The North West Angle: how a 1783 screw-up left chunks of US territory marooned in Canada

Spot the deliberate mistake. Image: Google.

Last week I wrote a faintly ranty piece listing 13 things about the map of the US that wind me right up. A lot of people on Twitter pointed out that I'd missed a good one. So...

It's 1783. The American War of Independence is coming to a close, everyone is knackered, and among the many pressing questions facing those drawing up the peace treaty is that of the new nation's northern boundary: where United States territory stops, and British North America begins. This challenge is made all the more difficult by the fact that, west of the Great Lakes, everyone's knowledge of the region's geography gets just a little bit hazy.

But, the negotiators do what they must, and the Treaty of Paris states that the boundary will run:

“...through the Lake of the Woods to the northwestern-most point thereof, and from thence on a due west course to the river Mississippi.”

Back in 1783, the land west of the Mississippi was French territory, so this seemed to settle the matter: find the northwestern-most point of the lake, draw a line west until you hit the river, and then you’re sorted.

How you calculate the northwesternmost point of a lake: it involves drawing a lot of lines from north east to south west. Image: Strafpelaton 2/Wikimedia Commons.

There was just one problem: despite what the maps of that era showed, west of the Lake of the Woods, there was no River Mississippi. The then unknown source of the river was Lake Itasca, in the north of Minnesota about 180km south of the Lake of the Woods.

The red pin marks the source of the Mississippi. Note that it is a surprisingly long way from Canada. Image: Google.

Later treaties would correct this somewhat, by placing the boundary to the west at the 49th parallel (that's the long straight line at the top of maps of the US). To the east, though, it was already established, so the stuff about the northwestern-most point of the Lake in the Woods stayed: the two bits of the border were linked by a straight line running north-south.

The result was a border that looks like this:

Image: Google.

Spot anything odd about that border?

Image: Google.

See it now? Here's another map, from Wikipedia.

Image: The Illusional Ministry/Wikimedia Commons.

That looks weirdly like the top right corner of the map is actually an inset, a larger version of something else on the map. It's not: it's just a part of Canada (Manitoba, to be specific) with square boundaries.

And, because those boundaries are so straight, a couple of bits of land have been cut off, and ended up in the United States.

The larger is the Northwest Angle: home to around 120 Minnesotans, who can't reach the rest of the state without either crossing a lake or going through Canada. It's only 319km2, which isn't very big; but that’s still around twice the size of Washington DC, so it’s not that tiny either.

The other cut off is Elm Point, a small cape which isn't home to anyone at all, but is nonetheless considered US territory. Both of these, incidentally, are “practical exclaves” of the US: portions of territory that can’t be reached by land without going through someone else’s country. (They’re not enclaves because Canada doesn’t completely surround them.)

None of this really matters in practical terms since the US-Canada border is one of the most permeable in the world. There's not talk of building a wall here (wonder why) though you are, technically, meant to phone customs as you cross the border to make your declaration.

But it does teach an important life lesson: don't define boundaries on the basis of a river without checking where that river actually goes first.

For more stories of silly boundaries, click here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.