So why is Pea Patch Island (supposedly) owned by Delaware?

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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.