Wednesday, June 8, 2022

Kentucky Bend--an isolated bit of land divided from the rest of its state

Family photo
In 1917, my great-grandmother’s address was Box 235, New Madrid, Missouri. The problem? She actually lived in Kentucky. Due to a strange quirk of geography, it was easier for her mail to find her from another state!

Image and attribution from River at the Door:
Unusual Experiences in Isolated Areas
by Allen Anthony

Her home was in Kentucky Bend (see map above), a small pocket of land surrounded on three sides by a horseshoe bend of the Mississippi River. The fourth side is formed by the border with Tennessee. That’s right. It is completely disconnected from the rest of Kentucky. In fact, this one little bit of Kentucky is west of Missouri! 

How did this geographical oddity happen? The border between Kentucky and Tennessee is a continuation of the border between Virginia and North Carolina, set at 36 degrees and 30 minutes north latitude in 1665. In 1779, the first attempt to survey the western part of the border between Kentucky and Tennessee misplaced the border several miles to the north.

This led to over a hundred years of wrangling between the two states about the actual location of the border. Tensions got so high that some mapmakers refused to draw that portion of the border in order not to offend either side.

Mississippi River, Deposit Photos
The proper border at 36 degrees and 30 minutes was finally marked more or less correctly in 1859. By this time, neither state wanted to spark another round of squabbles, so when the line created a “bubble” of Kentucky disconnected from the “mainland,” or the rest of the state, both sides accepted it.
The residents were divided in their opinion of which state this land should join. A small church stood directly on the border of Kentucky and Tennessee, where residents would worship on the side that fit their own desires.

Family picture. My grandmother
is second from left. When she was eighty,
she could still name every child.

My grandmother grew up in The Bend, but her nearest high school was in Tennessee. She graduated from Tiptonville High School in 1934, then returned to teach in the same one room school she attended as a child. This was during the height of the depression, but Kentucky Bend has rich farmland. There may have been little money for extras, but with everyone helping each other, few went hungry. As an example, most school children brought a few vegetables with them from home. The older girls combined them in a stew pot, and the entire school had soup for lunch.

One of my grandmother’s brothers was appointed magistrate of Fulton County. Though Kentucky Bend was located in Fulton County, he had to travel through Tennessee to get to his place of employment. Even today, residents of Kentucky Bend have to travel through Tennessee to reach the county seat of Hickman for any official business such as voting.

Deposit Photos
This thirty square mile bubble of land has its own peculiar bits of history. A sixty-year feud took place there in the 1800’s. It ended when the last two surviving members of the Darnell family tried to escape the Bend by steamboat, only to be found and shot by the Watsons. This ended the Darnell family line. Mark Twain discussed this feud in his book “Life on the Mississippi.”

A Civil War battle took place here. Control of the Mississippi River was vital to supply lines during this war, and both sides knew it. Island Number 10 is a small island in the Mississippi River located near the bend. Holding this bit of land helped control river traffic, as boats had to slow to make the sharp curves.
Deposit Photos
While Missouri remained in the Union, Confederates held the town of New Madrid, Missouri, opposite of Island Number 10. In early March of 1862, Union commanders took New Madrid, with the confederates withdrawing to the island. The Union bombarded the island from New Madrid, but the range made this largely ineffective. Initially the Confederate batteries on the island made it too dangerous for gunboats to join the Union offensive. Eventually, the USS Carondelet and the USS Pittsburg made the run, and their guns turned the tide in the Union’s favor, forcing the confederate garrison on Island Number 10 to surrender. This allowed Union forces to freely sail nearly as far south as Memphis, Tennessee.

Kentucky Bend is nearly 27 square miles. In 1870, its population was 300 people, most involved in farming cotton. In the 2020 census, only 9 remain. And yes, I am related to at least two of them.

All her life, my grandmother proudly claimed to be a Kentuckian, even though she lived in Missouri for 68 years. After researching this blog post, I understand that claim a little better.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for posting today! This was very interesting. I thought it was funny that mapmakers refused to draw the border because they didn't want to enter the squabble!