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No. 2990:
The Minnesota Bump

by Andrew Boyd

Today, a bump. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Students of political geography are quick to tell you that the northernmost point in the continental U.S. isn't in Maine. Nor is it found on the other side of the country in Washington State. No, by an odd set of circumstances, the northernmost point in the continental U.S. is found near the middle of the country in the state of Minnesota.

A blank outline map of the United States
This outlined map of the United States shows all 50 states as well as our position between Canada and Mexico. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons/USGS 

Following the Revolutionary War, Great Britain and the U.S. had to determine what land actually belonged to the U.S. It was pretty much agreed that everything from the Atlantic to the Mississippi was included. The only question was where to draw the northern boundary with what is today Canada.

The Great Lakes provided a natural dividing line, and much of the newly defined border split the lakes down the middle. Smaller lakes and rivers extended the border to the west of the Great Lakes, finally arriving at a large body of water known as the Lake of the Woods. From here, easy-to-follow natural boundaries don't readily present themselves. So U.S. and British negotiators came up with a seemingly reasonable plan: draw a line due west from the lake until it ran into the Mississippi. Problem solved. Or was it?

It turns out the Mississippi doesn't run far enough north. Its headwaters are a full 150 miles south of the Lake of the Woods. So a line drawn west from the lake couldn't run into the Mississippi. The reason for such a major oversight was actually quite simple. Maps of this remote region weren't very good at the time.

Location map of Minnesota, USA
A location map of Minnesota, showing the Lake of the Woods and Mississippi Headwaters. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Alexrk2 

The problem went unnoticed for 15 years, at which point British explorer David Thompson discovered the error. Yet it still took an-other 9 years to get the boundary sorted out.

The catalyst for reconciliation came with the Louisiana Purchase, which brought vast new western territory under U.S. control. Problem was, the territory, which the U.S. purchased from France, didn't have well defined boundaries. So once again the question, now for this newly purchased land, was thrust to the forefront: where does the U.S. stop and Canada begin?

The short answer is that negotiators agreed on the 49th parallel, which today forms the long, straight stretch of border from Washington to Minnesota. But a question still remained. Where in Minnesota would the parallel connect with the border from the east? A natural answer would be where the two crossed. But because of the wording of the original British/U.S treaty, the lake became the de facto end of the border from the east. So to connect the west and east stretches of the border an extra 25 mile stretch was inserted due south from the lake to the parallel.

Google maps image of Lake of the Woods
A Google Maps image of the Lake of the Woods. Photo Credit: Google Maps

The upshot is that Minnesota has a 25 by 20 mile bump sticking into Canada. About two-thirds of the bump is water, and what land there is can only be reached from the U.S. by boat. That is, unless you wait for the lake to freeze in winter, in which case you can take your ice truck.

I'm Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

The original treaty didn't refer to the border running to the Lake of the Woods, but to the northwestern-most corner of the lake. References in this essay are to 'the lake' to avoid additional verbiage.

W. Lass. The Story Behind Minnesota's Weirdly Shaped Northern Border. February 4, 2014. From the MinnPost website: Accessed February 10, 2015.

This episode first aired on February 11 , 2015.