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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The bump on Minnesota’s head

Minnesota’s little topknot was the result of an incorrect assumption made by the Congress when it was finalizing its border with Canada (then known as British North America).  To the east the border was erratic and uneven, and it appealed to all involved to just declare a straight line and use it for the remainder of the border as it stretched west.  The line they chose was the 49th parallel.  One wonders why they didn’t pick a nice round number like 50, but placing the border at the 50th parallel would have cut Canada completely off from the Great Lakes.

 

They began the line at a western notch of Lake Superior and then had to work their way back up to the 49th parallel.  They used a chain of lakes as their guide, which is how the northeast border of Minnesota got that series of zig zag lines.  The problem was that the treaty had assumed that the Lake of the Woods topped out at the 49th parallel, and in the original wording of the charter they described the line through the chain of lakes ending at the northeast corner of the Lake of the Woods at which point it would continue straight west.

 

When the boots on the ground actually began the task of surveying the line, they discovered that Lake of the Woods actually extended further north than they thought.  Given the choice of changing the charter and cutting Lake of the Woods in half, or just redrawing the line, the decision makers opted to just bend the line to encompass the lake, thus creating the bump at the top of Minnesota.

Go to http://www.bluespectrumbooks to find out how to order the book “Our States Have Crazy Shapes”

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