You might have heard the story about the West Texan who was trying to impress his Eastern visitor with the size of his cattle ranch.

“Son,” the rancher told the young man from Pennsylvania, “I can get in my ol’ pickup at the break of dawn, drive in a straight line at 40 miles per hour, and by sundown I’ll still be on my own property.”

The polite Easterner replied, “Yes sir. I had a car like that once.”

Size matters in Texas. That’s why April 25 is such an important date in the history of East Texas in particular and the Lone Star State in general.

Former Texas Gov. Pat Neff once boasted, “You can put all the Northeastern states, with Illinois thrown in for good measure, into Texas and they would rattle around like peas in a pod. Why, Rhode Island would scarcely make a watch fob for Texas.”

Size always has meant something to Texans.

Disputed territory

After winning its independence from Mexico in 1836, the new Republic of Texas included parts of New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado and Wyoming. But Texas wanted more.

So on April 25, 1838, Texas and the United States signed a treaty formally giving the republic a big chunk of disputed territory in Northeast Texas. It included the present-day counties of Bowie, Cass, Franklin, Morris, Titus and Red River.

France, Spain and Mexico all had claimed the land at one time.

However, there was a time when no one wanted a large portion of East Texas.

After the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, the U.S. and Spain couldn’t agree on the western boundary. So a “Neutral Ground” — a no-man’s-land with no law or government — was carved out of the heart of the Piney Woods until a boundary line finally was established in 1819.

As for the aforementioned Northeast Texas counties, it seems the U.S. and Mexico (which at the time owned Texas) each claimed ownership of the territory.

The international boundary between the Arkansas Territory (U.S.) and Mexico was mostly unsurveyed and thus in question. The U.S. considered it to be part of Miller County, Arkansas, since the U.S. claimed jurisdiction of land immediately south of the Red River.

Residents there paid taxes levied by the Arkansas Legislature, even if they weren’t real happy about it. However, many of the folks believed they were, in fact, living in Mexico.

It truly was a confusing situation, made worse in 1829 when the U.S. decided the Sabine River was actually the Neches River and the Neches was the Sabine.

The Sabine was the western border, but the U.S. claimed the names of the two rivers had been reversed by errant mapmakers. After all, Sabine comes from the Spanish word for “cypress,” and there were more cypress trees on the Neches than the Sabine, right? Using the Neches would give the U.S. considerably more Northeast Texas real estate.

Mexico didn’t buy the argument.

Andy Jackson

Even U.S. President Andrew Jackson and his secretary of state, future chief executive Martin Van Buren, got involved in the Northeast Texas problem. Jackson was concerned enough about the boundary to mention it in one of his annual messages to the U.S. Congress.

President Jackson also had Van Buren to issue a proclamation authorizing Arkansas authorities to remove anyone living in the disputed area who refused to pay U.S. taxes.

But after Texas won its independence from Mexico in 1836, the new Republic of Texas made clear it considered the area south of the Red River to be part of Texas. During this period, a few residents in the disputed area served in the Arkansas Territory Legislature at Little Rock while other Northeast Texans were elected to the Texas Congress in Austin.

Thankfully, the April 25, 1838, treaty solved the border brouhaha. Had it not, the communities of Linden, Atlanta, Mount Pleasant, Mount Vernon and Clarksville likely would be in Arkansas.

Twelve years later, in the Compromise of 1850, Texas gave up its claims to New Mexico, etc., in exchange for $10 million from the U.S.

It was a good deal for Texas, which had plenty of land but not much money.

— Van “Compass” Craddock’s latest book is “East Texas Tales, Book 2,” available at Barron’s and the Gregg County Historical Museum. His column runs Sunday. Email vancraddock@sbcglobal.net .