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The Tidelands

by Archie P. McDonald, PhD
Archie McDonald Ph.D.
Ownership of the “tidelands,” or territory between the shoreline and “three leagues Gulf ward” in Texas, or approximately 10.35 miles, became the most contested state-federal issue of the twentieth century. In the balance was 2,440,650 submerged acres. Here is the story as told by Price Daniel himself.

When Texas joined the Union in 1845, the state retained all of the Republic’s public domain as well as its debt. Congress was happy then for Texas to keep its public lands so long as the Union had no role in the settlement of Texas’ debt. This remained undisputed for a century, and even then affected only the “tidelands,” after deposits of oil and natural gas were discovered there. Since the state extracted significant sums from private companies for exploration rights, they advocated federal ownership and oversight. This appealed to Secretary of Commerce Harold L. Ickes, who thought the tidelands should belong to the nation anyway.

With the issue of such ownership raised, other states with potential mineral deposits on their coastlines, especially California and Louisiana, became concerned. Congress passed quitclaim legislation acknowledging state ownership in 1946, but President Harry Truman vetoed it.

The dispute became an issue in the election of 1948, but Truman retained the support of a majority of Texans because he acknowledged the difference between Texas and other states involved based on its condition of admission to the Union. But with the election over, Truman reversed himself and supported the federal-ownership side.

More litigation resulted, when Texas Attorney General Price Daniel represented all the states with coastlines. Justice Hugo Black, writing for the Supreme Court’s majority, decided against the states, citing the federal government’s likely need for the minerals as greater than “mere property ownership.”

This even troubled citizens of states without coastlines, became a major issue in the election of 1952, and is a principal reason why Texas voted for Republican Dwight Eisenhower instead of Truman, because Eisenhower said he would sign quitclaim legislation if Congress passed it again during his administration.

Following Governor Allan Shivers, a majority of Texans supported Eisenhower. Then, when new Senator Price Daniel sponsored the quitclaim legislation, Eisenhower did sign it. In the years since, over 40 oil and nearly 400 gas wells located in Texas’ tidelands have produced well over $2 billion dedicated dollars for the Texas school fund.


© Archie P. McDonald, PhD
All Things Historical
May 26, 2005 column
A syndicated column in over 40 East Texas newspapers
(Distributed as a public service by the East Texas Historical Association. Archie P. McDonald is director of the Association and author of more than 20 books on Texas.)

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