The Baffling Battles Around Jersey’s Borders

A piece of Delaware on our coast? New York claiming our shoreline? New Jersey's borders have long been flashpoints in relations with our neighbors.

jersey borders

Illustration by John S. Dykes

One would think that the American states—especially the original 13, including New Jersey—had long ago settled boundary issues between them. Not so. Our state, for one, is still at it. 

New Jersey adjoins three states: Pennsylvania, Delaware and New York. It has never had any difficulty with Pennsylvania. From the earliest Colonial days, it was assumed that the center of the Delaware River was the dividing line between New Jersey and Pennsylvania. In extreme northwestern New Jersey, where it touches New York State, you could swim or canoe to the middle of the river and momentarily be in three states at once: Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey.

As with Pennsylvania, New Jersey has had little to dispute with Delaware. Just as we share with Pennsylvania part of the Delaware River, we share with the state of Delaware the lower river, now a broad estuary, and the considerably broader Delaware Bay. But a chunk of Delaware, since the mid-20th century, has been located within New Jersey. 

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How did this happen? Was there an invasion? An area was dredged early in the 20th century off the coast of extreme southwestern New Jersey, but in Delaware waters. The best place to deposit the material seemed to be in the shallows touching the New Jersey coast, just south of the Salem County township of Pennsville. Rather than enlarging New Jersey, it created an unsought outpost of Delaware—today, a grassy area about 1.5 miles long and a half mile wide, often referred to locally as the Point. There are no signs saying, “You are entering Delaware,” or on your return that you are “Entering New Jersey.” There’s no way of knowing you are crossing state lines. 

Recently, the Army Corps of Engineers built a porous barrier of gates and ditches around Delaware’s little sliver of our coastline. Were you to wander inside the barrier, which is easily done, there’s no clue you are in another state.  

For years, few in either state paid much attention to this geographical anomaly. Then, in 1987, a hunter died 10 feet inside the area. New Jersey police refused to deal with the matter, insisting that it behooved Delaware’s police to cross the bay and recover the body. While neither state seeks dominion over the area, in 2007 the Delaware Legislature, half joking, discussed calling out the National Guard to establish its sovereignty, never indicating what the soldiers would actually do. The following year, New Jersey, in an even more half-hearted fashion, threatened to sail the Battleship New Jersey from Camden to settle things. Mostly, the two states either ignore or laugh at the matter.  

Still, problems continue. Before the fence went up, cars were abandoned on the Point, and, since it is not policed, it has served as a haven for drinking and drugs. Hunters operate there with impunity in the off-season. But as Allen J. Cummings, the recently retired chief of police of Pennsville, told me, “Occasionally, someone jumps off the Delaware Memorial Bridge and, given the currents, their body invariably floats to this very spot. If we see a body, we call up the Delaware police. ‘You got another one,’ we say.” 

There have been three attempts to bring the matter before the United States Supreme Court, all with no resolution. At one time, the court had two New Jersey justices, Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito, who insisted that the easiest thing would be to declare the area part of New Jersey. They were probably right. We can’t imagine serious objections, if any, from Delaware. That state would likely be relieved. 


But if New Jersey’s boundary issues with Pennsylvania have been non-existent, and the continuing one with Delaware remains an amusing diversion, those with New York have bedevilled the two states since the 17th century. 

The troubles began when the Garden State started not as one, but two royal colonies, East Jersey and West Jersey. Their capitals were in Perth Amboy and Burlington, respectively. Thus, our earliest border struggles were internal, leaving little time and energy to seek fair agreements with New York, and with no central authority representing New Jersey as a whole.

The line between the two Jerseys, often disputed, was essentially a diagonal from Little Egg Harbor in today’s Ocean County to a point on the Delaware River in today’s Sussex County, close to the New York border. To this day, an adventurer walking that obscure line, or seeking vestiges of it, can occasionally find one of its stone markers. Province Line Road on the outskirts of Princeton is believed to be a remnant of the old border, though virtually no one in town seems to wonder what province line the road marks. 

The British crown had awarded East Jersey to Sir George Carteret for sheltering Charles II, then Prince of Wales, during the Cromwell era. Carteret was governor of the English Channel Isle of Jersey, whence comes the name of our state. West Jersey was awarded to Lord John Berkeley, also a favorite of the crown. 

Berkeley, Carteret and their followers assumed control over their new holdings in 1664, which is why New Jersey celebrated its 350th anniversary in 2014. But there is a certain Anglo-Saxon bias to those dates. The Dutch (some Swedes as well) had settled in New Jersey well before the British arrived, some immediately following their compatriot Hendrik Hudson’s 1609 explorations along the coast and up the Hudson and Delaware rivers.  

Bergen, a good Dutch name (it is a town in northern Holland), was the Hollanders’ largest settlement and the likely origin of the name Bergen County. The New Jersey Dutch regarded their turf as subsidiary to New Amsterdam in Manhattan, without an independent political existence. This sentiment, and the existence of two Jerseys once the British took over, had something to do with New Jersey’s early inability to establish an identity of its own—in contrast to New York’s air of superiority. 

This syndrome continues today; think Saturday Night Live and Woody Allen movies. It appears that New York’s condescending view of New Jersey emboldened it to make extreme claims as to where its borders ended and New Jersey’s began. 


One boundary line, New Jersey’s northern border, would be disputed for centuries. There was no disagreement between the two states on its eastern point. To visit it, you can park in the last Palisades Parkway rest area in New Jersey and walk north on a path close to the cliff until you come across a modest stone monument in a wooded area.

But agreeing on the western extreme of the northern border proved difficult. New York argued for a line heading south through today’s Salem County, which would have resulted in a New Jersey half its present size. Our state’s demands were less extreme. New Jersey wanted the border to proceed on an angle to the northwest that would have terminated on the Delaware at the Sullivan County town of Calicoon, New York. 

A compromise, reached in 1882 and marked by a monument on the Delaware River bank, placed the border at the very point on the river where the line between the two Jerseys once terminated. Here, the Neversink River enters the Delaware; today, Interstate 84 roars by overhead. Just across the border is Port Jervis, New York. From there, cars enter New Jersey to take advantage of lower prices at the many gas stations situated just south of the state line.

More heated than the northern border fracas was the disagreement between the two states on the eastern one. New York assumed from the beginning that the entire Hudson River was its territory and that its western border was the Jersey coastline. Some even argued that New York’s jurisdiction continued to the high-water mark on the Jersey side. It is unclear how far down the coast these imperial desires extended, but one can imagine with horror the better part of New Jersey’s beaches as part of New York’s claim. 

In 1702, East and West Jersey joined as a single colony, though its legislature met alternately in Perth Amboy and Burlington, so vestiges of East and West Jersey remained. Also, New Jersey’s royal governor lived in New York City, rarely if ever setting foot in New Jersey. These factors made it difficult for New Jersey to struggle against New York’s ambitions. There were occasional shots fired between New York and New Jersey constables out in the middle of the Hudson. New Yorkers were also known to cross the river at night to set fire to the docks and wharves emanating from the Jersey side, claiming that they had been erected on New York territory. This greatly slowed New Jersey’s development as a seagoing state. It is ironic that today the great Port of New York, presided over by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, is mostly located in Newark and Elizabeth. 

Throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries New Jersey continued to assert, without success, its right to half the Hudson River—as well as half its estuary and bay. Finally, New Jersey took the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court, and, in 1834, the court ruled that the middle of the Hudson River was indeed the boundary. It excluded two islands, Ellis and Bedloes (later to become Liberty Island), both of which are much closer to the New Jersey side than to any part of New York City. Ellis is just off what is now Liberty State Park; Liberty Island is a bit further off the Jersey shoreline. Still, the court ruled that the islands had for so long been in New York’s possession and were so identified with the city’s history that its authority over them could not be altered. Any other islands west of the center of the river were New Jersey’s.

jersey borders

Illustration by John S. Dykes

Curiously, the Supreme Court did not mention Staten Island, though it is significantly west of the middle of the Hudson River, far from the rest of New York City and virtually adjoining New Jersey. It was not to become part of New York City until 1898, 64 years later. At the time, it was a barely inhabited island that mainly functioned as New York City’s dump (the largest in the world, by the way). 

New Jersey certainly could (some would say should) have raised the question of Staten Island. It is virtually surrounded by New Jersey and its waterways as defined by the court. Its western end is only separated from New Jersey by the Arthur Kill, and its northern shore by the Kill Van Kull and Newark Bay. Bayonne all but wraps itself around Staten Island. 

Before the 3-mile long Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge was built in 1964, connecting with Brooklyn, Staten Island was not joined to New York City except by ferry. Until then, Staten Island’s only bridges—the Bayonne, the Goethals, and the Outerbridge Crossing—all linked it to New Jersey, further dramatizing a geographical affinity between the island and the Garden State.  In recent years, a secession movement among Staten Islanders has further muddied the waters. Many on Staten Island consider themselves as living in “the forgotten borough.” In 1993, 65 percent of the population voted to secede from New York City. The New York State Legislature denied Staten Island its independence, but as recently as 2019, two Staten Island councilmen were again pushing secession.

One cannot but wonder whether, given its proximity and the multiple bridges to New Jersey, Staten Island might someday seek to join New Jersey. Had New Jersey pursued this aggressively from the beginning, it might well have happened. 


Whether Staten Island will ever become a serious issue between the two states, there remains a continuing disagreement over Ellis Island, and possibly Liberty Island as well. The original Ellis Island that the Supreme Court gave to New York was a mere rocky outpost with a small military detachment. It was also New York’s place of execution for those convicted of capital crimes. But to create the large immigration station that it’s known for, the island’s size had to be augmented five times over, principally with rock harvested in the tunneling of New York City’s subways. 

In 1998, under the leadership of Governor Christine Todd Whitman and Jersey City mayor Bret Schundler, New Jersey went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to argue that all New York City was granted in 1834 was the original Ellis. The rest of the island, New Jersey claimed, was constructed in New Jersey waters. In a 5-4 decision, with Justice David Souter writing the majority opinion, 83 percent of Ellis Island was awarded to New Jersey. Granted, the island is federal property, but most of it is now part of Jersey City.

Years ago, I interviewed Schundler and asked why he and Whitman had not sued for control of Liberty Island as well, since the original island, Bedloes, had been augmented in the same way Ellis had. Schundler agreed that the same rationale used to win the better part of Ellis Island would likely have worked on Liberty. “Maybe next time,” he told me. 


If New Jersey’s borders are still not definitively resolved, one wonders how climate change and rising seas might play into future controversies. While David Robinson, professor of geography at Rutgers and the New Jersey state climatologist, does not believe New Jersey is in imminent danger, he is reasonably certain that, by the end of the current century, many coastal areas of New Jersey will be underwater. This will likely have inland ramifications—especially in the Pine Barrens, which occupy almost one-fourth of the state and are generally no more than six feet above sea level. Thus, a day might even arrive when a huge chunk of present-day New Jersey is under the sea. That would cause a much more radical reconfiguration of its boundaries than anything we’ve seen thus far.

In the meantime, Jersey might want to consider going after Liberty Island, and maybe getting the Statue of Liberty or part of it. We could harvest lots of pride there. Just think of the bragging rights! 

Michael Aaron Rockland is professor of American Studies at Rutgers and the author of some 16 books, several on New Jersey. His latest book is a novel with the improbable title of Married to Hitler.
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