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Map Quest

Mark Stein sleuths out how the states got their shapes.

By 6.9.08

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While Mark Stein's University of Wisconsin classmates were protesting the Vietnam War, he had a different set of concerns: How come Michigan has that whole separate section that's actually attached to Wisconsin? Why does Delaware exist and why isn't it just part of Maryland?

Such was the impetus four decades ago for Stein's delightful new book, How the States Got Their Shapes, an exploration of how domestic boundaries came to be in their vastly inconsistent forms. Sure, the contours of boxy Colorado and Wyoming seem fairly straightforward. But many other states feature seemingly randomly curving lines, panhandles and other oddities, making them look like the work of a drunken cartographer.

Little map quirks often reflect surveying errors made during the 1600s. Other questionable lines reflect pre-Civil War efforts to compromise competing interests between the North, which sought free soil for new states, and Southerners, who demanded the expansion of slavery.

Many state shapes harken back to America's earliest days and used to be much, much larger. "If you look at a map of the country right after the revolution, it was even more extreme" than today, Stein said over breakfast at a Booeymonger restaurant in Friendship Heights, Washington, D.C., within easy walking distance of the Maryland border.

Virginia took in not only today's West Virginia but also Kentucky. North Carolina claimed what became the state of Tennessee. Maine was part of Massachusetts. Connecticut had claims to the Mississippi, and technically, under its original charter, a swath of land all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

SEVERAL STATE SHAPES seem to almost make sense. Rectangularities like Utah and Nebraska have chunks taken out of corners. In these and other cases the missing territory results from neighboring states wanting to retain natural resources -- timber, fertile agricultural land, etc. -- within their own borders.

Some states were compensated for such losses. As Stein discovered in college, Michigan gained its Upper Peninsula to offset land it had to cede on its southwest border to Indiana, which wanted access to Lake Michigan. Naturally Wisconsin fought the move but didn't have to political clout to block it.

The sliver of land that became Delaware resulted from the British Crown's efforts to separate the mostly Protestant population there from the then-Catholic majority in Maryland. Meanwhile in other land disputes Maryland got to keep both sides of the Chesapeake Bay, which would seem like a natural state boundary.

Outright political considerations have often dictated state shapes. Consider the mega states of California and Texas. Both were both independent republics before joining the Union, and wanted to retain their large sizes. Despite offers to break them into four or five smaller states, the U.S. needed them more than vice versa, so the country was stuck with their large sizes.

The admissions of those states to the nation's body politic were tied in with sectional politics before the Civil War. West Virginia was a direct result of the fighting itself. In 1863 counties loyal to the North seceded from Virginia, which housed the Confederate capital in Richmond and was home to General Robert E. Lee. The West Virginia Panhandle did originally not reach as far east as today. But the new state, backed by the military might of Union forces, annexed Morgan, Berkeley, and Jefferson counties to West Virginia -- simply because they could.

In fact, the legality of the state's origins are not a fully settled matter to some, because Congress did not follow all the proscribed rules for admission, as discussed in the famous 2002 California Law Review article "Is West Virginia Unconstitutional?"

THE ORIGINS OF many state lines are often deeply buried, said Stein, a Washington, D.C. playwright and occasional screenwriter (including the Steve Martin/Goldie Hawn flick Housesitter). Not counting his college studies, the book took more than two years to put together, including research among files buried deep in state archives.

Some states share seemingly natural boundaries, such as rivers, Stein said. But as the railroad developed in the early 19th century these waterways diminished in importance for transportation, and states increasingly began to straddle both banks. Or, in the case of Louisiana crossing the Mississippi Rivers, the U.S. seized land during the War of 1812.

State lines carry political implications down to the present day. Take those three eastern West Virginia counties grafted onto the state during the Civil War. Virginia is already a swing state in the 2008 elections, with Democratic nominee-in-waiting Barack Obama making serious noises about playing in a state that has not voted for a Democratic nominee since 1964.

Virginia could be even more competitive if it included those counties, which are home to many of the independent, swing voters -- many of them daily commuters to professional jobs in the Washington, D.C. area -- which both parties covet.

Enterprising college students, like the young Mr. Stein, are no doubt already studying that.

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About the Author
David Mark is author of Going Dirty: The Art of Negative Campaigning.