Books: How the States Got Their Shapes

For a book that is all geography and history, How the States Got Their Shapes is a fairly easy and enjoyable read. I learned about the various factors that affected how borders were determined, and was reminded of history that I had once learned but forgotten. It’s not quite as enjoyable as I had hoped it would be, however, partly due to how it is organized and partly that too little detail is included.

Someone on WorldMagBlog recently mentioned a TV show with the same name. I have yet to figure out the connection (if there is one) between Mark Stein’s book and the TV show hosted by Brian Unger. One of the reviews of the book at says that the TV show was made from the book, though I don’t know how much beyond the basic idea was borrowed from Mark Stein.

From the list of episodes, it looks like the TV show follows a topical outline rather than state-by-state. In that regard, it is an improvement on the book. If the book were a larger volume and intended to be used as a reference book, it might make sense to have a chapter for each state, so that someone interested in a certain state could just read that section. But with each state getting only a few pages (including maps), it doesn’t seem like a good way to organize the book.

Except for Hawaii and Alaska, every state borders at least one other state. This means that every border dispute, every story of a surveyor’s mistake, and every explanation of Congress’s intentions ends up getting told at least twice. By the time I was three-quarters of the way through the book, I was just reading material I had already read earlier.

Stein does offer one chapter at the beginning, “Don’t Skip This,” that covers material that will be referenced over and over throughout the book (with a note to see that chapter), because it refers to so many states. I would rather he had written more topical chapters, covering the various ways that borders were determined. (A review at suggested a regional organization, but it would have the same drawback of having to repeat borders covered in other sections, just to a lesser degree.)

The original colonies had their borders set initially by the charter from the king (or queen) of England. One thing I was surprised to learn is that these borders were primarily northern and southern borders, with the eastern and western borders being the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Growing up in Connecticut, I never dreamed that at one time it was considered to be as wide as the entire continent!

Sometimes those borders were changed so that the British monarch could reward someone. Or snub someone, or some group. Sometimes they were altered to resolve disputes between colonies. But these changes were always to benefit Britain primarily, not the colonies. (No surprise there.)

Wars, and the treaties that resolved them, set a lot of the borders. The Louisiana Purchase determined others – but I found out that there were no clear boundaries established as to exactly what land the Purchase comprised. Even when boundaries were spelled out (in charters or treaties), they still were open to dispute. If the river is the boundary, but the river has two branches, which branch is the boundary?

In today’s social and political environment, it’s hard (for me at least) to get a feeling for the loyalty people once had to the states they lived in. I have lived in six different states (nine if you count college), but the differences among them amount mostly to the level of sales and income tax, and whether I have to get a car inspected each year to keep it registered. It’s very difficult to imagine people of one state going to war with their neighbors over a disputed strip of land.

Partly that is because our lives are no longer so closely tied to the land. For most of the last twenty-five years, I have worked in an office, doing computer work for manufacturing companies. The factors determining a company’s location generally have to do with trucking routes (to receive raw materials and ship out finished goods), availability of qualified workers, and tax rates. Good farmland and access to rivers mean nothing to most companies.

When the states’ borders were being determined, however, those were essential to a state’s prosperity. Many borders were shifted in order to give states on both sides access to a good port. Several borders were adjusted to give the better farmland to one state rather than the other. (In some cases, it was a different natural resource, such as mines.)

Other ways that geographic features affected borders was when a planned border (following a straight line north-south or east-west) was going to leave a small piece of one state on the opposite side of a river or mountain range from the rest of the state. This created a problem for law enforcement, since only officers from the appropriate jurisdiction could go into that area. As bands of lawless people gravitated to such areas, both states were usually eager to adjust the border so that the state with easier access could go in and clean the area out.

Another factor in determining borders that surprised me had to do with the discovery of gold or silver. You’d think that a state would be glad to have rich mines discovered within its territory, wouldn’t you? But those mines attracted a completely different kind of people than the rest of the population of the states, usually in large numbers. Fearing that these newcomers would gain too much political clout, states preferred to “release” the territory in question to the federal government to create a new jurisdiction.

There also could have been a lot more detail given for many of these events, issues, and stories. I enjoy reading about the individuals behind historical events. Sometimes Stein mentions individuals, but only rarely does he tell enough about them to make them at all memorable. In some cases there may not be much material available to expand on the bare bones account, but in other cases I’m sure there is a lot more.

All in all, it’s a book worth reading. But now I’m interested in what more I can learn by watching the TV series.


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