Stein, Mark. How the States Got Their Shapes.

NY: HarperCollins, 2008.

When I was in 4th Grade (it was Toledo that year, just after California and just before moving to Europe), there was a big U.S. map — bigger than I was — hanging up at the front of my classroom and I took almost every opportunity to study it. I was fascinated by the way a single line, starting at the bottom of Virginia, swept west all the way to Nevada — except for a couple of jogs on both sides of Missouri. How did that happen?

And looking at the chimney on top of Pennsylvania, it was obvious they wanted to be able to get to Lake Erie — but why did Michigan come in two installments? And while the older states in the East had very crooked boundaries, usually following mountain crests and rivers, the newer ones in the West were mostly pretty boring. Just rectangles and diagonal lines. Didn’t they have any imagination? Later on, as I became deeply involved in history, I came to understand the settlement process in America and how the establishment of territories and new states worked, but except for Texas and Oklahoma and a couple of other places in which I had a particular interest, I still didn’t know the story behind, say, Connecticut’s northern hiccough, or Kentucky’s western foot. Stein, who is a screenwriter and playwright, not a geographer, lays it all out in clear, careful detail. In a preliminary chapter called “Don’t Skip This” (and he’s not kidding), he describes the historical background of our “major” borders, which are the results of the French and Indian War, the Louisiana Purchase, the Adams-Oñis Treaty, and the Missouri Compromise. And he points out something many people may find it hard to believe: The U.S. Congress actually planned ahead over several generations, trying to make all the new states they were creating more or less equal in size and in available natural resources. There are all sorts of exceptions, of course. The new state of Montana was extended farther west than originally planned because if Idaho had been a rectangular state, its northeast quarter would have been on the other side of nearly impassable mountains. And if Michigan’s southern border had been run from the southern tip of Lake Michigan to the western tip of Lake Erie, as originally planned, neither Indiana nor Ohio would have had a decent lake port — and this at the time when the Erie Canal was just nearing completion, which gave those two states effective access to the Atlantic. On the other hand, Missouri’s southeast bootheel is mostly a testament to the power and influence of wealth; the guy who had bought up much of the abandoned land in that area following the great earthquake of 1811 didn’t want to be stuck in Arkansas. (And who can blame him. . . ?) There’s a chapter for each state (plus D.C.), arranged alphabetically, and most are divided into four sections, one for each of the four compass points. There are numerous cross-references, especially for adjacent states. And there are many, many maps explaining how the lines used to run, or how they almost ran, and the difference in official claims between (for instance) “New Hampshire according to New York” and “New Hampshire according to New Hampshire.” As the author points out, the only side that usually was happy with a boundary survey was the side that had paid the surveyor. Map junkies and students of local history (“local” anywhere) will definitely enjoy this book.

Published in: on 10 July 2011 at 6:45 pm  Leave a Comment  
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