Same Name, Other Side of the Border (Part I: North America)

International borders slash through all sorts of geographic, physical, and cultural regions.  Despite these imposed divisions, there are numerous places around the world where the regional name at-large is used on both opposing sides of the border in the official names of administrative divisions, even where neighbouring countries employ different languages.  Over the next two or three months, we’ll throw up a list of these reoccurring regional toponyms from around the world, beginning today with North America.

Okanagan/Okanogan (British Columbia, Canada/Washington, United States)

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Prior to the extension of the boundary between US and the British possessions that would eventually become Canada west of the Rocky Mountains in 1846 under the Oregon Treaty, the valley of the Okanagan River and Okanagan Lake (spelled Okanogan on the US side but pronounced the same, oh-ka-NAHgən) was primarily the domain of the indigenous Okanagan people, who today remain split between the two sides of the border.  Beginning in the early 19thcentury, dozens of different spellings of the toponym are found as far back as the journals of Lewis and Clark in 1805 (Otchenaukane) and David Thompson in 1811 (Ookanawgan).  The standard spellings on either side of the border became entrenched in the very early 20th century.

In British Columbia, ‘Okanagan’ in used in the name of each of the three separate second-order divisions (regional districts) that encompass the Canadian side of the valley (North Okanagan, Central Okanagan, and Okanagan-Similkameen).  On the Washington side, the ‘Okanogan’ variety is found in the name of Okanogan County, which encompasses the southern portion of the region all the way to where the Okanogan River empties into the Columbia.  Both sides also have cities with Okanagan/Okanogan in their names.   Being one of the warmest and driest regions of Canada, the Okanagan Valley is renowned for its numerous orchards and wineries and for its recreational tourism, and is one of Canada’s major retirement destinations.  As a result, the British Columbia side of the Okanagan is much more heavily populated than its Washington counterpart, anchored by the budding metropolis of Kelowna and other regional centres such as Penticton and Vernon.  Over 352 000 people live in the Canadian Okanagan; just over 41 000 live in Okanogan County.

Pembina (Manitoba, Canada/North Dakota, United States)


Source: K. Musser,  Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic licence.

The name Pembina is a legacy of French-speaking fur traders (voyageurs) of the late 18thand early 19th century based out of Montreal who traded in the northern North American prairies.  Not only did their arrival in the region foment an entirely new ethnic group of aboriginal people (the Métis people of mixed First Nations and European descent who today number around 400 000 in Canada), but it also left hundreds upon hundreds of French-language toponyms across the prairies.  The word ‘pembina’ specifically refers to a type of wild berry, and can be found in multiple place names including the Pembina River along the Manitoba/North Dakota border; a tributary of the Red River of the North.  The Manitoban headwaters of the river lie within the rural municipality of Pembina, while the mouth of the river lies within North Dakota’s Pembina County in the extreme northeast of the state.  Both jurisdictions are primarily rural with economies dependent upon agriculture.

Akwesasne (Canada/United States)


Source: Nonenmac,  Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.

Like the Okanagan people, the Mohawk Nation of Akwesasne is also split by the Canada/United States border, but what makes this situation interesting is that unlike the dispersed First Nations reservations spread throughout the Okanagan region, Akwesasne’s territory remains contiguous, straddling the Saint Lawrence River, although it is legally split between the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec and the US state of New York.  The territory of approximately 13 000 people, whose name translates to ‘land where the partridge drums’, still functions as one community of people despite the travails of having to deal with two local governments (the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne on the Canadian side; the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe on the US side), three state/provincial governments, and two national governments.

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Akwesasne is also home to one of the more interesting anomalies along the Canada/US border.  The Quebecois portion of Akwesasne is comprised of two separate de facto exclaves (the town of Kana:takon/Saint Regis and the larger rural area of Tsi:Snaine/Chenail) that can only be reached through New York due to their location on the south bank of the Saint Lawrence and are cut off from each other due to the presence of the Saint Regis River, which empties into the Saint Lawrence virtually directly on the international boundary.  Travellers attempting to reach other parts of Canada must first travel leave Canada, enter the US, and then cross the border again.  The only crossing of the Saint Lawrence in Akwesasne is the Seaway International Bridge which crosses from the Ontario portion of the territory (Cornwall Island) into New York.

California (Mexico/United States)


In this 1857 depiction of New Spain at the beginning of the 19th century, Vieja California (modern Baja California) and Nueva California (the coast of the modern US state of California) are shown.

Turning to the other international land border of the United States, we find the US state of California and the Mexican states of Baja California Norte and Baja California Sur.  The term ‘California’ was first applied to the peninsular region in 1533 by the Spaniards Diego de Becerra and Fortun Ximénez on an expedition sent by Hernán Cortés.   The name itself is a reference to a fictional island mentioned in a popular novel of the day, Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo’s 1510 book Las sergas de Esplandián by the author (‘…that on the right hand of the Indies there is an island called California very close to the side of the Terrestrial Paradise; and it is peopled by black women, without any man among them, for they live in the manner of the Amazons.’)  As de Becerra and Ximénez arrived on the great Baja California peninsula from the south, they had no idea that it was actually connected to the mainland, and gave what they thought was a large island the name of California.


While the idea of this land being an island was first disproven by the end of the decade as Spanish explorers including Cortés himself continued to pour into the region over the next decade, confusion reemerged in the 1620s when the tales of Juan de Fuca’s likely mythical voyages  along the west coast of North America entered the public eye.  The large opening mentioned by de Fuca that he stated possibly connected with the Atlantic Ocean was possibly confused with the Gulf of California, and the myth of the island of California was reborn. Maps continued to show the peninsula as an island all the way into the mid-18th century with the Gulf of California cutting off much of the west coast of North America all the way up to Juan de Fuca’s mythical opening.

As Spanish control of the coast crept further north up the coast, the name California came with it, being applied to all Spanish lands along the Pacific coast from the peninsula north.  Eventually, the northern portion of California above the peninsula came to be known as Alta or Nueva California (‘Upper’ or ‘New California’) with the peninsular area becoming Bajaor Vieja California (‘Lower’ or ‘Old California’).  The ‘old’/’new’ distinction was first recorded as early as 1542 with Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo’s exploration of the region (commemorated in San Diego at Cabrillo National Monument).  Alta California did become settled by Europeans to any large degree for the next two centuries, and only with the establishment of Catholic missions in the region did it become necessary to legally separate the two, which occurred in 1773.  With Mexican independence, Alta and Baja became territories of Mexico.   This internal border only became international when Mexico would cede Alta California to the United States in 1848 after losing the Mexican-American War after which it became the US territory of California, achieving statehood in 1850.  Baja California, meanwhile, was not partitioned into separate territories until 1931. Norte became a full state in 1952; Sur in 1971.

Saint Martin (Saint-Martin (France)/Sint Maarten (Netherlands))

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While the Caribbean island of Saint Martin first became known to Europeans in 1493 during the second voyage of Christopher Columbus for Spain, Spain took little interest in the island and colonisation of Saint Martin did not occur until the early 17th century.  By this point, both France and the Dutch Republic were showing interest in the island: France was looking to colonise all of the islands in the eastern Caribbean; the Dutch were looking for a port they could control located halfway between New Netherland (today’s New York) and Dutch Brazil on the northeast coast of South America.  France harvested a small amount of tobacco on the island as early as 1624.  The Dutch established the first military presence on Saint Martin when Fort Amsterdam was built on the south side of the island in 1631; the Dutch East India Company would go on to establish a salt mine.  Spain, while never having attempted to colonise the island, saw this as an incursion upon their territory and drove the Dutch out in June 1633.  Spain would hold onto Saint Martin until 1648, when it relinquished the island in advance of the treaties of Westphalia.  Under the impending treaties, the longstanding state of war between the Spanish and Dutch would end, and Spain would recognise Dutch independence.  As well, the colony had been only been marginally profitable.

The abandonment of the island by Spain allowed the French and Dutch to take up their claims again.  Dutch colonists reoccupied the south shore; French colonist came from St. Kitts to occupy the north.  The issue of who would permanently possess the island was settled in March 1648 with the Treaty of Concordia in which both countries agreed to split Saint Martin.  Despite this agreement, there would be numerous occasions between 1679 and 1816 where both countries, as well as Great Britain, would occupy the entire island.  The current borders have been entrenched since 1816.  While France controls 60 percent of the island’s area, the Dutch side has a larger population (37 400 versus 31 000, according to the CIA World Factbook).

Over the centuries, the legal statuses of both sides of the island have changed.  French Saint-Martin was for many years a commune within the French department of Guadeloupe; in 2007, it seceded from Guadeloupe to become an overseas collectivity of France.  Dutch Sint Maarten was a territory of the Dutch Windward Islands along with Sint Eustatius and Saba between 1919 and 1954 before that colony was absorbed into the larger constituent country of the Netherlands Antilles; Sint Maarten became a constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in its own right in October 2010.

NOTE: In this list there are bound to be regions that get missed.  If you can think of regions that should be added, leave a note in the comments and it will be added in.  Just make sure that 1) the named jurisdictions are administrative divisions, not simply cities or towns, and 2) occur on (relatively) directly opposing sides of the border.

Further Reading

Howder, T. (2009).  Canadian Border Anomalies.  Twelve Mile Circle, 3 April 2009.  Available at  Accessed 13 April 2012.

Jacobs, F. (2007).  71 – The Island of California.  Strange Maps, 6 February 2007.  Available at  Accessed 13 April 2012.

Mohawk Council of Akwesasne (2012).  Akwesasne: Land where the partridge drums.  Available at  Accessed 13 April 2012.

Province of British Columbia (2011).  Okanagan Lake.  GeoBC.  Available at  Accessed 13 April 2012. (2012). History of St. Martin. Available at Accessed 15 April 2012.

Nearby Articles

5 thoughts on “Same Name, Other Side of the Border (Part I: North America)

  • What about Macedonia? There is a naming dispute between former yugoslav republic of Macedonia and greek region of Macedonia

  • Sorry to bother with Balkans, but there is one more example on the Balkans: region of Syrmia (Srijem in Croatia, Srem in Serbia)

  • No problem; by all means add all the regions you can think of! We'll definitely be mentioning those regions when this list gets to central and eastern Europe (which might be a few weeks away yet; this list is huge and only gets bigger by the day).

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