Ohio River Defines West Virginia’s Border

Morgantown Dominion Post
29 August 2011

Usually a river is named for the state that controls it.

But not the Ohio River, which forms more than half of the Mountain State’s westernmost border.

The Ohio River, it turns out, is actually part of West Virginia.

And it’s all the fault of good King James I and the patent he issued the London Company in 1609, according to Earl Core, in “The Monongalia Story,” Volume 1.

In most cases, where a river separates two states, the legal boundary line is in the middle of the river, local historian Kenneth Carvell said in an essay for the March issue of The Monongalia Chronicle.

Carvell said the Virginia Company originally was granted all land west and northwest from sea to sea, but in 1787, to comply with the Northwest Ordinance, all lands west of the Ohio River were given to the Continental Congress to form the Northwest Territory.

As a result, the low-water mark on the western bank of the Ohio River became the western boundary of Virginia.

When Ohio became a state in 1803, it sought greater control over this major waterway, considering it a key economic element.

Ohio officials appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to shift the boundary line to the middle of the river.

The Court, however, ruled that because Virginia had owned the Ohio River originally, it should remain a part of Virginia’s domain, Carvell noted.

As a result, when Virginia lost its westernmost counties, counties that became part of West Virginia, the river boundary went with them. West Virginia became a state in 1863.

When the British kings issued patents for control of the land that became the United States, the boundary lines weren’t necessarily very accurate.

Carvell said West Virginia owes its Northern Panhandle to some surveying issues: A white oak post marking a boundary was placed 20 miles east of the Ohio River, and the western boundary of Pennsylvania was run from true north.

This left a strip of land between the boundary and the Ohio River, which became the Northern Panhandle.

Evelyn Ryan researches and writes this column. Send ideas and suggestons to newsroom@dominionpost.com.