NEW CASTLE COUNTY, Del. (WHTM) — It’s called “the Wedge” — a sliver of land in the northwest corner of Delaware, which became be a bone of contention between that state and Pennsylvania for over a century and a half.
Stephen Marz, Director and State Archivist of the Delaware Public Archives, explains just how small that sliver is.
“It’s an area a little bit bigger than the country of Monaco, but a little bit smaller than New York City’s Central Park.”
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The problem of the Wedge starts when an earlier problem ends. The charter that King Charles II granted to William Penn in 1681 for his colony of Pennsylvania laid out a southern boundary that overlaps Maryland’s northern boundary. Sixty-nine years, many bitter arguments, several court rulings, and a few exchanges of gunfire later, a border that roughly splits the overlap down the middle was agreed upon in 1750.
At first, colonial surveyors were employed to measure the border, but they had neither the tools nor expertise to complete the task. So the governments of Pennsylvania and Maryland hired some experts from the mother country. In 1763, Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon sailed from England to Philadelphia to survey the boundary.
But the Mason-Dixon Line, as it becomes known, is more than one line. There’s the east-west line everyone thinks of as THE Mason-Dixon Line, A north-south line in the Delmarva Peninsula to establish the border between Delaware and Maryland, and the Arc Circle, with a radius of twelve miles measured from the Courthouse in New Castle, Delaware, to help establish where to start measuring. (The Arc Circle at this point wasn’t meant to be a boundary; it was a place to set markers and benchmarks to help with surveying.)
Why is Delaware involved? Well, at the time it was part of the William Penn land grant-in fact, Penn’s first landing at his new colony took place at New Castle. Even though it had its own legislature and was semi-autonomous, Delaware was considered part of Pennsylvania-the three Lower Counties.
Mason and Dixon decided to start their surveying at the south end of the North-South Line. You can visit their starting point; if you take Route 50 south in Maryland down the Delmarva Peninsula, turn east onto Route 54 at Mardela Springs, and travel 3.4 miles, you will come upon a small pavilion housing the marker stones of the starting place. (It’s a nice side trip on your way to the beach.) A previous survey team had established this as the mid-point of the peninsula; Mason and Dixon double-checked their measurements before starting north.
That was the easy part.
The line was supposed to split the Delmarva Peninsula as evenly as possible between Maryland and Delaware. This means that instead of surveying a simple north-south border along a line of longitude, they had to map out a diagonal, or tangent. Both mathematically and technically, it was one of the hardest part of the survey. (Having to wade through marshland and cross several rivers on the Delmarva didn’t make things any easier.)
That line met up with the east-west line, but the circle didn’t meet up with the tangent until a few miles south. This formed a triangle of land, which becomes known as the Wedge. Not a problem when Maryland and Pennsylvania agreed to the survey results in 1767; but in August 1776, as the American Revolution became a war for independence, Delaware, in keeping with the spirit of the times, broke away from the crown-and the Penn Proprietorship-to become the 13th Colony.
“Basically they declared that in New Castle. They were going to be standing on their own.” says Stephen Marz. “That wasn’t simply because of political issues, but geographically, and the ability to really govern the peninsula itself.”
The Circle Arc now became Delaware’s northern boundary. But who owned the Wedge? And why argue about such a small patch of land? Stephen Marz says the bottom line here was taxes.
“Even though it’s a square mile, there’s money involved. And especially when you’re talking about the founding of the nation,” he adds, “every penny counted. So, people wanted ownership.”
Pennsylvania argued the land was theirs since the area is west of the twelve-mile circle, and east of Maryland’s side of the North Line, which means it belonged to neither and should go to the Keystone State by default.
Delaware said the Wedge was theirs because it was lower than Pennsylvania’s legally established border with Maryland.
Occupants of the Wedge were left to wonder who’s in charge here.
Not until the 1840’s would anyone REALLY try to settle the issue. We’ll tell you how that went, in part two of this series.