Welcome to my blog. My name is Lynn Garthwaite and I am the author of a series of early chapter books for kids (http://tinyurl.com/43roovy) and am currently researching and writing a history book to explain how our states got those crazy shapes. I’ll be posting my thoughts about writing, about getting your kids to write, and I’ll be giving a number of teasers for my new book. I can’t count the number of times I have stopped in the middle of research thinking – “That’s so cool. I didn’t know that!”
Have you ever wondered how our states got those odd knobs, boot heels, notches and angles? Do you think it’s odd that on the east coast the states are relatively small and shaped by meandering lines while the states out west are often larger and boxy? Why is the Upper Peninsula part of Michigan and not Wisconsin? Who stuck that odd panhandle on the western edge of Oklahoma?
Read on dear friends and enjoy the journey with me as my book comes together.
You would think that in a discussion about how the states got their shapes that Hawaii would be a no brainer. – – – ocean surrounds a few chunks of land and like magic the shape is defined.
But even Hawaii has a couple of surprises.
Since the islands of Hawaii were first formed by, and continue to have volcanic activity, the shape of the Hawaiian islands is still evolving slowly over time. The southern coastline of the “big island” has been altered a bit with recent dramatic lava flow for example, and erosion is an ongoing process for all of the islands.
But even more interesting is that the state of Hawaii isn’t actually just made up of those eight islands we so frequently show in maps. Hawaii actually has hundreds of islands and spreads for more than 1500 miles. What, you say?
In the 1800’s ship captains discovered a long string of small uninhabited islands in northern Polynesia. Many were perfect for what they needed – storage depots for coal . These were steamships that often traveled far from civilized lands and they needed places to refuel. In time they also discovered another valuable resource that was plentiful on the islands – guano. Also known as bat poop. Guano turned out to be an extremely valuable fertilizer, high in phosphorous and nitrogen and low in odor.
As in anything of value, this string of tiny uninhabited islands and reefs were of immediate interest to the American government. Previous to this time America did not have a colony or presence in the Pacific and not only did these islands provide a convenient place for refueling for that vital Far East trade market, but the location in the Pacific gave them the ability to establish a naval base. At the time a naval base was deemed important to protect that trade market, but that military capability also served to be extremely valuable much later in World War II.
In the meantime, the royal rulers of Hawaii were establishing their own boundaries and by the end of the 19th century claimed 16 islands, including the eight main ones we recognize on maps today. American industrialists (such as the Dole family) had begun to lease land from Hawaii for their businesses and eventually managed to oust the royal family. Sometime after that the U.S. declared Hawaii and the entire chain of tiny islands a U.S. Territory and in 1959 made Hawaii the fiftieth state.
Arkansas began life as an almost rectangle that later had two notches carved out of it. When Congress started to divide up the Louisiana Purchase, a couple of historic decisions played a part in the shape of Arkansas that stands today.
The original design of the border between Arkansas and Missouri was the same straight line which created the northern border of Tennessee. But a funny thing happened on the way to statehood. As described in an earlier post, a wealthy cattleman whose ranch covered a large portion of what is now the boot heel of Missouri saw the thriving gateway city that St. Louis had become upriver. He knew that if his land was part of Missouri rather than Arkansas it would have a much higher value, so he contacted a member of Congress and made some kind of backroom deal.
In essence, he persuaded Congress to create that notch that is known as the Missouri Boot Heel so that he and his land holdings could personally benefit from the commerce, and thus the wealth, that came through St. Louis.
On the opposite corner of Arkansas another chunk seems to be missing. The southern border of Arkansas was set at the 33rd parallel because President Thomas Jefferson understood the value of creating the state of Louisiana whose early settlers were primarily of French heritage. He liked the notion of keeping favor with French settlers by establishing a state that encouraged their unique community, so he gave them a northern boundary at the 33rd parallel, which in turn defined Arkansas’ southern border.
But why the notch in the corner?
To answer that we have to go back to the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. France owned the land that Thomas Jefferson bought, but the Spanish owned most of the land to the west. When it came time to establish exactly who owned what and where the lines should be drawn, the Red River was an important bargaining point (see the arrow on the map). In a decision that was called the Adams-Onis Treaty (the Adams in question was then Secretary of State John Quincy Adams), it was determined that the Spanish territory would follow the Red River until it reached the 32° N Latitude, at which point it would turn straight south. The result was a notch cut from the southwestern corner of Arkansas.
How did West Virginia get that goofy shape? Is it possible that someone intentionally created a state that looks like this?
Not exactly. West Virginia was “spun off” from Virginia when residents on both sides of the Appalachian Mountains acknowledged that they had little in common with each other and that transportation between the two regions was extremely difficult. Keep in mind that land transportation at this time was primarily horse and buggy, and a mountain range was a huge impediment to travel.
And there was a disparity in the availability of standard government protection and services. The people in the area that is now West Virginia did not feel that they were represented by the legislature to the east and so they voted to secede from Virginia at the same time that Virginia seceded from the Union at the onset of the Civil War.
The boundary was essentially defined by the meandering lines of the Appalachians, but was also partially influenced by Congress’ interest in making West Virginia a viable state. Unlike the Virginia side of the Appalachians, West Virginia had poor land and fewer natural resources. The odd drop down notch at the northeast corner of the border between Virginia and West Virginia (circled on the map below) was added to West Virginia’s territory by Congress because it was fertile and would provide a means for West Virginia to become self sustaining. Virginia argued vehemently to keep that land, but having recently seceded from the Union, Virginia had very little bargaining power with the U.S. Congress.
That little finger of West Virginia that snakes up the side of the Pennsylvania border was left over from an earlier dispute that Virginia and Pennsylvania had over the place where the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers met. Both territories laid claim to that land and when Congress awarded it to Pennsylvania (who called the new city there “Pittsburgh”) Virginia was compensated with a swatch of land to the west. When West Virginia was created, that land became part of the new state.
One of the more interesting side stories about states’ borders are the cases in which disputes about these borders continue long after the state is admitted into the union. Surveying errors, disagreements about markers, and disputes about which state is entitled to certain tracts of land can force state governments to pursue judicial relief long after the issue is supposedly settled. As recently as 1998 New York and New Jersey were squabbling over who owned Ellis Island and it took a Supreme Court ruling to grant the majority of the island to New Jersey.
A disagreement between South Dakota and Nebraska was typical of the kinds of ongoing border disputes the courts have seen. A portion of the border that separates Nebraska and South Dakota is defined by the meandering route of the Missouri River.
Back in the 1800’s both states essentially gave a handshake agreement on that declaration, but they never officially ratified the treaty. In the meantime the Missouri River acted as rivers often do – it continued to meander. Floods caused erosion of the banks and the force of moving water changed some of the curves on the course. In the 1950’s dams were built that settled things down a bit.
But the gradual changes caused some anxiety on both sides and everything came to a head in 1977 when the Missouri River was named a National Recreational River. Suddenly the spotlight was on fishing and waterfowl hunting laws that hadn’t mattered before. South Dakota had a law they called the “Duck Bill” that banned waterfowl hunting by non-residents. The problem was that over the course of decades, some of the land that Nebraskans had always hunted on was now on the South Dakota side because of flooding.. The urgency to ratify the treaty and settle it once and for all ramped up and eventually a compromise was reached that allowed a limited number of permits for Nebraskans to hunt on their old favorite spots.
The river’s changing course had caused other problems resulting in homeowners losing land too. St. Helen Island used to be on the South Dakota side of the river but a flood shifted it to the Nebraska side. Additionally a parcel of land called Elk Island was no longer an island after a shift in the river left it attached to the South Dakota bank. This became a problem because landowners were still paying taxes to Nebraska.
Watch for some other ongoing border disputes in future posts.
By the time the colonial settlers were setting boundaries for their territories in the New World they were already aware that far to the west this chunk of land ended at the Pacific Ocean. Both the Spanish and the French were exploring large tracts of what would later become the United States, and explorers reported back such discoveries as the Mississippi River, the mountains, the deserts – – – and the Pacific Ocean at the end of the line.
So the territorial governors, eager to make their claims on as much land as possible, frequently defined their holdings in an ocean-to-ocean description. Early maps drawn in the 16 and 1700’s showed territories starting at the Atlantic ocean and stretching across the entire nation. In this (pretty crude) example, the top lines represent the Connecticut territory, as seen by Connecticut settlers. The bottom represents The Carolina Colony, long before there was a North or South Carolina.
They may have had to haggle with their neighbors over the northern and southern ends of their new territories, but looking west there was no end to what they imagined was theirs. Native Americans were not asked for their input.
Once populations in the original colonies began to grow and people started moving west, Congress made the decision that these long territories needed to be divided up. It was easier to govern a more contained area, and Congress was determined to keep things fair between the states so limiting their size was important. The strips of long states were retracted to stop at the Mississippi River because France and Spain made claims to the west of it, borders were redrawn and smaller states began to be carved out of these endless territories.
By the time westward expansion brought settlers across the Mississippi River, states started to take on rather uninteresting shapes. Unimaginative shapes – – – like “rectangle.” As explained in an earlier post, the advent of railroads had removed the need to use rivers to define the borders of states, so it became much easier to draw boxy shapes and attempt to make states roughly the same size.
But Utah and Wyoming were two rectangular shapes that overlapped each other. One was going to have to give up some land. How did they decide to leave Wyoming as a complete rectangle and cut a notch in Utah?
Part of the reason was political. Congress had already been dealing with the Mormon influence that had flooded Utah and the region (see my post in July titled “States that Disappeared” for more information) and by this time were not feeling particularly inclined to grant that fledgling territory any more land than it had to. The notched area was rich with many natural resources and Congress worried about giving too much power to a religious group in the cultivation of those riches.
But in the end the decision was made for more practical reasons. Just to the south and west of the notch, Utah is home to the rather ample Uinta Mountains. The ability to govern a chunk of land separated from everything else in the state by a wall of mountains was a serious difficulty in those times. But from the Wyoming side, no such impediment existed.
It made pragmatic sense to grant that notch of land to Wyoming based on the geographic ease of maintaining law enforcement and state governance in that area. Wyoming became a state in 1890 and Utah followed in 1896.
The massive size of California, much like Texas and Alaska, completely violates Thomas Jefferson’s intention that all states should be roughly equal in size. How did California avoid being broken up into three or four smaller states?
The explanation is that at the time they petitioned to be admitted to the union, California held all the cards. America gained ownership of the territory at the end of the Mexican War in 1848 and our country, at that time, was still relying on water and the early railroad system for primary transportation. That meant that the territories in our western expansion were essentially ungovernable. Notably, right about the time California petitioned to be admitted to the union, GOLD was discovered in them thar hills.
The discovery of gold meant a huge influx of population and a corresponding huge increase in the crime rate. Trying to govern the chaos was a headache, so Congress decided the territory needed to be organized quickly.
With gold on their side, California could pretty much dictate how things were going to work out with their statehood endeavor. Congress knew that if they pushed too hard to divide the state or enforce borders that didn’t favor California, the California territory would just shrug and back out of becoming a state. California could survive as a sovereign nation, but having another country within our own borders could create a problem for our burgeoning nation.
So California was allowed to stay as one really long state. And instead of using the crest of the mountain range to define the eastern boundary as had been done in Appalachian states, the border of California was drawn to fully encompass those gold bearing mountains. That eastern border followed the angle of the mountain range but was drawn so that all of the mountain region was defined as part of California.