I have a confession to make. Not only do I like old photos, I am also fascinated with old maps (and historical family feuds, nineteenth century humorists, natural disasters, and the Civil War – all of which will come up in this article). As a child, one year I asked for a giant map of the world for Christmas. Many evenings I would fall asleep while staring at distant places and unusual names. I became quite curious why some borders had been created in certain places and what history had caused the lines to be drawn how they were.
One of the things that fascinates me no end are geographical anomalies. Europe is great for these – having so many historic principalities, so many wars, and so many changes over the years. It doesn’t take long to notice odd little enclaves or unusual lines. America is not exempt from our own anomalies.
One of my favorite geographic curiosities is the Kentucky Bend. A little 17.5 square mile bulb of Kentucky that is completely cut off from the parent state and entirely surrounded by Missouri and Tennessee. It was created when the original surveyors wrongly estimated where the Tennessee/Kentucky boundary line would reach the Mississippi River. Missouri was given all the land on the trans-Mississippi side and the surveyors didn’t figure on encountering a large oxbow loop on the cis-Mississippi side. They didn’t realize there would be a giant looping bend and wrote that the boundary for Kentucky should lie at the westernmost point that the line touched the Mississippi River.
So how did these guys miss the loop? Back in 1811/12, there was a series of earthquakes collectively called the New Madrid Earthquake that originated right near the Bend. Modern sizemologists estimate the largest of these was perhaps an 8.0! The quake was felt in New York and Connecticut and was so powerful that it changed the course the Mississippi and even caused the river to flow backwards for a few days. At the time of the surveying, people hadn’t ventured all the way to that particular part of the river to see the bend for themselves and the enclave was created by an accident of nature.
In 1862, the Battle of Island Number Ten took place on an island in middle of the Mississippi River just east of the Bend. The Yankees were trying to move ironclads down the river and the Southerners had placed defenses at this strategic choke point. Confederate forces had chosen a wonderfully defensible position, nearly impervious to shelling and ground assault, the only drawback being that the Confederate garrison could only be supplied via a solitary road back to Tennessee. When the Federal forces captured this road, the defenders were completely cut off from resupply.
To this day, this part of Kentucky can only be reached via Tennessee State Route 22 and postal mail is addressed to Tiptonville, Tennessee. Tennessee originally contested giving the bend to Kentucky, but had relented by 1848. The odd nature of this area didn’t escape Mark Twain’s notice either as he gave fleeting mention to the Bend in his book, “Life on the Mississippi,” in which he describes a 60 year-old feud between two Bend area families, the Watsons and the Darnells, and their church at a landing called Compromise built half in Kentucky and half in Tennessee.
What a wacky little piece of property!