How the States Got Their Shapes

How the States Got Their Shapes

by Mark Stein


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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780061431395
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 04/07/2009
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 150,914
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.10(d)

About 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.

What People are Saying About This

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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How the States Got Their Shapes 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 68 reviews.
Chris_S More than 1 year ago
I stumbled across this book and was grabbed first by the cover. Mark Stein builds a story for each state in the Union, bringing in little known tidbits of how people and events have shaped the United States we have today. The abundance of maps throughout the book helped me see what he was talking about when changes could have occurred or when a specific longitude or latitude is referenced. I would recommend this for any person interested in US History or cartography. But is also a nice quick read for some of the states you have lived in or visited. Only change I would like to see in the book is the alphabetical organization, makes it hard when discussing states that border each other. Instead looking at how the territory was added into the United States would allow for better flow--the original thirteen colonies, the colonial concessions, the Northwest Territory, Louisiana Purchase, etc. But overall, was a quick read and loved the historical quirks and facts about each state.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
BKWorm7 More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I often wondered why the States have their particular shapes. I was pleasantly surprised with the information in this book. I would share this with Social Studies teachers everywhere.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book opens with an explanation of the major events/treaties that defined our several states. So far, so good. But the rest of the book, actually all of it, is a shallow rehashing of the same events. Each border is covered twice, since each state is a chapter. Rather than waste 200 pages repeating himself, the author might have spent some time digging into the themes that set our borders - like: colonial grant overlaps, our drive for a common state size, and the impact of indian treaties. In short, after the teasing, "Don't skip this" are 50 boring, redundant junior high school essays. Great topic, covered lazily.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
For history buffs, prompts you to research some of the more fascinating stories behind state borders.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Book is well named, was exactly what I was looking for. Gives a good explanation of why the states have their present shapes. Brought up many obscure events that shaped the states. Only quibble is with arrangement of the book, it is alpahbetical which makes you jump around more looking for related issues with bordering state boundaries. Should have been in order of admission for better continuity. Still, the book does provide just what I needed to find out about the state borders.
Big_Bang_Gorilla on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Being a semi-reference book which does exactly what it sets out to do and does it very pleasantly, plainly, and thoroughly. It is one of the relatively rare books which I was sorry to see end. The book is organized by state and thence by directional border and each chapter is prefaced by a few questions about the state's borders which a schoolchild might think to ask when seeing the boundaries for the first time. If one wanted to pick a nit or two, the state-by-state format leads to a little repetition, and the maps (numerous and invaluable) are a little monochromatic to be read easily in low light.
TiffanyAK on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a very fascinating book for anyone interested in the subject at hand, namely, the states and how their borders became what they are. In fact, this would easily be a four star book at least, if not five, for its thoroughness on the subject, except for one issue that I need to agree with reviews I've read on. The book is very repetitive. The layout being what it is, going through all the states (and the District of Columbia) alphabetically, and dealing with each of their borders individually, does guarantee that every border gets thoroughly covered and nothing gets accidentally forgotten or excluded, but it also means that virtually every border gets mentioned at least twice (and often even more than that), since two neighboring states obviously share the same border, causing the border to be described in the section for both states. To cut down on the repetitiveness would require an awful lot of skipping around in the book. Though, to the author's credit, he does make great use of "for more detail, see..." phrasing, rather than repeat the same stories over and over. So, at least they are only touched on when they get repeated, instead of being always given in full detail. Still, it gets a bit dull by the end. If I had it to do over again, I'd go through the book slowly, a section or two at a time, rather than reading it cover to cover, so my brain wasn't bombarded with the same thing over and over for hours. So, if you're interested in this book, that's what I highly recommend you doing as well.
ladycato on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The title IS a summary of the book, which is an ideal read if you're a history and geography geek like me. It's 304-pages of maps, historical notes, and outright warfare between states. I've always wondered why many East Coast states remained small; yes, they may have been colonies originally, but why not combine eventually? That question and many others are addressed. Sometimes it can get confusing because of the sheer amount of terms, but Stein set aside a special section at the front called DON'T SKIP THIS that shows the territories and treaties so you know your Adams-Onis from your Mason-Dixon.The biggest surprise/shock was how intelligently Congress handled the divisions of territories during the 19th century. Many of their decisions early on were based on the need to balance slave and non-slave states, as reflected in policies such as the Missouri Compromise. However, even after the Civil War, they did they utmost to keep things balanced. If there was a body of water nearby, they let nearby states have access, however small. They tried to break apart western states along even divisions of degrees. Considering the buffoons we elect to office, I was pleasantly surprised at their foresight throughout a century of turmoil. And it never ceases to impress me how accurately they surveyed lines with their current technology.If you're a United Stated geography/history geek, get this book. Watch the TV series based on it. I'm sure it will pay off in a Trivial Pursuit game at some point in the future.
ValerieAndBooks on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Each chapter of this book is devoted to each state, including Washington DC.The shapes of our states are far from random. Except, well, maybe Hawaii. Or so I thought, until I read this book (there are various atolls, and such, that are included in Hawaii¿s ¿borders¿). The author says in his introduction:¿Asking why a state has the borders it does unlocks a history of human struggles ¿ far more history than this book can contain, though this book does aspire to unearth the keys.¿So, really, this book isn¿t just about geography, but American history. Each state¿s chapter begins with a series of questions, such as this one about California (where I was born):¿How come California is so big? And since it is so big, how come it doesn¿t include that long peninsula [Baja California; part of Mexico] that continues from its southern end? Why are the straight lines of its northern and eastern borders located where they are? And why does its eastern border bend?¿Mr. Stein begins his response with: ¿If Congress followed a policy that all states should be created equal, why did it create California? Answer: It didn¿t. California created itself. The land that became California came into the possession of the United States in 1848 with the end of the Mexican War. Before Congress could go through the process of dividing it into territories, a man named James Marshall spotted something shiny by the sawmill of his employer, John Sutter. It was gold.¿Mr. Stein goes on to explain that, suddenly, California had to deal with a high population, an economy, and ¿a very high crime rate¿. Therefore, Californians drew up their own state constitution and their own borders.Even seemingly dull state borders, such as the square-shaped Colorado, where I live now, has interesting history behind them. Well, Mr. Stein makes it all interesting. In another writer¿s hand, this could have been a dull book. But it¿s not.The states are not discussed by chronological order (i.e. when it attained statehood), but by alphabetical order. Chapters are often in part cross-referenced to each other; so by the time I got to the last state, Wyoming, only two pages were devoted to it. Oh, well, I¿m not sure many Wyomingites would protest; the population is so low there. Seriously, though, this book was a fascinating read for me. If you are a bit geekish like I am (and an American; I¿m not sure those outside of America would be as interested), I¿m sure you¿d enjoy this book!
pocketmermaid on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I picked up this book because I got hooked in the TV series on History Channel.The only problem I have with this book is that it was presented alphabetically by state. When reading the book cover-to-cover (as opposed to flipping through it for reference), there is a lot of repeat information. I think it would have made a lot more sense to cover this information in chronological order as the territories were granted statehood.Aside from that issue, I enjoyed this book. I love history and geography, but I will admit that these subjects can be dry. Stein has a really easy way of conveying this information. I will never look at the map of the USA the same way again.
5hrdrive on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
What a wonderful little book! Clearly and consistently explains how the individual states arrived at their current shapes, with all the interesting little twists and turns along the way.If you've ever looked at a map of the United States and wondered, "Why does Wyoming take a bite out of Utah?" or "How come West Virginia creeps up the side of Pennsylvania?" this book has your answers.Written in a very simple, elegant style. Sure, there's quite a lot of repetition, but that's due to the subject matter. It goes with the territory, so to speak!
jjmcgaffey on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
It would have been better as a bathroom book - dip into it and read only a few pages at a time - than it was to read straight through. I think, also, that it would have been better arranged geographically or - even better - chronologically, so that each side of a border could be discussed together. As it is there was way too much repetition and referring to other 'chapters'. But I did learn quite a bit and several interesting things - the 3x7 degrees was fascinating, as was the arguments over Vermont, New Hampshire, New Jersey...and especially the mis-surveyed lines that regularly affected official borders.
omphalos02 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Although the description on the back cover implies that this will be a fun and interesting read, it quickly becomes tedious and repetitive. Only a few states (or "chapters") are interesting, and it is fun to read about your own state. But Stein repeatedly references geographical points not shown on the many maps that accompany the writing, which becomes frustrating. Very disappointing.
debherter on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Much more fascinating than it sounds, this book will draw you into topics you never knew existed. For instance, if the plan was to make all of the states the same size, then why aren't they? Some sections get to be a little repetitive, but I think that's inevitable. The author does try to find unique and interesting features for every state, and doe a very good job of achieving it.
stephaniechase on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Intriguing look at why the states of the United States are shaped as they are. The book is organized alphabetical order by state name, which leads to a good deal of repetition and referencing -- the book would have been excellent had it been organized by region. Worth the read, and likely better if it is read in bits.
argyriou on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A fun little romp through American history, concentrating on the title of the book. The division into chapters for each state has the unfortunate effect of causing the author to repeat a few interesting discussions on the plan for adding states several times over; this could have been better accomplished by having a broad historical overview first, with chapters for each group of states. However, there's something interesting about every state, even the square ones.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Iove it
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