Q: Do you wish that old Greer County were still a part of Texas instead of Oklahoma?
Ernest Simpson, Altus, Oklahoma
A: Yes, the Texanist does indeed wish that the former Greer County, Texas, were still Greer County, Texas. The fact that this former expanse of Panhandle land is now known to the world as Greer County, Oklahoma; Harmon County, Oklahoma; Jackson County, Oklahoma; and a small portion of Beckham County, Oklahoma, is matter of great and ongoing agitation to the Texanist. There probably isn’t a day that goes by during which he doesn’t stop what he’s doing for a few seconds and slowly shake his head while making that telltale tsk sound as he contemplates this sad state of affairs. In fact, the Texanist feels one of those episodes coming on right now. Please excuse him for a moment as he performs this gloomy ritual once again.
Okay, with his daily tsking out of the way, the Texanist has now regained his composure enough to realize that more than a few folks reading this column likely don’t have the faintest clue as to gist of this query. So let us take a brief pause for a quick—and very interesting, if the Texanist does say so himself—lesson pertaining to the historical boundaries of Texas.
As everyone knows, Texas, as a physical place with properly delineated borders, is almost as old as the hills and dales and prairies and desert land upon which it sits, having begun to take its striking and ever-recognizable shape as far back as the 1736, a time when Frenchmen and Spaniards roamed the land. Since that era, via numerous disagreements and conflicts and beneath numerous flags and then by way of numerous agreements and treaties—the Adams-Onís Treaty (1819), the Treaty of Limits (1828), the Treaties of Velasco (1836), the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848), etc.—the borders of Texas, though pretty much set since the Compromise of 1850, have, on occasion, shifted a bit here and there.
The shifting of which you speak, Mr. Simpson, the Greer County affair, was the result of an unfortunate series of events whose origins date all the way back to the aforementioned Adams-Onís Treaty. And just in case anybody has forgotten, this treaty was the agreement between the United States and Spain that ceded Florida to the U.S. and, further, set the boundaries between the United States and New Spain, which eventually became, for the most part, the eastern and northeastern borders of the Republic of Texas and, later, the state of Texas.
The particulars of the Adams-Onís Treaty, it turns out, were greatly aided by a map that was produced by one John Melish, a traveler, merchant, author, and cartographer of Scottish origin who ended up being the first mapmaker to create a coast-to-coast charting of the United States. But Melish also is known in the annals of history for a cartographical blunder that both misplaced the 100th meridian by a hundred or so miles to the east and failed to recognize the seemingly obvious fact that the Red River, in the general vicinity of the 100th meridian, is split into multiple forks: the North Fork, the Elm Fork, the Salt Fork, and the southern Prairie Dog Town Fork. (For those who are not currently looking at a map, the region in question is roughly where the Texas Panhandle’s vertical, eastern border with Oklahoma intersects with the somewhat horizontal portion of the Texas-Oklahoma border that is more or less traced by the Red River.)
This mapping mishap led to a disagreement between Texas and the United States about who rightly possessed Greer County, which consisted of the land between the North and Prairie Dog Town forks. (Note that because Oklahoma was not yet a state and was merely a pair of possessions of the United States known as Indian Territory and Oklahoma Territory, the U.S. was the entity taking issue with Texas.) What was at stake? Well, about 1.5 million acres of land, named in 1860 for early Texas settler and former lieutenant governor John Greer, that was home to tens of thousands of head of cattle and the families that tended to them. There were years of negotiations over the fate of the county, but in 1895, once these deliberations proved futile, the dispute ended up in the Supreme Court of the United States as United States v. Texas.
Long story short, the court ruled in favor of the United States in 1896, citing Melish’s error and in so doing recognizing the Prairie Dog Town Fork as the Red River’s main channel, and making Greer County part of the Oklahoma Territory.
Then, eleven years later, when Oklahoma entered the Union as the forty-sixth state, Greer County was divided into Greer County, Jackson County, and part of Beckham County. Harmon County was created out of a portion of Greer County two years later when the good people of that area voted to strike out on their own.
However, that was not the end of the story. The conflict continued to roil and a subsequent court-ordered survey, performed by Samuel Gannett in the late 1920s, revealed that the 1896 surveys of the 100th meridian that the Supreme Court had relied on in rendering its decision were also in error. So, in 1930 the court pushed the border 4,040 feet eastward at the Red River and 880 feet eastward at the northern tip of the Texas Panhandle. And though this thin strip didn’t constitute that much land, and included nary a town or city, it did have the effect of suddenly turning some five hundred Oklahomans back into Texans, which was certainly a happy day for them.
Okay, that concludes the history lesson, which the Texanist hopes was as interesting as advertised.
Now, to answer the question at hand one more time, yes, the Texanist does wish that the former Greer County, Texas, were still in Texas instead of Oklahoma. In addition to feeling pity for the former Texans who were, against their will, eventually transformed into Okies, the Texanist is, when it’s all boiled down, simply of a mind that the more Texas there is, the better.
The Texanist cannot, of course, say the same thing about there being more Oklahoma. Thanks for the letter.
Have a question for the Texanist? He’s always available here. Be sure to tell him where you’re from.