For centuries, New England’s borders were anything but stable, and New Englanders didn’t agree on what they were. Maine was once part of Massachusetts, New Haven and Plymouth were separate colonies and Vermont belonged to New Hampshire – or was it New York? At least six places – cities, towns and parts of towns – used to belong to a different state until a border dispute was settled.
Of course all of Maine once belonged to Massachusetts, but that’s a separate story.
Here then, are six places that used to be part of a different state. Or so it was claimed.
Enfield and Suffield, Ct.
Enfield and Suffield — two towns in Connecticut — began their American history as part of Massachusetts.
The two towns’ transition from Massachusetts to Connecticut took 162 years to fully accomplish.
The confusion about which state owned the towns dates back to 1642. With Connecticut seeking a charter from the King of England, Massachusetts officials decided it would be wise to survey the southern border of their territory.
To carry out the assignment, Massachusetts hired two English surveyors — Solomon Saffery and Nathaniel Woodward.
The two men had determined the border’s location by using the most southerly point of the Charles River for reference. From there, they established a point from which they could draw a line directly westward. But when they drew the line, the two surveyors actually placed one end of the line at the wrong location. The result was a diagonal line that extended some seven miles below where Massachusetts’ border was supposed to end.
This mistake set off the 162 years of fighting. Rightly or wrongly, people have pilloried Saffery and Woodward over the years. Some historians had said the pair were drunks, and that explained the mistake. Others have said they were unqualified — that they were sailors, not surveyors (though Woodward, at least, had a track record as a surveyor).
More charitable historians have suggested the instruments available to surveyors at the time were not the most reliable. Further, they note, Saffery and Woodward took a shortcut to their surveying — extrapolating from mathematical calculations rather than walking the land. They had to, in part, because they worked on land the Indians considered to be theirs.
Back and Forth to a Different State
Regardless, at first Massachusetts had the upper hand in the debate (Connecticut didn’t even have a charter). However, Massachusetts had one difficulty in maintaining its claim: it was clearly wrong. Every time surveyors from both Massachusetts and Connecticut investigated, they concurred Saffery and Woodward got it wrong in 1642.
In 1713, the two colonies got together and reached an agreement. Though the 1642 line was wrong, they both agreed to accept it with regard to the towns of Suffield, Enfield and the newer town of Woodstock. The towns would stay in Massachusetts. In return Connecticut would receive unsettled land in Massachusetts as payment.
The 1713 compromise satisfied everyone but the people who lived in the disputed towns. They still wanted to be part of Connecticut — probably because Connecticut had lower taxes and a more progressive government. In 1749, the disputed towns declared themselves part of Connecticut. This later prompted residents of Southwick, now bounded on three sides by Connecticut, to petition to join Connecticut, too.
This eroding away of Massachusetts was too much for its officials to accept. But negotiations had to be put on hold while the American Revolution was decided. Finally, in 1804 representatives from the two states got together and agreed that Southwick would stay in Massachusetts. The others would stay in Connecticut. The result was a small, square cutout in the border known to this day as the Southwick Jog. In Southwick today you can stand at the corner of Two States Road and Two States Avenue.
Seavey’s Island, Maine
When Maine became a state in 1820, her 95,640 people lived in 232 cities and towns that had already been incorporated by Massachusetts.
But it was New Hampshire that caused the most recent border dispute.
The Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, created in 1800, lies in the middle of the Piscataqua River between Portsmouth, N.H., and Kittery, Maine. It was cobbled together over the years from five islands, now called Seavey’s Island.
The federal government owns the island, and for decades the U.S. Navy viewed it as part of New Hampshire – hence the name, the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.
Shipyard workers come from New Hampshire, which doesn’t have an income tax, and from Maine, which does. New Hampshire shipyard workers had to pay Maine income tax because Maine claimed Seavey’s Island.
In 2001, New Hampshire went to the U.S. Supreme Court and tried to get Seavey’s Island back.
New Hampshire claimed it owned the Piscataqua River to the Maine shoreline. Maine claimed the boundary between the two states ran down the middle of the river.
Unfortunately for New Hampshire, it had agreed in a 1977 lawsuit over fishing rights that the border ran between the middle of the river.
Maine got Seavey’s Island.
Fall River, Mass.
Fall River started out as a rural outpost of the Plymouth Colony. In 1694, its southern neighbor Tiverton was incorporated as part of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, which by then had merged with Plymouth. In 1746, Tiverton was annexed to Rhode Island colony by Royal Decree. (So were Little Compton, Barrington, Bristol and Cumberland.)
In 1856, Tiverton decided to spin off its northern industrial section. It was called Fall River – Rhode Island. Five years later, the U.S. Supreme Court moved the state boundary to create one Massachusetts city of Fall River.
Bellows Falls, N.H.
The International Paper Co. in Bellows Falls, Vt., starred in the final chapter of the border wars between New Hampshire and Vermont in 1934. These disputes had gone on for hundreds of years, predating Vermont’s creation as a state.
In the 1600s, governors of both New York and New Hampshire were merrily giving away sections of Vermont to their friends. The King of England intervened in 1624. He established the New Hampshire border as the western edge of the Connecticut River. This border was largely accepted, though a group of dissidents in New Hampshire decided to secede in the 1770s. In 1778, the 22 New Hampshire towns from Chester to Haverhill declared themselves part of the newly proclaimed Republic of Vermont (after toying with and rejecting the idea of creating a new state altogether called New Connecticut).
New Hampshire took the news badly. It threatened to withdraw support for the American Revolution and to send 1,000 troops into Vermont to restore its borders. Even George Washington had to get involved in whipping the towns back into line. Under pressure from the Continental Congress, Vermont announced it was rejecting the towns’ bid to secede and returning them to New Hampshire.
When Vermont was granted admission to the union as a state, one condition was that it renounce all claims to any lands to the east of the western edge of the Connecticut River as measured at low water. That settled the matter for more than 100 years, but the Vermonters would once again challenge New Hampshire.
From 1909 on, New Hampshire towns tried to assess taxes on power plants, canals and the International Paper Company’s mill at Bellows Falls in Vermont. The logic was this: the mill was powered by water in the river and, to get access to that water, it had to extend part of its plant beyond the low-water mark and into the middle of the river. Hence the subject properties were in New Hampshire. Vermont sued. The correct location of the border, it now asserted, was the center of the river.
As the dispute dragged on, some novel solutions were proposed – including diverting the Connecticut River altogether to move the border with it.
But swift and steady are the wheels of justice. Well, steady at least. In 1934, the U.S. Supreme Court finally settled the matter, granting New Hampshire ownership of the entire river to the western low water mark. By that time, International Paper Co. had abandoned its Vermont plant, for unrelated reasons, and the Bellows Falls economy was in a tailspin.
Fall River’s neighbor Pawtucket, R.I., comes from the Algonquin name ‘River Fall.’ And when the U.S. Supreme Court in 1861 gave Fall River, R.I., to Massachusetts, it gave Pawtucket, Mass., to Rhode Island as a consolation prize.
The original Pawtucket actually consisted of several towns. Part of it was known as Rehoboth, east of the Blackstone River. Rehoboth was part of Plymouth Colony. West of the Blackstone River a thriving industrial town (thanks to Sam Slater) was part of North Providence.
In 1828, Massachusetts carved out part of Rehoboth and called it Pawtucket, Mass. Pawtucket, Rhode Islanders were not happy.
After the Supreme Court gave Pawtucket, Mass., to Rhode Island, the North Providence land west of the Blackstone River went to Pawtucket. The two towns – East Pawtucket and West Pawtucket — then incorporated as the city of Pawtucket.
A Different State 4X
Vernon, Vt., received a charter as Northfield in 1672 as part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. New Hampshire Gov. Benning Wentworth, who grabbed much of Vermont for his own state, gave part of Vernon to another town he chartered, Hinsdale.
By 1779, four states claimed Vernon (then Hinsdale) due to bad surveying and squabbling over ownership: New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont.
Vernon has successively had the names Northfield in Hampshire County, Mass.; Hinsdale in Cheshire County, N.H.; Hinsdale in Cumberland County, N.Y.; and Hinsdale in Windham County, Vt.
But the Hinsdale in Windham County, Vt., had a problem On the other side of the Connecticut River sat a Hinsdale, N.H. The Vermonters wanted their own identity and voted in 1802 to change the name to Vernon. They supposedly chose it after President George Washington’s home, Mount Vernon.
This story about places that belonged to a different state was updated in 2022.
Image: Southwick Job By Dynzmoar – This file was derived from: Southwick-stake.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31670390