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November 7, 2010

How the States Got Their Shapes

Mark Stein - 9780061431395

I originally shelved this book--carelessly it appears--because Mark Steyn wrote it . . . well . . . not really. Mark Stein wrote it! Reviews claimed it to be "splendid," "witty," etc. It is, sort of, but not so much as it would have been had it been done by Mark Steyn--still better: Bill Bryson.

Mark Stein is a "playwright and screen writer." I do hope he's better at that than he is at nonfiction. The work is rather sophomoric. Still, it is not uninteresting.

Having been an amateur geographer since early childhood, I found it remarkable in its bringing to the table factoids of which I've never been aware. The landscape is littered with jots and tittles heretofore overlooked by most all of us. Not the Oklahoma panhandle, the more miniscule Connecticut western extension or the vast extension of southern Alaska (none of which, according to Wikipedia, are "jots" or "tittles" in any event.) For example:

• The northern border of Delaware is a hemispheric line, not straight
• The border between Alabama and Mississippi angles a few degrees about half-way up (to make more equal the area of both states.)
• While Illinois is largely defined by river courses, the straight line separating it from Indiana is contrived to avoid isolated "river islands" on the wrong side of the border (when crossing a major river presented potential troubles with governance.)
• Michigan's upper peninsula was subtracted from what might have been Wisconsin because Michigan was deprived of Toledo when Ohio was politically bigger'n Michigan and Toledo was a valued port city. Wisconsin was deprived because it was littler'n Michigan when it came to a fight over the UP.

All manner of territorial disputes were settled in similarly arcane situations. Of course, many were not so esoteric when the decisions were made; a time when it mattered greatly on which side of the river or mountain range you were.

• Texas had to give up a lot of territory in its northern extremity in order to be admitted as a "slave" state. It would have been in the south's interest to divide Texas into 4 or 5 smaller states to balance the more numerous "free states," but Texas had been its own nation before it applied for statehood and would not make that concession. One huge state. No argument! Similarly so with California, though the rationale was different
• Several of the west-central states gave up valuable territories when gold was discovered within what had been their province. Not so smart-cha-say. Well, they gladly did so to get rid of the administrative headaches of the lawlessness of the inhabitants of those territories. The gold wasn't worth it, but California kept its gold, which explains the straight line which are its eastern border.
• The northern border separating us from Canada west of the great lakes was a concession to Britain before any of the area was officially incorporated; this to conserve the water front and harbor areas of south-western Canada for England's fur trade, making it clear to both French and Spanish that the area was British. Only later did it, and the border, become "American."

And so it goes; which is what makes it all rather interesting, though it makes a better "bathroom read." Leave it laying around and pick it up to read a chapter or two when you're killing time. Other than the introduction and some generalities, the book is divided into very brief chapters, state by state. If you have any interest in this sort of mysterious information it is a worthwhile read.

Posted by Curmudgeon at November 7, 2010 3:00 PM