• Joe Pace

Favorite Non-Fiction Books, #16: How the States Got Their Shapes


Vermont is New Hampshire doing a keg stand

A bit of a follow-up to yesterday's entry, this book is full of more word candy for American geography fans. Why are the state boundaries the way they are? Why so square out west and so nutty back east? Why do you have to go through Maryland to get to parts of Virginia? Why is UP part of Michigan and not Wisconsin? Why does Missouri have that little pigtail into Arkansas?

Rivers, mountain ranges, international boundaries, slavery disputes, drunken surveyors and imagined maps all play a part in the lines we've drawn to define our political substructures. Not surprisingly, my favorite story relates to New Hampshire and how our border with Massachusetts came into being. Apparently the original colonial grants stated that the border was to be ten miles north of the Merrimack River. It was unclear, however, what point on the river that referenced. MA argued it meant the northernmost point, which would have put the boundary some ten miles above Franklin, ceding the southern half of NH to Mass. (Please, no jokes about how that's happening anyway.) NH argued that it meant ten miles north of the southernmost point. The compromise that was reached by Crown officials in the 17th century was that the boundary would begin ten miles north of the mouth of the Merrimack (which it does, right where 286 meets 1A), and then follows the undulations of the river, always ten miles to the north (which it does), until we reach the southern most point of the Merrimack, just above Lowell. At that point the boundary heads due west. All in all, NH came off pretty well, though if Pelham and Salem had wound up in Mass, my fortunes might have been a bit different last November...

The book is organized state by state so you can learn all about Florida and move on to Georgia. The pitfall there is you'll wind up reading about their shared boundary twice, and that's the book's biggest inherent challenge and flaw. You'll find yourself hearing over and over again about certain lines of latitude and certain treaties. There's nothing that can be done about that - just imagine how well you'll know that information after a while. I suggest reading a state here and there over time and not bulling straight through. It's more reference than cogent narrative, and it's utterly worth your time.

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