The Twelve Mile Circle

A few months ago I came across this Wikipedia Article describing a portion of the border of Delaware and New Jersey:

Its existence dates from a deed to William Penn from the Duke of York on August 24, 1682, which granted Penn:

all that the Towne of Newcastle otherwise called Delaware and All that Tract of Land lying within the Compass or Circle of Twelve Miles about the same scituate lying and being upon the River Delaware in America And all Islands in the same River Delaware and the said River and Soyle thereof lying North of the Southermost part of the said Circle of Twelve Miles about the said Towne.

The fact that the circle extends into the Delaware River makes for a fairly unique territorial possession. Most territorial boundaries that follow watercourses split the water course between the two territories by one of two methods, either by the midpoint of the watercourse (the Grotian Method, after Hugo Grotius) or, more often, midpoint of the main flow channel, or thalweg. However, due to the text of the deed, within the Twelve-Mile Circle, all the Delaware River to the low-tide mark on the east (New Jersey) side is territory of the state of Delaware.

I’m not sure that type of water border is really that unusual though, because if I’m not mistaken, the entire portion of the Potomac River belongs to Maryland and Washington, D.C., with Virginia and later West Virginia not starting until the shore. The interesting thing here is there’s a small piece of land on the New Jersey side that actually belongs to Delaware:

The Twelve-Mile Circle

That’s not a mistake. I’ve seen it on other maps too. I’ve always thought it would be great fun to have a “shoot trap with a shotgun that’s illegal in New Jersey” party on that little bit of land, plant a Delaware flag and lay claim, and just generally annoy the hell out of the anti-gun ninnies in New Jersey by taking Delaware’s “weak” gun laws over to that side of the river, and having a fun time.

Of course, this could also increase an already tense situation:

Regardless of the Supreme Court’s admonition to the two states against further litigation on this subject, they were back before the court as late as November of 2005, when New Jersey’s desire to approve plans by BP to build a liquefied natural gas terminal along the New Jersey shore of the Delaware River fell afoul of Delaware’s Coastal Zone Act. The court on January 23, 2006 appointed a special master to study the border dispute, a process likely to take years. Meanwhile the Delaware House of Representatives considered a (symbolic) bill to call out the National Guard to safeguard the State’s interests, while New Jersey legislators made comments about the Battleship New Jersey, moored upriver from the site.

Hell, I’ll join the Delaware National Guard in that case. I’m pretty sure Delaware could take New Jersey in a gunfight ;)

3 thoughts on “The Twelve Mile Circle”

  1. There’s a spot on the west side of the Missouri near Omaha, NE (just south of Epply Airfield) that’s part of Iowa. Carter lake (a horseshoe shaped lake) used to be a bend in the Missouri. The river flooded, and changed course, leaving a lake that was once part of the river and moving the river several hundred yards east of the border. So, the river moved, but the border stayed put.

    I was told when I was out there that a similar thing happened way-back-when, the river changed course, and a farmer’s land (or part of it) switched from the Nebraska side to the Iowa side. Both states claimed it, and therefore the property taxes. So, farmer guy had to pay two sets of taxes while the states fought it out. Eventually, the SC ruled that the border moved with the river, so NE owed the guy his money back. (At least, that’s the story I was told, I haven’t had the time or the inclination to look it up)

  2. sebastian
    you are right that riverbank boundaries are fairly common
    tho not as common as river midline & thalweg boundaries

    fairly unique
    was a fairly unfortunate expression
    since unique means one of a kind

    & there are actually 2 little parcels of delaware state on the left bank of the delaware river
    tho no big deal in any case

    & interestingly enough i once found a wooden welcome to delaware sign at the border of one of these parcels
    all shot to bits with presumably jersey birdshot

    its largest remaining fragment still read
    & it made a great souvenir

    you are right too

    boundary marooning river avulsions such as you describe on the missouri are common along the mississippi & the red & many other rivers too

    & in fact boundary arcs just like the 12 mile circle but smaller can be found on the mexican border in texas
    which incidentally partly correct the effects of similar lurches in the rio grande

    but the wrong bank delaware pockets are actually the result not of such natural avulsions but of changes brought about by dredging & backfilling by the army corps of engineers

    & finally & most ironically of all
    much if not most of what remains of the so called 12 mile circle
    which actually comprises several different arcs of several different radii & several different center points in new castle
    all imperceptibly or sometimes rather badly feathered together to look like the parts of a single border circle
    is actually closer to 13 miles & 11 miles than 12 miles

    thanx & cheers

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