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Missouri Bootheel

On this day, June 4, 1812, the Missouri Territory is created. What’s the story behind our border with the “Show Me State?”

After the Missouri Territory was established, the territorial legislature of Missouri created Arkansas County for all the land between Louisiana and approximately thirty-six degrees north latitude, comprising all but a few northern counties of present-day Arkansas. Four years later, Missouri Territory residents began petitioning Congress for statehood and described the southern boundary of its proposed state as latitude thirty-six degrees, thirty minutes north. “The southern limit [of Missouri] will be an extension of the line that divides Virginia and North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky. …A front of three and a half degrees up on the Mississippi will be left to the South to form the territory of Arkansas, with the River Arkansas traversing its centre,” Missouri’s petitioners said. Their plan was to make room for three states (Arkansas, Missouri and Iowa), each having equal land fronting on the Mississippi River.

But what happened next is shrouded in mystery, confusion, and conflicting stories. The proposal for Missouri statehood would have left in Arkansas the area now known as the Missouri bootheel. John Hardeman Walker, a wealthy landowner whose portrait hangs in the public library in Caruthersville, Missouri, is generally credited as the man responsible for stealing the bootheel from Arkansas. He lived in the area, and when word spread that Missouri was seeking statehood, he and others persuaded the territorial legislature to include not only the bootheel but large parts of the Black and White River valleys in northern Arkansas, which today include all or part of seven Arkansas counties. While Walker is blamed for including the bootheel in Missouri, little written proof is found. Indeed, once the movement for Missouri statehood began, residents began petitioning Congress to form Arkansas Territory, and at least one petition described the north boundary as the thirty-sixth latitude between the Mississippi and St. Francis rivers and the thirty-seventh latitude from the St. Francis west, thus the proposal would give the bootheel to Missouri but extend Arkansas farther north to the outskirts of present-day Springfield, Missouri.

In late 1818, a Kentucky congressman proposed the territorial boundary of Missouri and Arkansas as the thirty-sixth latitude from the Mississippi west. The political maneuvering is not well recorded, but the act of Congress of March 2, 1819, creating Arkansas Territory defines the northern boundary as beginning on the Mississippi River at latitude thirty-six degrees north and running west to the St. Francis River, then up the river to latitude thirty-six degrees, thirty minutes north, and then west, thereby creating the Missouri bootheel. Therefore, the bootheel was established when Congress created Arkansas Territory, for it was two years later that Missouri was admitted to the union. 

[Source: Encyclopedia of Arkansas. Pictured: United States map, circa 1820, showing Arkansas Territory. Courtesy of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, Central Arkansas Library System]