This Week in Texas History: Supreme Court okays theft of Texas county

By Bartee Haile

The United States Supreme Court ruled on Mar. 15, 1896 that Greer County belonged not to Texas but the recently organized Oklahoma Territory. The questionable decision raised doubts about the justices’ impartiality and stole from the Lone Star State a million acres held since the Revolution.

In the Compromise of 1850, crafted by Henry Clay and Daniel Webster to postpone the Civil War, Texas ceded to the federal government a giant western realm. Vast portions of the future states of New Mexico, Colorado, Oklahoma and Kansas were relinquished for a mere $10 million.

Land lasts forever but money had a way of disappearing even in the nineteenth century. In time Texans decided they had been taken and determined never to give up another square foot of their sacred soil. As a result, the fight to keep Greer County escalated into an affair of honor.  

The complicated issue first cropped up during the days of Lone Star sovereignty. A chance encounter caused an international incident between the United States and its pugnacious frontier neighbor.

While inspecting the upper reaches of the Red River in 1843, a party of Texas explorers was apprehended by an eager beaver U.S. Army captain. Accused of trespassing on American land, the Texans were disarmed and left practically defenseless in the wilderness.

A strong protest lodged by Republic representatives produced an apology from Secretary of State John C. Calhoun. He publicly chastised the captain for his excessive zeal and acknowledged the conflicting claims of the two countries.

The boundary separating the Lone Star Republic and the United States was set by the terms of the Adams-Odonis Treaty of 1819. This U.S.-Spain accord designated the 100th meridian and the Red River as the lines of demarcation, and the same limits were adopted for the Texas perimeter at the time of annexation.

However, a pair of perplexing problems soon arose. First, the original location of the 100th meridian erred by nearly 100 miles to Texas’ disadvantage, and the correction would drastically shrink the Panhandle. Second, the Red River was found to have two northern tributaries.

With typical arrogance Washington declared the true 100th meridian plus the south fork of the Red River had to be accepted as the legitimate confines of the State of Texas. In response Lone Star spokesmen emphatically insisted upon the status quo. After all, Texans asked, why should the feds benefit from the revision of an old map and the discovery of a river’s twin forks?

Compromise was clearly not in the cards, and in spite of lengthy deliberations a joint commission made no progress. Anticipating years of negotiations, the Texas legislature took the farsighted step of creating Greer County to encompass the disputed region.

As the debate heated up, congress granted de facto recognition of the Texas claim. In 1879 Greer was lumped together with other Lone Star counties to form the northern judicial district. Had the Potomac powers backed off?

No such luck. In the summer of 1884, the Army abruptly warned Greer County settlers they faced immediate eviction as illegal squatters. President Chester A. Arthur followed with a stern statement declaring the Indian Territory off-limits to white pioneers.

As another commission tried to deal with the dilemma, Greer citizens took matters into their own hands. A full-fledged county government along with a state-supported public school system were organized. By 1890 over 2,000 students attended classes in Greer County, Texas.

The next year, the U.S. filed suit to take possession of Greer County. The positions argued before the Supreme Court in October 1894 had not changed in 40 years, and Texas attorneys believed they had a strong case. But the opinion handed down the following March supported the U.S. attorney-general on every point.

Congress decreed on May 4, 1896 that all property held by Greer County reverted to the Territory of Oklahoma. To their relief anxious residents were not compelled to move. The State of Texas was compensated to the disappointing tune of $50,000, hardly enough to cover legal expenses, and 11 years later Greer rejoined the Union as part of the 46th state.

Yet another revision of the wandering 100th meridian revealed in the 1920’s that Texas was entitled to a partial rebate of the confiscated land. In 1941, nearly a century after the Calhoun apology, Oklahoma restored 40 square miles to the Texas Panhandle.

Greer County still exists but in a Sooner sea. Adding insult to injury is the galling fact the kidnapped county, lying six miles inside Oklahoma, does not even touch the state of its birth. Texans do, however, retain visiting rights. 

“Texas Entertainers: Lone Stars in Profile” is full of talented Texans who deserve a curtain call. Order your copy by mailing a check for $24.00 to Bartee Haile, P.O. Box 130011, Spring, TX 77393.

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