How did a sandbar halfway between New Jersey and Delaware become the property of one state and not the other?
The British royal government was notoriously sloppy in its awarding of land grants in its colonies. There’s a lot of boundary ambiguity and overlapping claims. With American independence, the task for refereeing fell to the new federal government.
The specific problem of Pea Patch was as young as the nation itself. According to testimony recorded in the 1837 records of the U.S. Senate, Pea Patch was formed around the time of the American Revolution when a ship loaded with peas reportedly sunk there (smells of a tall tale to me but I’ll let it stand). Alluvial deposits formed a sandbank around the wreck and it eventually coalesced into a full-fledged island.
When claims overlap on an island in the middle of a boundary river, it’s typical to look at two measures: the first and most obvious is to see if it’s closer to one side’s riverbank. The other is to look at shipping channels and use this as a de facto boundary. According the the Senate testimony, Pea Patch Island is both closer to New Jersey and on the New Jersey side of the early nineteenth-century shipping channel.
There’s also human factors to consider: according to testimony in the Congressional Record the island was generally considered a part of N.J.‘s Salem County through the early nineteenth century. In 1813, New Jersey resident Henry Gale bought Pea Patch Island and began developing fisheries on it. New Jersey formally minuted the island as his property, confirming the land deeds and giving it to his “heirs and assigns for ever [sic].”
State ownership of Pea Patch would seem to be a pretty straight-forward decision then: geographically New Jersey’s, culturally a part of Salem County, and owned by a South Jersey businessperson.
Unfortunately for Gale, the federal government thought it was a good strategic location for a new fort. They offered him $30,000 but he didn’t think it was a fair price. They didn’t want to negotiate and so made a side deal with the State of Delaware. They decided the state boundary line should be drawn to the east of the island to make it a part of Delaware. The state declared Henry Gale a squatter and gave full ownership of the island to the U.S. War Department. Gale was forcibly evicted, his buildings demolished, his fishery business ruined. It doesn’t take a conspiracist to imagine that the Congressional Delaware delegation got something nice for their participation in this ruse.
(Later on, continuing boundary disputes between the two states led to the truly-bizarre geographic oddity that is the 12-Mile Circle. Anything built off the New Jersey coast into the Delaware River is Delaware’s. This still regularly sparks lawsuits between the states. If you could get behind the scenes I imagine you could set a whole Boardwalk-Empire-like show in the Delaware land grant office.)
A century and a half later the crumbling ruins of Fort Delaware would come under the administration of the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control. The DNERC folks do a great job running Fort Delaware. When reading up on this I was surprised to find Henry Gale’s name. My wife’s family has Salem County Gales so Henry is at least some sort of distant cousin of my kids. I think Delaware should give us a special toot on the ferry horn every time they land back on the soil of their ancestral home.