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How the States Got Their Shapes by Mark…
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How the States Got Their Shapes (2008)

by Mark Stein

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8903115,159 (3.52)28
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    The Fabric of America: How Our Borders and Boundaries Shaped the Country and Forged Our National Identity by Andro Linklater (Othemts)
    Othemts: Fabric of America is a much more literary narrative of how the United States took shape than the bare-bones treatment in How the States Got Their Shapes.
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Fun. I was disconcerted to find that author Mark Stein was a screenwriter rather than a historian or geographer, but I suspect the relevant chunks were ghostwritten by the staff of The History Channel.


Mostly geography trivia. For example:


*By royal charter, Connecticut originally went all the way to the Pacific Ocean, as did most of the other original colonies. On independence, the other states sold or donated their land to the Federal government, but Connecticut “reserved” a portion, in what is now Ohio, until 1800. Hence, Case Western Reserve University.

*The little notch in the northern border of Connecticut was to accommodate Massachusetts, which had several settlements in the area; similarly (but not quite as obviously) the Connecticut border angles slightly to include a range of hills on the Connecticut side.

*The Oklahoma Panhandle exists because the Missouri Compromise prohibited slavery north of 36°30’. When Texas entered the Union, it got around the problem by simply lopping off a little of its territory.

*Congress attempted to make new states roughly equal in size. Texas is as big as it is because it entered the Union as an independent country. California was left large (there were suggestions that the eastern border be at the crest of the Sierras) because there was a serious fear that it would declare independence (it was briefly independent, as The Bear Flag Republic, before annexation).

*The Missouri “boot heel” is the result of an influential local landowner who wanted his holdings to be part of Missouri rather than Arkansas. Can’t say I blame him.

*The circular arc between Delaware and Pennsylvania is drawn 12 miles from a point on the roof of the courthouse in New Castle; it was intended to provide a buffer between the Quakers in Pennsylvania and the Dutch Reformed in Delaware.


I was also surprised by the number of interstate and interterritory disputes. Notable ones were:


*The Toledo War, between Michigan and Ohio; the original border between Michigan and Indiana and Ohio was to go due east from the southernmost point on Lake Michigan to Lake Erie. However, this would have deprived Indiana of a lake port and put the already existing lake port of Toledo in Michigan. The border of Indiana was moved ten miles north; the Ohio border was then angled from the original southern point on Lake Michigan to touch Lake Erie just north of Toledo (it will help to look at a map here). Michigan took offense and sent state militia to occupy the area; Ohio militia responded (apparently no one was interested in Indiana). Michigan was mollified by being awarded the Upper Peninsula and Isle Royale.

*As already mentioned the original charter for Connecticut had it extending all the way to the Pacific, which obviously included land already granted to New York and Pennsylvania. Connecticut sold land to settlers, and Pennsylvania sold the same land. The resulting conflict was called the Pennamite War, and would probably have been more serious if the Revolutionary War hadn’t started almost simultaneously.

*Part of the northern border of Georgia was originally surveyed 12 miles too far north. This didn’t bother anybody as long as the land in question was part of the Cherokee Nation, but after the Trail of Tears both Georgia and North Carolina claimed the land – and tried to collect taxes in it. Both sides deployed militia (author Stein claims “two bloody battles”, but Wikipedia argues for a single casualty). The dispute was settled in favor of North Carolina, but the aforementioned Wikipedia article notes that Georgia reasserted its claim in 1971, resulting in North Carolina “militia” deployment.


I was also under the impression that all state boundaries were fixed after admission to the Union, but discovered there were much later transfers and exchanges of territory. In addition to the armed conflicts mentioned:


*The District of Columbia was originally a square; however, in 1846 residents on the south side of the Potomac successfully petitioned Congress to be returned to Virginia (according to Stein, because free blacks could live in DC without a permit).

*In 1855, Massachusetts ceded a small piece of its southwest corner (including the town of Boston Corners) to New York, because the Taconic Mountains blocked easy access to the area from the Massachusetts side.

*Part of the southern border of South Dakota was originally the Niobrara River; in 1882 a strip land north of the Niobrara but south of 43° latitude was transferred to Nebraska.

*New York and New Jersey had a long conflict over the Hudson estuary, resulting in a rather strange 1833 agreement that Arthur Kill and Kill Van Kull would be the boundary for all land above the low water mark, but the midline of the Hudson would be the boundary below the low water mark. Thus, if you stood on Staten Island you were in New York but if you waded offshore in any direction you were in New Jersey. So matters stood until 1993; at that point New Jersey noted that Ellis Island had been considerably enlarged from its 1833 size by using dredge spoil, and all the “new” land belonged to New Jersey. The Supreme Court concurred in 1998; thus the island is divided between the states.

*In 1819, the border between the Louisiana Purchase and Spanish territory was defined as the Red River until it reached 100° longitude. However, the river branches some ways downstream from 100°; predictably both sides claimed the branch that favored them was the “main” branch. What with Mexican independence, then Texas independence, and giving Oklahoma to the Indians, it didn’t make much difference to anybody, but in 1890 Congress decided that the southern fork was the main branch and thus a small part of Texas was transferred to Oklahoma (then still a territory).

*The Rhode Island – Massachusetts border was disputed until 1862, with Rhode Island claiming land around Fall River and Massachusetts claiming East Providence; an agreeable exchange ensued.
*In 1901, Tennessee ceded a narrow strip of land to Virginia – including the town of Bristol – because of an error in the original (1802) survey. Stein notes that there are a number of small scale irregularities in the Virginia-Tennessee and Tennessee-Kentucky borders, because the state lines were adjusted to accommodate property owners who had registered land in one state or another based on where they believed the boundary to be. (Stein doesn’t mentioned it, but there’s a similar situation one the border between Belgium and the Netherlands around the town of Baarle. Surveyors gave up trying to establish a line and the border was based on which country individual property owners wanted to be in).


As mentioned, a fun and light read. I do note that a small amount of additional research (admittedly, on Wikipedia, with the usual caveat) seems to falsify some of Stein’s claims. Stein also makes an obvious error when describing guano (in connection with outlying Hawaiian islands) as “bat poop”; it can be, but not on those; it’s seabird poop. Good for kids who complain that geography isn’t good for anything. ( )
  setnahkt | Dec 11, 2017 |
I followed the advice of other reviewers and read the overview, then skipped around reading about states that interested me. That way was fairly interesting and not repetitious. Proud to learn the the country needed California more than the other way around. California uber alles! ( )
  piemouth | Nov 23, 2016 |
This book is organized by state, with the result that it is a good reference book or interesting to read an individual state, but becomes tedious if you read too many at once.

Colonial, territorial, and state boundary disputes were quite numerous, some of which resulted in armed confrontations. There were also many instances of shoddy surveying, many of which remain today's state lines. Often geographical considerations (mountain chains, rivers, lakes) shaped the boundaries. Sometime politics dictates boundaries, as when Texas released its claims north of 36 degrees 30 minutes to comply with the Missouri Compromise. Stein covers all of these.

It's certainly worth a read; just not all at once. ( )
  NLytle | May 31, 2016 |


In conjunction with Lost States: True Stories of Texlahoma, Transylvania, and Other States That Never Made It, I also heartily recommend How the States Got Their Shapes by Mark Stein. It details the crazy journeys our wonderful 50 states took in order to end-up in the shapes that we know and love today. For example, did you know that Washington (before it got the D.C. moniker) was supposed to be a square city, made up of equal parcels of land donated by both Maryland and Virginia? Well, the city wasn’t growing that fast and Virginia was eventually able to reclaim their gift. I bet D.C. really regrets that now! Also, you were probably not aware that Illinois owes its possession of “Chicago” to slavery, in particular, New England hatred of slavery. Illinois businessmen sold the federal government on the idea that by giving Illinois a toehold on Lake Michigan they would be able to connect the goods of New England to the markets of the midwestern states, all without having to go through the South-controlled Mississippi River. All of these stories and more are presented in How the States Got Their Shapes in short little stories that do an excellent job of illuminating this very important, though much overlooked, portion of United States history. ( )
  ThothJ | Dec 4, 2015 |


In conjunction with Lost States: True Stories of Texlahoma, Transylvania, and Other States That Never Made It, I also heartily recommend How the States Got Their Shapes by Mark Stein. It details the crazy journeys our wonderful 50 states took in order to end-up in the shapes that we know and love today. For example, did you know that Washington (before it got the D.C. moniker) was supposed to be a square city, made up of equal parcels of land donated by both Maryland and Virginia? Well, the city wasn’t growing that fast and Virginia was eventually able to reclaim their gift. I bet D.C. really regrets that now! Also, you were probably not aware that Illinois owes its possession of “Chicago” to slavery, in particular, New England hatred of slavery. Illinois businessmen sold the federal government on the idea that by giving Illinois a toehold on Lake Michigan they would be able to connect the goods of New England to the markets of the midwestern states, all without having to go through the South-controlled Mississippi River. All of these stories and more are presented in How the States Got Their Shapes in short little stories that do an excellent job of illuminating this very important, though much overlooked, portion of United States history. ( )
  ThothJ | Dec 3, 2015 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0061431389, Hardcover)

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.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:05:21 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

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. But 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. This is the first book to tackle why our state lines are where they are. Packed with 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.--From publisher description.… (more)

» see all 4 descriptions

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