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The Balboan delusion
Which vexed American geography and politics for centuries
Ever wonder why the southern border of Virginia and Kentucky is so long and straight, when nearly all the other borders of eastern states are short, crooked or both? Or why you can drive from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River and cross only one state border (either the Virginia/Kentucky border, or North Carolina/Tennessee)?
Credit Balboa (if you think these oddities are credit-worthy).
Vasco Nunez de Balboa was governor of Veragua, a Spanish colonial territory on the Caribbean coast of Central America in the early sixteenth century, when he heard of another great ocean—besides the Atlantic—beyond the mountains that lay inland. In 1513 he led an expedition into the mountains, and in September of that year, from the crest of the mountains, he looked out upon the Pacific Ocean.
Except that Balboa didn’t call it the Pacific Ocean. He called it the South Sea, because at that point the isthmus trended east to west, rather than north to south, and the large body of water he spied lay to the south of where he stood.
That was the lesser of Balboa’s delusions. The larger was that the continent on which he stood—it wasn’t yet called America—was quite narrow. He had no way of knowing that this stretch of land—in what would become Panama—was the single narrowest part of the Americas in all their length from the Arctic to nearly the Antarctic. The isthmus there is about 40 miles wide; Balboa not unreasonably inferred that other parts of the continent would be comparably narrow.
A first corollary of this inference was that there must be a water passage through the continent. Columbus, sailing for Spain, had bumped into America while looking for the East Indies. Twenty years later, in Balboa’s day, the successors to Columbus still sought a route to those spice islands. Balboa’s sighting of the Pacific, from the narrowest part of the isthmus, gave them reason to believe they would find it.
Ferdinand Magellan led an expedition to discover the passage to the Indies. Feeling his way along the coast of South America, he eventually discovered the strait, which a grateful king of Spain named for him. Magellan didn’t realize that had he gone only a bit farther, he would have reached the southern end of South America. When he sailed out into the ocean to the west, it seemed peaceful by comparison with the stormy Atlantic from which he had come, and he named it Mar Pacifico, or Peaceful Sea. Only later, after Magellan’s violent death in the Philippines on that same voyage, did his successors make the connection to Balboa’s South Sea.
Other explorers thought they could do better than Magellan. The point was to get from Europe, in the Northern Hemisphere, to China and the East Indies, the former wholly in the Northern Hemisphere, the latter mostly. Magellan’s route took travelers and traders quite out of the way. A northern passage to the west would be much better.
And so began the search for the Northwest Passage. The French sent Jacques Cartier, who discovered the Gulf of St. Lawrence and proceeded up it, to find only the St. Lawrence River and not the Pacific. Henry Hudson, sailing for the Dutch, entered the river that took his name and followed it north, thinking it might be the passage. Hudson’s mistake was understandable, for the Hudson is a tidewater stream far inland. And though he had to turn back, he gave the Dutch a claim to what became New Amsterdam and eventually New York.
On another voyage, sailing for the English, Hudson found new cause for hope, in Hudson Bay. His eagerness carried him too far and for too long, though, for his ship became trapped in ice. The crew mutinied, stole the ship and cast Hudson adrift in a boat. He was never seen again.
Thomas Jefferson, although not an explorer, got in on the search for the Northwest Passage. He never traveled farther west than Virginia, but he hungered to know what lay in the American West, beyond the Mississippi. In the 1790s he tried to organize a scientific survey of the region, but the plans fell through. The following decade, when Napoleon unloaded Louisiana on the United States, Jefferson—by then president—revived the survey idea and gave charge of it to Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.
Among other tasks, Lewis and Clark were instructed to determine the viability of water transit to the Pacific via the upper Missouri River and the Columbia River. This wouldn’t be the sea level passage so long sought, but it might be better than nothing. Jefferson knew that in Russia the headwaters of rivers flowing to the Baltic Sea entwined with the headwaters of rivers draining to the Black Sea, allowing easy portages between the rivers for people and goods. Jefferson hoped for a similar entwining of the headwaters of the Missouri and Columbia, and he envisioned that such portages might be improved by canals like those already enhancing river traffic in the East.
Lewis and Clark disabused Jefferson of such dreams. The Rocky Mountains formed a barrier impenetrable to river traffic. There was no Northwest Passage there, not even a Russian-style approximation.
Meanwhile the Balboan delusion had a decisive and sometimes vexing influence on the geography of England’s American colonies and the states they became. The colonial charters of Virginia and other colonies specified lines of latitude for their northern and southern boundaries but left their eastern and western limits to be provided by the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The Atlantic posed no problem, as its shore was where the first settlements in the colonies were established. Most people at the time assumed the Pacific was a modest distance away, perhaps a bit beyond the Appalachians.
When it turned out that the Pacific was three thousand miles away, rather than three hundred, the mistake threw the English colonies into conflict with France and Spain, who had their own claims to territory in the Mississippi Valley and beyond. It also caused trouble among the English colonies themselves, for, especially in those days, drawing boundaries hundreds of miles into the wilderness was difficult and often inaccurate.
The Revolutionary War provided a certain relief. In the Paris treaty that ended the conflict, the western limit of the United States was fixed at the Mississippi. The former colonies abandoned any residual claims running to the Pacific, which were now seen to be absurd.
Yet if Virginia and North Carolina, for example, no longer stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific, they did stretch from the Atlantic to the Mississippi. Even this proved more than they could conveniently handle, and so each state split itself in two, with the western half of Virginia becoming Kentucky, and the western part of North Carolina becoming Tennessee. Other states tossed their western claims into a common Northwest Territory, the region above the Ohio River.
Not until the twentieth century did the Balboan delusion finally play itself out. Explorers having failed to find a natural water route through the Americas, engineers created an artificial route, the Panama Canal, which allowed ships to pass beneath the very mountains where Balboa had made his colossal mistake.
There was an epilogue to the story. In the twenty-first century, amid rising global temperatures, the Arctic ice cap began melting sufficiently that ships could regularly ply a route over the top of North America. The Northwest Passage existed after all. Balboa had simply lived too soon.