"How the States Got Their Shapes" by Mark Stein

There are several ways in which this book could have been written. One would be to answer the question inherent in the title and arrange the states by the manner in which they came to be. This way would be consistent with the aim stated in the introduction of the book, to show why they are shaped as they are. But it would have shifted the focus from the shapes themselves to the decisions that led to them.

Another way would be to cover the states in the order of their formation. Since adjoining states were admitted to the union years apart and others in the interim, undue attention would then be drawn to their temporal sequence.

A third way would be to cover adjoining states together by region or by territory (sometimes more than one). This approach would have avoided some of the repetition in the book, but at the expense of treating each of the states as a unique entity.

Mark Stein probably considered these alternatives but chose to cover the states alphabetically, as if he were writing a reference book. Having made this choice, he had first to give a brief description of events that established lines that only later became state boundaries and of the plan behind multi-state borders. Thus, the account of the state boundaries is preceded by a section bearing the cautionary title "Don't Skip This. You'll Just Have to Come Back Later."

After, out of habit, I skimmed the bibliography and the index of the book, I did begin to read it page by page. I got all the way to Connecticut in one sitting. By then, I realized how interwoven the formation of the states really is. I skipped to Maine, partly because I lived there once (in a house on a beach), and proceeded back down the coast as far as New Jersey. I then went next door to Pennsylvania, my home state, and to its erstwhile southern part, Delaware, and proceeded again page by page. The treatment of the District of Columbia seemed like a visit, that of Florida a vacation, and that of Hawaii a trip. After that, I followed the splitting up of the territories as my fancy dictated.

The most striking thing about the formation of the states is the shift in their lines as their statehood was debated. Frequently, it is occasioned by occupation. From Ohio westward, it is influenced by the quilt formed with the adjoining states. Every so often, the shift is based on geographic considerations. Sometimes, it is the result of an erroneous survey or a boundary dispute. Indentations and protrusions occur mainly for jurisdictional reasons. As fixed as the state borders are now, they all underwent considerable alteration.

The greatest help in understanding them are the 180 maps provided in the book. Scan them, just to refresh your memory of the states. The numerous cross-references are the second greatest help. They usually cite maps presented in the account of other states. Boundary lines are, after all, common lines, and, in quite a few instances, extend beyond two states. Examples are the 109¼ longitude and the 37¼ latitude, which intersect at the famous four corners.

The pervasive principle in the creation of the new states is "equality." There are notable exceptions, but most of them are roughly equal in size. Their shapes vary in height and width, generally by a degree of latitude or longitude. One explanation for this fact is equal representation in the Senate. It was once proposed that new southern states be made smaller for the sake of gaining additional votes in the senate. The more likely explanation, however, is simply a penchant for geometric order.

This order is, in a sense, the domain of surveyors. As a result, they tend to expect surveying to be prominently featured in a book such as this. Martin Menk, who made me aware of this book and even lent me his copy to read, says that it seems incomplete. He wonders whether the author consulted a surveyor.

This book hardly mentions surveying. The word appears occasionally in the text, but not in the index. Five surveyors are named: Charles Mason, Jeremiah Dixon, Peter Jefferson, Dr. Thomas Walker, and Benjamin Banneker. The first two can't be avoided, since the boundary between Maryland and Pennsylvania bears their name. The second two acquired some notoriety for erroneously surveying the southerly boundary of Virginia and of Kentucky. The last is given credit for surveying the ten-mile diamond of the Territory of Columbia, the intended site of the national capitol. But he actually worked for Andrew Ellicott, the geographer general at the time.

During his lifetime, Ellicott was the surveyor of state lines par exellence. Not only did he survey more of them than anyone else, he later taught surveying to cadets at West Point. They continued his work by surveying public lands, including the boundaries of new states and the national boundaries with Canada and Mexico (cf. my review of The Fabric of America by Andro Linklater, Professional Surveyor Magazine, Oct. 2008). Ellicott could have been mentioned in this book for creating the Erie triangle that provides Pennsylvania with access to a Great Lake and was the first piece of public land sold by the federal government. If not for that, he should have been mentioned for the protracted negotiations he undertook to settle the boundary separating the original colony of Georgia from the Spanish possession of Florida. They took longer than its survey. 

As for Menk's comment that the book seems incomplete, I must concur that it is a bare-bones presentation of the subject. None of the relevant facts seems to be omitted, but they are succinctly - even hurriedly - stated. Readers can, nevertheless, be thankful that someone has tackled this rather involved topic and written about it with flair.

About the Author

  • Wilhelm A. Schmidt, PLS
    Wilhelm A. Schmidt, PLS
    Wilhelm Schmidt is the former owner of the surveying firm Bascom and Sieger in Allentown, Pennsylvania. You may contact him at willischmidt@verizon.net.

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