The Story of Texas – Part 2 - Why is Texas so big?

In the Lower 48 contiguous U.S. states, Texas is over 60% larger than the next largest state, California. How did this happen? Typically, new states were created by subdividing U.S. Territories into generally equal sized states. For example, the Louisiana Purchase was divided into North and South Dakota, Iowa, Missouri and several other states. The Northwest Territories became five states: Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin. However, Texas was an independent nation at the time it joined the Union, so it came in with the borders it had. And those were large.

The making of Texas-sized Texas turns out to be a long and winding 200 year road. And, believe it or not, at one time, Texas was even bigger, as explained below.

1665: King Charles II of England and Colonial Charters

British colonies were financed for profit by private investors under charters provided by the King. These charters allowed investors to colonize the land typically bounded by designated lines of latitude on the north and south. Virginia’s southern border with the Carolinas was originally set at 36° north. This placed the Carolina’s Albemarle Sound, which provided for navigation to the Atlantic Ocean, partly in Virginia. As a result, Carolina settlers had to pay export taxes to those entrepreneurial Virginians for goods shipped to England. In 1665 The Carolina settlers complained and King Charles II moved the border north a half-degree to 36 degrees, 30 minutes (36° 30’). With Albemarle Sound now entirely within the Carolinas, no more taxes paid to Virginia! This line serves today as the southern border of Virginia, Kentucky, Missouri and the Oklahoma Panhandle.

1803 to 1819: Louisiana Purchase and Adams-Onís Treaty

President Jefferson completed the Louisiana Purchase which was then sub-divided into states. The first one created, Missouri, was given a southern boundary on the same 36° 30’ line as Kentucky and Virginia.  

Figure 1 - Adams-Onís Treaty

Figure 1 - Adams-Onís Treaty

Secretary of State John Quincy Adams negotiated with Spanish diplomat Onís to define the precise borders of the Louisiana purchase with Spain, then the owner of the land to the west. Figure 1 shows the results of the negotiation. The border generally followed river lines combined with straight lines at designated latitude and longitudes. The northern boundary was set at 42° latitude, now the northern border of California, Nevada and part of Utah.

The current border of Texas with Louisiana and Oklahoma is these treaty lines.

1820: Henry Clay and the Missouri Compromise

Senator Henry Clay negotiated the Missouri Compromise; Missouri entered the Union as a slave state and any new states north of the 36° 30’ latitude line, the southern border of Missouri, would be free states. This line dates to the Virginia colonial charter from King Charles in 1665.

1836 to 1846: Texas as independent Republic and then U.S. State

When Texas became an independent republic, its boundaries with the U.S. were defined by the Adams-Onís treaty. But its boundaries with Mexico were disputed. Texas claimed borders including parts of current New Mexico as far west as Santa Fe, making it even larger than today.

1850: Stephen Douglas and Compromise of 1850

The issue of slavery reared its ugly head after the U.S. acquired significant territory in the Mexican American war. Should the new lands acquired from Mexico become slave states or free states? Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois negotiated the Compromise of 1850. The results are shown in Figure 2. Texas, a slave state, agreed to give up all of land north of the Missouri Compromise 36° 30’ latitude line. Planning ahead, Congress had already set the Kansas border is at 37° allowing four evenly sized states to be created with the Canadian border (Figure 3). There is a half degree strip of land left between 37° north and 36° 30’ north. This is now the Oklahoma Panhandle which is about 35 miles from north to south. Texas ceded its western claims in today’s New Mexico to the U.S. government in return for a $10 million dollar payment, sorely needed by Texas at the time.  The western boundary now runs in a straight line on the 103° longitude mark.

If you think Texas is big now, they gave up about a third of their territorial claims as part of this compromise.

Texas’s right to sub-divide into 5 separate states:

The large . size of Texas when it joined the Union in 1845 was already an issue. It might be better governed if broken up into smaller states. Supporters of slavery liked the idea as it would increase the number of slave states in the Senate. After debate, annexation of Texas into the Union included a provision which allowed Texas to create four additional states out of its territory; making five in total. Some think the provision is no longer valid due to Texas’s secession and subsequent re-admission to the Union after the Civil War. Nate Silver, statistical analyst at the Five-Thirty-Eight political website did a simulation of a Texas split up. While overall a red state, parts of it are blue and he concluded that the effect on the Senate balance and electoral votes would be minor. For now, Texas keeps its place as the largest state in the Lower 48. Texans can continue to say that ‘Everything is bigger in Texas’.