HISTORY OF THE DISPUTE
The Texas-Oklahoma boundary was first established by the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 as being the south bank of the Red River. In the underlying treaty between France and the United States, the United States acquired ownership of the entire bed of the Red River and lands lying to its North. This boundary was reaffirmed in 1819 when Spain entered into the “Adams-Onis Treaty” with the U.S. which further established the boundary between the two nations as the “south cut bank” of the Red River. In 1838, after the Republic of Texas gained its freedom from Mexico, the then nation of Texas entered into a treaty with the United States upholding the 1819 Adams-Onis Treaty as the official border. Under that treaty both countries maintained their ability to access and navigate the river, but full ownership of the riverbed remained with the United States.
Several legal disputes arose as to the proper boundary between Texas and the U.S. after Texas’ admittance into the union. However, it was not until Oklahoma’s admittance in 1907, and the subsequent discovery of oil around the Red River that the legal battle over the Red River really began.
In 1922, Oklahoma sued Texas claiming that, per its admittance into the union, Oklahoma owned the entirety of the Red River riverbed. Intervening, the United States disputed Oklahoma’s claim and alleged instead that Oklahoma’s title boundary was the north bank of the river, but jurisdictionally Oklahoma controlled to the southern bank.
Due to previous land grants and congressional actions, the Supreme Court dismissed the federal claim of ownership to the entire riverbed and instead found that Oklahoma’s title boundary began at and the medial line of the Red River riverbed and extended north, while it maintained jurisdictional control over the entire riverbed to the southern bank. This decision limited the United States’ ownership to the small sliver of Redd River riverbed lying between Texas’ south bank boundary and Oklahoma’s medial line boundary.
The Supreme Court followed its boundary decision the next year with is decision on what the southern gradient boundary, or south cut bank of the Red River was. The Court described the south cut bank as being, “[the] bank at the mean level of the water, when it washes the bank without overflowing it… subject to the right application of the doctrines of erosion and accretion and of avulsion to any intervening changes.”
In the event of erosion or accretion (small and gradual changes in the riverbank over time), the Court held that the boundary between the states was to follow the river. However, in the event that an avulsion occurred, natural or otherwise, the boundary was to be fixed at the original 1819 boundary line, or as near to that line as could be ascertained.
Due to the highly transitory nature of the Red River, the boundary between the two states is always in flux. Because of this, political and jurisdictional issues to establish effective law enforcement constantly arose. In response to the many criminals that were engaging in prostitution, drug production and distribution, and dog and cock fighting in what became known as a “no-man’s land,” Texas and Oklahoma entered into the Red River Boundary Compact which was finally passed by Congress in 2000.
Both states were eager to set a boundary that was historically accurate, economical, and readily identifiable so that criminals could be properly prosecuted and the appropriate emergency services could be sent when someone was injured along the border. In order to accomplish this, the Compact moved the political and jurisdictional boundary outside of the southern gradient boundary to the vegetation line.
The Compact explicitly stated that title to private, public, or Tribal lands was not affected by its enactment. This left the southern gradient boundary as the title boundary between the respective property owners along the Red River and left the 1923 Supreme Court decision as the determinant legal doctrine for disputes.
In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s Oklahoma landowners brought suit against Texas landowners over title to land south of the Red River. Their claim was that an avulsion had occurred in the 1940’s which fixed their boundary well south of what was the current course of the river. Notably, the Oklahoma plaintiffs brought their case in the Oklahoma federal district court, and at that time the Bureau of Land Management sided with the Texan defendants in asserting that the River had not avulsed due to its sandy makeup and highly erosive nature in that region.
In the first of these two cases, the Oklahoma judge ruled in favor of the Oklahoma plaintiffs. His decision was based almost entirely on the eyewitness testimony of one individual claiming to have seen the River move suddenly some 40 years prior, and was made in spite of testimony from the Texas landowner and the BLM to the contrary.
Making matters worse, rather than have a real gradient boundary survey performed, the Oklahoma judge proceeded to draw a crude line on poor topographical map to indicate what he believed the new boundary to be. The BLM was instructed, twice, to find the line the judge had drawn. Ultimately the second Oklahoma judge refused to revisit the first’s survey method and faulty judicial determination, leaving the Texas landowner’s with only two-thirds of the land that was rightfully theirs. These cases pushed the title boundary of the river several hundred feet away from anything resembling the south cut bank of the Red River that the Supreme Court designated.
Using these cases and a tortured definition of “bank” the BLM seeks to remove over 90,000 acres from Texans along the 116-mile stretch of the Red River that Oklahoma and Texas share.