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The Red River boundary controversy started when the United States purchased the Territory of Louisiana from France in 1803 during Pres. Thomas Jefferson's administration. Spain and the United States feuded over where Louisiana ended and New Spain began. The Adams-Onís Treaty of 1819 used a map drawn by Scottish explorer John Melish to establish the Red River as the southwestern boundary between the two countries. Later, the Red River served as an international boundary between the United States and Mexico and, after the Texas Revolution, with the Republic of Texas. After Texas joined the United States in 1845, new doubts arose over the legal boundary line when in 1852 Capt. Randolph Marcy discovered the North Fork of the Red River. Texas claimed the area called Greer County, situated between the North Fork and the main branch. Federal treaties in 1867 creating a reservation with a southern border, "north of the middle of the main channel," of the Red River for the Kiowa, Comanche, and Apache further complicated the issue. The "Greer County War" had begun. In 1894 the dispute landed before the Supreme Court as the United States v. Texas. In the background hovered the Organic Act of 1890 creating the Territory of Oklahoma.

After hearing all the testimony, after examining all the documents, the Court held that the central issue was what had the negotiators of the Treaty of 1819 believed the boundary to be at the time they were presenting the treaty for ratification by both national governments. In the end, the court ruled the old map of John Melish was the central piece of evidence, and the map showed the southern branch to be the understood boundary.

And there the decision stood until 1918 when wildcat oil men found oil in north Texas. Soon wells were drilled on the Texas side as close to the river as possible, sometimes actually in the river. Private property owners and spokespersons for the Kiowa, Comanche, and Apache asserted that much of the oil was being pumped from the Oklahoma side, and they demanded royalty payments or claimed the wells for themselves. Asserting that the middle of the river to the south bank was Oklahoma land, the State of Oklahoma filed suit in the U.S. Supreme Court against the State of Texas. Not to be left on the sidelines, the federal government agreed that while the southern bank of the river was the boundary between Oklahoma and Texas, the federal government controlled the riverbed and any natural resources under it.

The nature of the river itself added to the complexity of the case. The bed of the Red River expanded and contracted through the natural processes of erosion and accretion. Mineral rights aside (there was an abundance of law to sift through to decide who controlled those) the question pertaining to the boundary dispute was "where is the south bank?" Is the boundary between Texas and Oklahoma a fixed one, a set line of demarcation, or is it in a constant state of fluvial change? In a series of rulings in Oklahoma v. Texas between the years 1921 through 1924, the Supreme Court handed down these rulings: 1) A cut bank is the relatively permanent elevation of a river that separates the bed from the adjacent upland; 2) Cut banks are permanent and stable enough to serve as fixed boundaries; and 3) For the purposes of fixing the boundary, the south bank is the cut bank of the Red River and thus forms the legal boundary between Oklahoma and Texas.

While none of the sides questioned the ruling, determining the exact location of the south bank required additional efforts. In 1991 the state legislatures of Oklahoma and Texas created Red River Boundary Commissions and charged them with establishing a fixed and permanent boundary. Joined by representatives of the Kiowa, Comanche, and Apache, these commissions held a series of public meetings in communities bordering along both sides of the river and in the two state capitals. In spring 1999 both commissions submitted proposed legislation designating "the vegetation line along the south bank of the Red River extending on a line from the 100th Meridian east to Lake Texoma as the northern border of Texas." The lone exception to the south bank as the northern border of Texas was spelled out under Article II, Section B.1, in which the legislation would declare that in the Texoma area, the boundary would extend from ". . . the intersection of the vegetation line on the south bank with the east bank of Shawnee Creek and continues to the foot of the Denison Dam." Beyond establishing a permanent boundary, the compact requires marking the boundary with visible landmarks. Texas Gov. George W. Bush signed the legislation into law on May 24, 1999; Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating followed suit on June 4 of the same year. In Washington, D.C., Congress passed Joint Resolution 72 entitling the Red River Boundary Compact. It became federal law on August 31, 2000.


BIBLIOGRAPHY: Bunyan Hadley Andrew, "The Red River Boundary Dispute: Under Supreme Court Decision in 1927," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 44 (Fall 1966). Grant Foreman, "Red River and the Spanish Boundary in the Supreme Court," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 2 (September 1924). Anne Million, "We the Sooner People: Oklahoma and the United States Constitution," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 65 (Winter 1987-88). "Red River Boundary Commission," Vertical File, Oklahoma State House of Representatives, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Red River Boundary Compact, Oklahoma Statutes, 2000 Supplement, Vol. 3, Titles 68 to End. Carl N. Tyson, The Red River in Southwestern History (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1981).

Glen Vaughn-Roberson

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