United States v. Maine (Massachusetts Boundary Case): Ancient Title to Nantucket Sound

Document Type


Publication Date

Spring 1990




There has been an ongoing struggle between the federal and coastal state governments over the control of offshore submerged lands which contain valuable natural resources. This conflict is known as the tidelands controversy. In the most recent tidelands battle, Massachusetts claimed ancient title to Nantucket Sound. Ancient title is established by occupation, which has been fortified by long usage, prior to the emergence of freedom of the seas in the 18th century. The United States Supreme Court rejected Massachusetts' claim on the grounds that the colonists had not occupied the Sound. Furthermore, the colonists' economic exploitation of the Sound did not constitute an assertion of sovereignty. The Court's decision was incorrect. The colonists occupied the Sound according to 17th century law. The colonists' utilization of the Sound, which provided for their subsistence, did represent an assertion of sovereignty. The Court should have found that Massachusetts established its ancient title to Nantucket Sound. Before the revolution, Nantucket Sound was considered county waters under British law. Title to the Sound passed to Massachusetts either through its colonial charter upon independence or by the Treaty of Paris in 1783. The emergence of freedom of the seas did not require the state to relinquish title to its inland waters. Neither the United States nor Massachusetts abandoned or repudiated this ancient title.