How the States Got Their Shapes

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Why does Oklahoma have that panhandle? Did someone make a mistake?

We are so familiar with the map of the United States that our state borders seem as much a part of nature as mountains and rivers. Even the oddities—the entire state of Maryland(!)—have become so engrained that our map might as well be a giant jigsaw puzzle designed by Divine Providence. But that's where the real mystery begins. Every edge of the familiar wooden jigsaw pieces of our childhood represents a revealing moment of history and of, well, humans drawing lines in the sand.

How the States Got Their Shapes is the first book to tackle why our state lines are where they are. Here are the stories behind the stories, right down to the tiny northward jog at the eastern end of Tennessee and the teeny-tiny (and little known) parts of Delaware that are not attached to Delaware but to New Jersey.

How the States Got Their Shapes examines:

  • Why West Virginia has a finger creeping up the side of Pennsylvania
  • Why Michigan has an upper peninsula that isn't attached to Michigan
  • Why some Hawaiian islands are not Hawaii
  • Why Texas and California are so outsized, especially when so many Midwestern states are nearly identical in size

Packed with fun oddities and trivia, this entertaining guide also reveals the major fault lines of American history, from ideological intrigues and religious intolerance to major territorial acquisitions. Adding the fresh lens of local geographic disputes, military skirmishes, and land grabs, Mark Stein shows how the seemingly haphazard puzzle pieces of our nation fit together perfectly.

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Editorial Reviews

“For anyone who’s been confounded by the largest of all jigsaw puzzles, the one that carved out those fifty weirdly formed states, here is the solution. It’s history, it’s geography, it’s comedy, it’s indispensable.”
“A fascinating and wonderfully entertaining account of an often-overlooked oddity of America’s history: how the jigsaw-puzzle layout of the United States emerged. I never thought a book on geography could be funny, but Mark Stein has pulled it off.”
Wall Street Journal
“Give me the splendid irregularities any day. God bless the panhandles and notches, the West Virginias and Oklahomas.”
Publishers Weekly
America's first century was defined by expansion and the negotiation of territories among areas colonized by the French and Spanish, or occupied by natives. The exact location of borders became paramount; playwright and screenwriter Stein amasses the story of each state's border, channeling them into a cohesive whole. Proceeding through the states alphabetically, Stein takes the innovative step of addressing each border-north, south, east, west-separately. Border stories shine a spotlight on many aspects of American history: the 49th parallel was chosen for the northern borders of Minnesota, North Dakota, and Montana because they ensured England's access to the Great Lakes, vital to their fur trade; in 1846, Washington D.C. residents south of the Potomac successfully petitioned to rejoin Virginia (called both "retrocession" and "a crime") in order to keep out free African-Americans. Aside from tales of violent conquest and political glad-handing, there's early, breathtaking tales of American politicos' favorite sport, gerrymandering (in 1864, Idaho judge Sidney Edgerton single-handedly "derailed" Idaho's proposed boundary, to Montana's benefit, with $2,000 in gold). American history enthusiasts should be captivated by this fun, informative text.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Unlike Seymour I. Schwartz's This Land Is Your Land and Derek Hayes's Historical Atlas of the United States, both collections of period maps with historical commentary, this book focuses on the evolution of the boundaries between the states. Stein, who teaches writing and drama at American University and Catholic University, seems an unlikely author for this subject. He credits his fascination with this topic to a seventh-grade geography teacher who held up cutouts of states for the students to identify. Intended for the general reader, the text is both informative and highly entertaining. The first chapter, "Don't Skip This, You'll Just Have To Come Back Later," outlines transcontinental boundaries that were inherited from major international treaties of the early 19th century, e.g., the 49th parallel, set in 1818 as the border between the United States and Canada. Then, alphabetically, Stein explores the borders of each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. The official U.S. policy was to create states with equality of longitudinal width and latitudinal height, but some states were able to get special consideration. If you ever wondered why Delaware owns a small portion of the southwest New Jersey coast, the answer is here! Recommended for high school and public libraries, as well as map mavens and U.S. history buffs everywhere.
—Edward K. Werner

Andro Linklater
"For anyone who’s been confounded by the largest of all jigsaw puzzles, the one that carved out those fifty weirdly formed states, here is the solution. It’s history, it’s geography, it’s comedy, it’s indispensable."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061431388
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 5/27/2008
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 203,018
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Mark Stein is a playwright and screenwriter. His plays have been performed off-Broadway and at theaters throughout the country. His films include Housesitter, with Steve Martin and Goldie Hawn. He has taught writing and drama at American University and Catholic University and lives in Washington, D.C.

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Read an Excerpt

How the States Got Their Shapes

Chapter One

Don't Skip This

You'll Just Have to Come Back Later

Many of our state borders are segments of borders that date from England's and, later, the United States' territorial acquisitions, and they can be identified by looking for lines that provide multistate borders.

The French and Indian War Border

The French and Indian War (1754-63) resulted in the oldest of these multistate boundaries. In this war, England and her American colonists began what became the dismantling of France's possessions in North America. With this victory, England added to her North American possessions all the land between the Ohio River and the Mississippi River. The boundaries of that war are still on the map today, for they provide borders for the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin. (Figure 4)

The division of this land acquired in the French and Indian War influenced virtually every state border that followed. After the Revolution, Congress had to decide how best to divide this region, known as the Northwest Territory, into states. Congress assigned Thomas Jefferson the task of studying this matter and in 1784 Jefferson issued a report to Congress in which he proposed that the region be divided into states having two degrees of height and four degrees of width, wherever possible.

As it turned out, Congress didn't employ these borders when it enacted the Northwest Ordinance in 1787, the law that included the boundary lines for the future states to be created from the Northwest Territory. Congress did, however, adopt its underlying principle: All states should becreated equal.

The Louisiana Purchase Borders

Probably the most notable American boundary is the long straight line that defines so much of the nation's northern border with Canada. This line is the 49th parallel. It first surfaced on the American map following the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. The document conveying France's remaining North American land—a tract that included all or some of Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, Wyoming, Minnesota, Montana, and Colorado—states that the French Republic cedes to the United States "the Colony or Province of Louisiana with the same extent that it now has." This wording seems refreshingly brief and to the point for a legal document, if a bit vague. The vagueness is also the reason very little evidence of the Louisiana Purchase can be found in our state lines. Other than the boundaries provided by the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi River, no one knew what its boundaries were! Jefferson believed that all the land comprising the watershed leading to the Missouri and Mississippi rivers constituted the Louisiana Purchase. But, as he soon discovered, the United States' neighbors did not. In reality, France's American territory extended to the west as far as a Frenchman could go without getting shot by a Spaniard, and likewise to the north without getting shot by an Englishman. (Figure 5)

The ambiguous borders of the Louisiana Purchase led England and the United States to negotiate where France's former lands ended and where British North America (Canada) began. Under the Convention of 1818, the two nations agreed upon the 49th parallel from the westernmost longitude of Lake of the Woods to the crest of the Rocky Mountains. (Figure 6)

But the choice of the 49th parallel begs the question, why not 50? It's such a nice round number. The reason for the one-degree difference is that England needed to maintain her access to the Great Lakes via the westernmost of those lakes, Lake Superior. Such access was vital to England's fur trade in general and, in specific, to a major fur trading post located at the confluence of the Assiniboine and Red rivers—a place now known as Winnipeg. Had the border been located at the 50th parallel, Winnipeg would have been in American territory, as would the waterways that flow east to Lake Superior. (Figure 7)

The Louisiana Purchase also sparked concern in Spain, which claimed much of the land west of the Rockies. This concern led to the Adams-Onis Treaty (1819). The entire eastern border of Texas—the straight line of what later became its panhandle, the eastward flowing Red River, the straight line southward at the lower corner of Texas, and the Sabine River arcing southward to the Gulf of Mexico—all dates back to this treaty. Also emanating from the Adams-Onis Treaty is the long, multistate line that runs along the 42nd parallel, which later became the northern border of California, Nevada, and northwest Utah. But, as with every man-made line, there is the question, why put the line there? (Figure 8)

The Border Inherited from England and Spain

The 42nd parallel already existed as a boundary before the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. In 1790, England and Spain had concluded a treaty known as the Nootka Convention.

The Nootka Convention? Nootka Sound is a small inlet in Vancouver Island (off the west coast of what is now Canada). In the late 1700s, England and Spain nearly went to war over their conflicting ambitions along the west coast of North America. The British needed the rivers and inlets of Vancouver Island and northwestern Canada to carry on their fur trade. But the Spanish claimed the land was already theirs—as is reflected to this day by names along the west coast of Canada such as the Juan de Fuca Strait, Port San Juan, Estevan Point, Vargas Island, Valdes Island, and Gabriola.

All of England's interests west of the Rockies would have been at risk had Spain succeeded in ousting England from Vancouver Island. In the Nootka Convention, England sought to protect its access to all those rivers and their tributaries vital to carrying out the fur trade. Key among those rivers was the Columbia River. And virtually all of the tributaries to the Columbia River are north of the 42nd parallel.

Below the 42nd parallel, virtually all of the rivers wend their way to San Francisco Bay. Commerce along these waterways was reserved exclusively for Spain with the 42nd parallel as the border. For its era, it was a great parallel. And evidently it has remained an effective border, since it's still there, dividing five states: Oregon, Idaho, California, Nevada, and Utah. (Figure 9)

How the States Got Their Shapes. Copyright © by Mark Stein. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments     xi
Introduction     xiii
Don't Skip This     1
Alabama     11
Alaska     18
Arizona     21
Arkansas     27
California     33
Colorado     39
Connecticut     44
Delaware     52
District of Columbia     59
Florida     65
Georgia     70
Hawaii     75
Idaho     79
Illinois     86
Indiana     92
Iowa     95
Kansas     101
Kentucky     108
Louisiana     113
Maine     119
Maryland     126
Massachusetts     134
Michigan     141
Minnesota     145
Mississippi     151
Missouri     156
Montana     163
Nebraska     168
Nevada     174
New Hampshire     179
New Jersey     185
New Mexico     192
New York     197
North Carolina     206
North Dakota     216
Ohio     220
Oklahoma     226
Oregon     231
Pennsylvania     236
Rhode Island     243
South Carolina     248
South Dakota     253
Tennessee     257
Texas     263
Utah     270
Vermont     276
Virginia     281
Washington     288
West Virginia     293
Wisconsin     297
Wyoming     302
Selected Bibliography     305
Index     315
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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 4, 2008

    I liked it ... but

    It's a useful and enjoyable book, written for the average reader and not the professional. Only one thing has really disappointed me: Stein doesn't explain how Georgia manage to retain on its border with Alabama the entire Chattahoochee River to the high water mark on the west bank. It seems grossly unfair to Alabama, and I'm curious why Congress allowed it.

    4 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 22, 2009

    Useful Historic Information

    Interesting histories of all 50 states told in an easy reading and inormative format. I might have liked a bit more info slightly enlagring the chapters.
    The author answer most questions we probably hadn't thought about. I found in especially interesting as my wife and i took a 10,300 mile cross-country trip earlier this year.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 31, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    History Made Fun

    Haven't you ever wondered how the states got their respective shapes, especially those that don't seem to have classic shapes, such as West Virginia or Washington? This book answers all those questions and more. It discusses many American wars and how those affected specific shapes as well as how Congress determined the shapes for others. A very informative read that answers those burning questions that nobody taught in a history class.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 22, 2013

    Very Informative!

    Lots of great information in this book. Occasionally I'd like there to have been more depth, but that's not really what this book is about. It gives you a starting point if you want to explore more of the fascinating and quirky history regarding many of the shapes of the states. Many of the borders are based on rivers, but also on the Dutch, English, various wars, various treaties, discovery of gold and silver, the Missouri Compromise and Slave vs. Free states, and Congress's desire for 'equality' of width and height.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 27, 2014

    i have watched the TV version of this book and enjoy it immensel

    i have watched the TV version of this book and enjoy it immensely. the host is engaging and keeps my interest. the grandkids are fascinated by it, too. unfortunately, the book is dry and too "grown up" for elementary school children. maybe an updated edition with more colorful illustrations to capture the interest of a younger audience . . . i think this book could be a great training aid for children who are home schooled.

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  • Posted August 22, 2013

    Not as good as the TV series

    too bad the author cannot write in an engaging manner. A tough and boring read at best.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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