastern corner like a hernia.
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The Bootheel exists for no other reason than a single person wanted it to exist. It’s an enduring testament to the power and influence of a wealthy Nineteenth Century landowner, one John Hardeman Walker.
The “Czar of the Valley” gathered vast acreage in the wake of severe earthquakes rocking New Madrid in 1811-1812. Mr. Walker remained in the area while others left in fear for their lives. He used this as an opportunity to acquire cheap land from desperate people, and built a profitable cattle-raising business in what was then the Territory of Missouri.
The original State of Missouri petitions submitted to the United States Congress proposed a southern border pegged at latitude 36°30′. This would allow the new state to line up cleanly with the Kentucky / Tennessee border, immediately to the east. However this would also have left Mr. Walker sitting on the sidelines in Arkansas Territory, twenty five miles below the proposed State of Missouri.
He argued that towns along this stretch of the Mississippi River had more in common with settlements in Missouri such as St. Louis rather than with towns in Arkansas. He lobbied heavily in Missouri and in Washington, DC to press his case. He must have been very persuasive because when Missouri became a state it had a southern border at 36°30′ except for the little area between the Mississippi River and the St. Francis River, where the border dropped down to 36°00′. Thus the 980 square mile bootheel was born at Missouri’s inception as a state in 1821.
Technically the bootheel is just that portion of Missouri that extends south of 36°30.’ It includes Pemiscot County and parts of Dunklin and New Madrid Counties. In a more practical sense it extends to a much larger southeastern region of the state, culturally more southern than Midwestern unlike the remainder of Missouri. Geologically it’s part of the Mississippi River Alluvial Basin, the northernmost portion of a broad floodplain extending down to the Gulf of Mexico. It’s much flatter and with more wetlands than is typical of the rest of the state.
It’s an interesting crossroads and transition region, at the confluences of history, culture and geology.