The War That Almost Was: Pennsylvania vs Maryland

A war between Pennsylvania and Maryland? What for? During colonial times, it made a lot more sense than what you’d think.

The War That Almost Was: Pennsylvania vs Maryland
Photo by Andrew Coop / Unsplash

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A war between Pennsylvania and Maryland may seem absurd in today’s world. What could two states possibly go to war over? Well, during colonial times, it was a lot less implausible than what you’d think. In this article, we’re going to cover the absurd events that led these two states to nearly declare war on each other.

Origins of the Dispute

In 1632, when Maryland was legally written into existence, the charter that laid out its boundaries described it as being from “The fountain of the river Potomac, to the 40th degree of north latitude, from the equinoctial where New England is terminated”. In English, what that means is that when the borders for Maryland were drawn up, they had a lot more eastern and northern land than what it does today.

What became clear right away was that Maryland had little interest in the land that we now know as Delaware, so colonists from outside the state ending up settling there despite Maryland technically having ownership of it. They never raised any meaningful objections and, over time, the borders became closer to what they are today through sheer disinterest. This attitude finally began to change in 1681 when Pennsylvania was founded.

Pennsylvania's charter described the boundaries of the colony. Things appeared all fine and good until you started to look a bit closer. Per the charter, its southern border should be located on the 40th Parallel. Those of you who can read maps may already see the problem. Whoever had initially surveyed the colony had made a serious mistake, as the 40th parallel was actually above Philadelphia. That means that, according to this mistake, the city belonged to Maryland.

Arguments Ensued

The two colonies immediately began bickering over who the city actually belonged to. This war of words continued in mostly legal battles until the king of Britain finally stepped in, ordering the two colonies to work this dispute out politely and not to engage in any violence. Naturally, this was completely ignored. Pennsylvania created Lancaster county, which stretched directly into the disputed zone and began heavily encouraging people to settle there.

Maryland responded by getting a man by the name of Thomas Cresap to build a settlement by the Susquehanna River. He did so and then, after assembling a gang of mercenaries, immediately started doing business and collecting taxes from the Pennsylvania Dutch, claiming that they were on Maryland’s land and thus had to pay taxes to their government.

Not all Pennsylvanians, who identified as such, were so enthused about Cresap’s encroachment onto their land. Nor was Cresap particularly kind to those he saw as “trespassers” onto “his” land. In October of 1730, two Pennsylvanians attacked Cresap and a workman on his ferry, knocking both of them off the boat and into the water.

While warrants for the attackers’ arrest were written eventually, precious time was wasted as the judge in charge of handling the dispute initially refused to write one, as Cresap was a resident of Maryland. Cresap himself wasn’t much better than the attackers though, as he and his gang continued to menace Pennsylvanians on the disputed lands, destroying their fences, and even purportedly shot a horse belonging to one of them when it wandered onto his property. What later became known as “Cresap’s War” had begun.

Almost Peace

In 1732, it seemed like the conflict would find a resolution. Leaders of both Pennsylvania and Maryland came to an agreement on a border that’s remarkably close to where the Mason-Dixon Line is today. However, in 1734, the governor of Maryland changed his mind and reneged on the agreement, claiming that some of the terms that they had requested had not been included in the final agreement.

The deal fell through, and the conflict continued. Cresap continued his harassment of the settlers, raiding farms and beginning to often even burn them, and it seemed like there would never be a true resolution. Colonies began sending out their militias into the disputed zones to put down uprisings, or in some cases, start them.

Cresap was at last arrested In 1736 after a long struggle and brought to justice, being imprisoned in Philidelphia. In the summer of 1737, King George II issued an order demanding that all hostilities between the two colonies were to end immediately. This was mostly heeded apart from sporadic outbreaks of violence between small groups.

The two colonies sent negotiators to London to work with mediators of the king. Finally, on May 25th 1738, they came to an agreement that set a temporary border 15 miles south of Philadelphia, where it would remain until the British courts could determine where the permanent border would be located.

The official line was drawn by two surveyors named Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon and was called the Mason-Dixon Line.

Conclusion

Colonial America is full of strange stories like this one, where conflict can arise over the oddest of circumstances. Had things gone only a little different, a lot more could have gone wrong. Not many are aware today of the circumstances surrounding how and why the Mason-Dixon Line was drawn. If you’d like to show your appreciation for this fascinating piece of history, why not pick up one of our t-shirts?