No Man’s Land
5,000 square miles and no law
Two hundred and six years ago, high officials of two nations deliberately turned 5,000 square miles of Southwest Louisiana into a safe refuge for violent criminals who flocked to it from all over the young nation.
This is how it happened.
In 1803, the United States had paid France $15 million to abandon its claim to 828,00 square miles of land in the brand-new America. It was called the Louisiana purchase, but we didn’t actually buy the land. America and France both claimed the land, and we paid France $15 million to abandon its claim, leaving us as sole owners of the land.
When the Louisiana Purchase was announced, Spain protested, saying France had no right to include a 5,000-square-mile strip of land in what is now Southwest Louisiana in the Louisiana Purchase. Spain said the land had been found by Spanish explorers and claimed for Spain.
We argued that the Louisiana Purchase was history and we wouldn’t try to change it. Spain said it wanted its land. The argument got hotter. When both sides hinted they might use military force to support their claims, cooler but not wiser heads stepped in.
The cool heads suggested that the disputed land be set aside and belong to nobody until ownership was decided by peaceful negotiation.
Both America and Spain liked the idea. Thus was born the Neutral Strip.
The disputed land being put aside was bound on the West by the Sabine River in East Texas. It was bound on the East by El Arroyo, the Spanish name for what is now the Calcasieu River. It was bound on the South by the Gulf of Mexico, and on the North by the 32nd parallel, which was near Coushatta in Red River Parish.
The Neutral Strip included all or portions of the present Louisiana parishes of De Soto, Sabine, Natchitoches, Vernon, Rapides, Beauregard, Allen, Calcasieu, Jefferson Davis and Cameron.
The rules or the Neutral Strip were simple:
l For whatever time it took to peacefully negotiate ownership, the disputed land would belong to nobody.
l Nobody would be allowed to live on the disputed land, which would also be off-limits or anyone in the military or law enforcement.
l Since the Neutral Strip would have no inhabitants, there was no need for laws, ordinances, rules or regulations.
The Neutral Strip opened in 1806, and the response was immediate. The strip became known as No Man’s Land, and it seemed that every criminal in our young nation heard of it and moved into No Man’s Land. Squatters took over land uninvited. It seemed that anybody who asked got grants from Spain for small tracts of land. Runaway slaves sought refuge there. Convicts who escaped from prison disappeared into No Man’s Land. So did military deserters , criminals sought for smuggling contraband goods, murderers, robbers, counterfeiters and rapists. Bands left No Man’s Land to rob trade caravans, then disappeared again in No Man’s Land. Other bands left long enough to rob homes and businesses before returning and melting into the lawless crowds in No Man’s Land.
Even joint military units hesitated before entering No Man’s Land. Two raids, in 1812 and 1816, netted few arrests and caused little interruption of criminal activities. Inside the strip, there was frequent gunfire and violence.
Settlers who lived within 25 miles of No Man’s Land kept loaded guns in their houses.
A curious mind-set developed that was copied years later by lawmen in some cities. The feeling was that having the worst elements of society gathered into one area created more safety in other parts of the city or parish. The same mind-set that led to red light districts and allowed criminals to congregate in specific areas of a city or parish.
There were several roads across the 50-mile width of the strip that retained the Spanish names of Camino Real (Royal Road) which became routes of terror for traders. Some traders skirted No Mans’ Land to the South by using schooners to carry goods to Galveston and other Texas ports for distribution.
To the North, traders skirted No Man’s Land by going through upper Red River Parish.
After 13 years of crime and violence in No Man’s Land, relief came from an unexpected source.
The Adams–Onís Treaty of 1819, known as the Transcontinental Treaty, was a pact between the United States and Spain. It was mainly directed at Florida. Under the agreement, we paid Spain $5 million and Spain withdrew its claim on Florida.
In what was considered a lesser clause in the Transcontinental Treaty, Spain also gave up its claim on any land in Louisiana.
With that silent stroke, No Man’s Land died.
It would take time to clean it up, even with the power of an expanding America turned to the task, but eventually the nation moved on and the 13-year life of the infamous No Man’s Land became only a few lines in Louisiana history books.
drawing caption: Donna Price / American Press
No Man’s Land was bound on the West by the Sabine River, on the East by the Calcasieu River, on the South by the Gulf of Mexico, and on the North by the 32nd parallel, which was near Coushatta in Red River Parish.