A few words from Dirkle Smat and The Explorers Club

I’ve been asked to talk a bit about my series of children’s books, so this post will be a brief hiatus from the states research.

When I first conceived the idea for my Dirkle Smat series I thought they were going to be picture books.  It quickly became obvious that my stories didn’t lend themselves to the 32 page picture book format, so they gradually morphed into beginner chapter books.

I had two concrete thoughts early on:  I wanted each story to be a fanciful adventure that would draw in young readers and encourage them to enjoy the other worlds that books can create.  And I wanted my characters to have goofy names.

The goofy names were a hook.  I hoped that they would cause delight in my target audience (4 to 10 years old), and make the stories memorable so they would come back to the books and keep reading the series.  From the feedback I’ve gotten doing author visits I can tell that kids get a kick out of Dirkle Smat, Toonie Oobles, Fiddy Bublob, Bean Lumley and Quid Smat.

Three books are currently published and available (http://tinyurl.com/43roovy) and the fourth is awaiting cover artwork from the illustrator.  The stories include a discovery deep inside a tunnel, a fantasy flight on a statue that has come to life, an adventure in a submarine to search for a long lost artifact, and an encounter with a time traveler who takes the Explorers back in time to uncover an old town mystery.  More stories to follow soon!  If you have a child in your life who would love a little mystery with fun characters and high adventure I would be happy to arrange to have a personalized copy sent to you or them.

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Alabama looks in a mirror

Alabama looks almost exactly like Mississippi in a mirror.  Previous to Alabama becoming a state the country had admitted 21 states to the union and not one of them looked like any of the others.  Why did Alabama end up as a carbon copy of another state?

Alabama and Mississippi were both carved out of the larger territory known as The Georgia Territory at a time when the government believed we would be better served having a greater number of small states, rather than a handful of very large ones.  Massive territories were being cut into smaller ones, and thus the “Mississippi Territory” was born.  Some time later this new territory was cut in two.

But what about the notch on the southern border of each state?  For many years Spain’s claim to Florida included a long panhandle that extended much further west than the panhandle of Florida we know today.  Alabama and Mississippi’s southern borders would have been a simple straight line except for the fact that when the War of 1812 was approaching, Spain lost the ability to focus on their ownership of Florida and relinquished its hold on parts of the panhandle, although not entirely willingly.

Congress broke up the tracts of land in the panhandle that it had seized.  The first chunk was awarded to Louisiana and the second chunk was awarded to the Mississippi Territory.  When that territory was divided in half to become the states of Mississippi and Alabama, a line down the middle created the notches in the southern boundaries of both states.

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Alaska and its panhandle

Unlike the lower 48 states, there weren’t too many border decisions when the United States bought Alaska in the 1867 transaction that came to be known as Seward’s Folly.  The space was essentially already defined because Russia and Canada had already created a straight line boundary at the 141st Meridian, but why does Alaska continue to snake several thousand more miles south along the coast of Canada?


This region, called the Alaska Panhandle and circled below, was already a stretch of land that Russia laid claim to when they owned the territory.  When William Seward negotiated the purchase from Russia, he also accepted Russia’s map as evidence of just what he was buying.  But Canada had a different perspective based on extremely vague wording of the original treaty with Russia – so they set about to dispute American ownership of the panhandle.

Unfortunately for Canada, they trusted a British judge who was appointed to the Alaskan Boundary Tribunal, formed to settle the dispute.  The tribunal consisted of three Americans, two Canadians, and one British judge.  Rumor has it that the Brit sided with the American position because President Teddy Roosevelt had hinted that if America did not prevail in the tribunal he may choose to just take it by force.  Another rumor was that Britain was looking for American help in an arms dispute with Germany at the time.


In the end a treaty was signed and the United States retained ownership of the panhandle which had long been a popular route for ships and traders.  It later became one of the routes to the Yukon when gold was discovered.  Imagine living in the northwestern part of British Columbia and having to pass through the United States to get to the coast?

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Did we steal a chunk of Canada?


When you look at the map of the United States, Maine looks like it was a late add-on, as if the original settlers wanted to tack on another state to extend as far into the other British territory (Canada) as they could.  Maine wasn’t one of the original thirteen colonies, so how did it appear where it did?


The state of Maine originally began as part of the Plymouth Colony, which was later renamed the Massachusetts Colony and it stayed that way until after the American Revolution.  When it came time to settle the Maine border, plenty of people had differing opinions on where it should stand.  At stake was the very definition of what constituted the United States, and American interests were busy creating settlements as far north as they could.


For the British who were establishing territories in Canada, the St. Lawrence River was a jewel in their crown.  They had no intention of allowing the despised revolutionaries cut them off from this important line of commerce.


The early versions of the treaty contained language that was vague and unclear so the task of settling the border dispute was ultimately turned over to the Dutch to act as a mediator.  But neither side particularly liked the compromise proposed by the King of the Netherlands, and they continued to bicker, mostly because they both coveted the rich timberlands there.


Before it was finally settled, a border skirmish called the Aroostook War (named after the valley) broke out.  The war was bloodless although there are rumors that the conflict did bring one casualty – a pig that wandered across contentious lines.  Finally in 1842 Daniel Webster brokered a treaty and the final border is the one that stands today.  Americans probably should have taken the compromise offered by the Dutch King because it would have given them a bigger chunk of land than the ultimate treaty of 1842.



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States that disappeared

Not all of the states previously formed in our history ended up making the final fifty.  As mentioned in an earlier post, the State of Franklin had a four year life before being absorbed into Tennessee.  The State of Deseret only lasted two.

When early Mormon pioneers settled in the Salt Lake Valley they imagined a territory that reflected the beliefs of their members.  Latter Day Saints President Brigham Young initially drew up papers in 1849 to propose a territory, but he quickly changed it to a  petition for statehood when he saw that California and New Mexico were both applying to be admitted to the union as states.  The proposed State of Deseret would have encompassed the large outlined area in the map below.

Church elders drafted a constitution and sent it with a courier to Washington D.C.  The federal government responded with a proposal to combine California and Deseret as one state, but that received little support from any of the entities involved.  The next year, in 1850, Congress instead created the Utah territory (the shaded area on the map) and Brigham Young became the first territorial governor.  In 1851 the proponents of the State of Deseret voted to dissolve the state, although many continued behind the scenes to keep pushing the idea.

Eventually the innovation of the railroad brought in large numbers of non-Mormon settlers and the notion of a Mormon state faded.  The State of Deseret was never recognized by the federal government, but the short lived assembly did make laws, formed a militia, formed counties, appointed judges and performed other governmental duties until they were replaced by the territorial government.

The word “deseret” means “honeybee” in the Book of Mormon.

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No fighting over who’s bigger

Here are four states that have one unique feature in common – – – they are all exactly three degrees (latitude) of height.  North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas were all created after the Louisiana Purchase was finalized, but why don’t their northern and southern borders all line up with the states on either side of them?


It may have made sense to just extend west the southern borders of Minnesota, Iowa and Missouri – yet Congress very deliberately chose to not do that.


The decision reflects Thomas Jefferson’s ideal of creating states of equal size in order to ensure equal representation.  As noted in another post, the borders of the early colonies created by the British had already been set by the time Jefferson pursued his equal states ideal, but he was determined to create equal states wherever possible as the country expanded.


It simplified matters to assign three degrees of height for their north/south dimension.  To the west, Montana, Wyoming and Colorado are all exactly four degrees of height.  Quite a few of the states west of the Mississippi River are exactly seven degrees of width.  Each state has its own story, but together they represent the ideal of equality as envisioned by our founding fathers.

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Breaking off a chunk of Illinois

The borders of Illinois have been altered on a number of occasions – sometimes by the decisions of man, and at least once by the power of Mother Nature.


When Illinois became a territory the capital was established at Kaskaskia.   Never heard of Kaskaskia, Illinois?  It might be because it hasn’t been the capital since 1819, currently has only about 14 residents, and many years ago literally became detached from Illinois.


Set right on the banks of the Mississippi River, Kaskaskia became the victim of the power of the changing course of a mighty river.  The need for wood for building caused massive deforestation of that stretch of the river banks and in 1881 floods destroyed most of the town of Kaskaskia.  When the waters receded, the river had redirected itself into a new channel … which separated the town from the state of Illinois.


To this day, the only way to get to Kaskaskia, Illinois is through Missouri.  The postal department has assigned it a Missouri zip code because it is only through Missouri that letter carriers can make the trip across the bridge that spans the old riverbed.  Virtually none of the original buildings stand, but a handful of residents remain in the old town and look across the river at their state.

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Which state turned down a fortune in gold?

That awkward distinction goes to Washington state.  In the mid 1800’s the territory of Washington was considerably larger than the current state we recognize.  Oregon had just achieved statehood and established north and east borders that helped define Washington territory into something that looked like the solid lines below:

But in 1860, gold was discovered in the mountains in the eastern part of Washington territory.  Instead of seeing it as a fortuitous windfall that would enrich the entire region, the territorial government feared the worst.  Just two years before, gold had been discovered in Colorado and almost immediately 50,000 people descended upon the area.  The influx brought a level of lawlessness that the territorial government of Colorado found extremely difficult to control.


And worrying about the lawlessness of tens of thousands of miners was only part of the problem for the territory of Washington.  Governing a wide area separated by mountains was a task in itself, but the cultural makeup of the type of people flooding the mountain areas was quite different from the settlers who were already in the region, based primarily near Puget Sound.  Fearing that the large numbers of newcomers would soon have a political voice that could change the cultural landscape of the soon-to-be-state, lawmakers made the decision to divide the territory and cut off those “problem” mountains.


The region they spun-off was later divided between Idaho and Montana.


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Oklahoma gets a panhandle for free!

Slavery was an extremely divisive issue in American history, and, as it turns out, it was the reason that Oklahoma has a panhandle.


Early in its evolution, the Republic of Texas stretched much further north than it does today.  When it entered the Union in 1846, Texas chose to continue to permit slavery within its borders.  But the Missouri Compromise of 1820 had declared that no state above the 36° 30’ mark could hold slaves.  Faced with a dilemma, Texas decided to cut off a large chunk of its northern territory in order to continue to indulge in slave ownership.


By chopping off its northern border to the 36° 30’ line, a large chunk of land was now available to be divided into other states.  When the Missouri Compromise was later replaced by the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Congress set the southern border of Kansas at 37° , which meant that a strip of orphan territory was created.


Congress eventually made the decision to attach that orphan strip to Oklahoma, and thus the panhandle was born.



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Louisiana becomes a boot

Louisiana began its life as a giant territory purchased from France that extended all the way from the Gulf of Mexico to the Canadian border.  So how did this giant territory become an average sized state shaped like a boot?


It was Thomas Jefferson who pushed the concept of dividing states into smaller, but fairly equally portioned entities.  He believed that if individual states were too large they would collapse under the weight of the difficulty of governing a large land mass.  I’ll talk about some obvious exceptions to this in a later post.


Jefferson also saw a value in keeping a state small enough to maintain a certain homogeneity.  Much of the area that became Louisiana had been settled by the French, and when the time came to define its boundaries, keeping those French settlements within the same state was an important factor.


The Mississippi River defined the eastern part of Louisiana, but oddly, it only follows the river to a certain point and then turns straight east.  That was because Spain still owned a long panhandle of territory stretching west from Florida all the way to the Red River.  It wasn’t until America seized from Spain the land between the Mississippi River to the Pearl River that Louisiana acquired the part of its land that is shaped like the toe of a boot.



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