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Saturday, August 23, 2014

“How the States Got Their Shapes”, by Mark Stein


352 pages, Smithsonian, ISBN-13: 978-0061431388

When most people look at a map of the United States, they take its current borders for granted. Most people can identify a state simply by its shape, but will rarely ask why it has said shape. How the States Got Their Shapes answers most questions anyone would probably have about how each state got its shape. It is interesting to read the stories about how east coast states were drawn by monarchs for whatever reasons they wanted, or how Congress started to organize land when one moves westward across the map. Stein details the tragic-yet-fascinating stories about how Congress organized new states in a futile attempt to control slavery so as to avert civil war, and how those decisions are now permanently embedded in the borders of several states. After Congress gave up controlling slavery in favor of popular sovereignty, you will read about how equality of size or resources formed the shape of western states.

This book also answers some questions like: why is California and Texas so big; why do so many states have little quirks in their borders; why all the panhandles, West Virginia’s finger, Connecticut’s notch, and so on. However, if I ever had a chance to talk with the author I’d ask him to rewrite this book chronologically, rather than alphabetically by state. It would start from the earliest European colonies and would follow along by date, showing all of the innumerable map changes as they happen and explaining why. That would allow the reader to follow along as the changes are made, as opposed to leaping back and forth in time as this book does now.

Over all, this book is well-written and pithy. Don’t expect a huge narrative, partly because there isn’t much to tell beyond a brief description, but the book, state by state, describes all the borders and the various reasons why the borders look that way they do. The virgin land that the Europeans had available for partitioning the states is immediately obvious in reading this book and it is a true wealth of information that is sure to interest anyone interested in maps, geography, and American history.

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