How the States Got Their Shapes
by Mark Stein
Reviewed by Doug Brown
This is the sort of book that sells itself -- all I really need to do is let people know it exists. As to what the book is about, the title says it all. This is the state-by-state story of why every line, jog, and crinkle on the U.S. map is where it is. Ever wondered why Oklahoma has its panhandle? Why is Michigan in two chunks, one of which looks like it should belong to Wisconsin? Why is South Carolina so much smaller than North Carolina? How come Wyoming takes a corner out of Utah, rather than vice versa? Why is Maryland such a strange shape that almost pinches off in the middle?
Answers to all those questions and more are here. Many borders are the result of squabbles between European royals back when the states were still colonies. Some are the result of more localized disputes later on. Some jagged lines are the results of poor surveying, and some are the result of much political discussion and compromise. Many western states are close to exactly 7 degrees of longitude wide and 3 or 4 degrees of latitude tall, one of the rare examples of elected officials taking a long view. There is a chapter for each state, and each is further divided into north, south, east, and western borders. Even some states that might seem to have obvious borders (like Hawaii) have more convoluted stories than one might expect. As might be anticipated, politics is ever present.
There is naturally a bit of repetition between entries, as the story of Oregon’s northern border is also the story of Washington’s southern border. However, even in these cases there is often a bit more local detail in each state’s respective chapter. One of the more interesting illustrations is in the Utah chapter, depicting a way the western states could have been divided. In this alternate model, Oregon and Washington would have been divided vertically along the Cascades. Oregon would have been a narrow coastal state, comprising what we today call western Oregon and western Washington. Washington and Idaho would have been inland square states beside Wyoming and a square Montana. It is interesting to ponder how different Northwest politics would be had that route been taken. However, Congress chose the horizontal division of Oregon and Washington rather than a vertical division, due to local objections. Anyway, if any of this is piquing your interest, How the States Got Their Shapes is an easy read, aimed at general audiences without talking down to them. Do you know how your state got its shape? You’re bound to learn something here you didn’t know.