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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Why make so many borders?

Surveying with the purpose of defining borders actually dates as far back as 5000 years to the Middle East and Egypt.  Rulers knew the value of establishing property lines because it was a way to extract revenue from the sale of land and to continue collecting taxes from new landowners.  Delineating borders also gives a central government clearly defined spheres of influence.

The situation was much the same in our newly established United States.  The fledgling American government had accumulated massive debts from various wars with both the British and the Spanish, and now were greatly in need of capital to finance the work of government.  As new settlers arrived, land was being claimed without any compensation to the government, so the solution was to quickly send out surveyors to establish boundaries.

Since our government had been established with many of the powers and responsibilities being assigned to the states, it was important that each state define its borders as quickly as possible.  States needed revenue to survive and they were often in conflict with their neighboring states over who owns what.  As you’ll see in a later chapter, some of those conflicts still exist to this day.

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One invention that changed the map

When you look at a map of the United States it is very obvious that the states in the east and west were cut by completely different jigsaw patterns.   On the east coast we have states that are small with a variety of odd zigzag shapes.  West of the Mississippi, the states are noticeably larger and often rectangular in shape.   With some exceptions, those borders don’t meander idly, they are straight and even have some 90 degree corners.   What happened?

In a word – – – railroads.

When territories were claiming their borders in the early days of colonization, the primary means of moving people and commerce were the rivers.   It was critically important to each colony’s economic viability to have access to the many rivers and bays that crisscrossed the east coast.    Without river access, a colony or state would have to depend on its neighbors to provide important routes to move its goods for sale.

So early borders were primarily determined by the course of water.

By the time large numbers of settlers moved west, railroads had taken over as the primary means of transportation.   Instead of sending goods up and down the rivers, farmers and business owners loaded them on trains to move from town to town.   With a lessened importance on access to rivers, it became more logical to draw borders along straight lines.

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Virginia and its floating finger

Among the goofy little quirks of our states is a chunk of a peninsula at the bottom of Maryland’s territory that actually belongs to Virginia.  It’s like a finger of land that hangs off of Maryland and whose residents peer across the bay at their home state of Virginia.

Before borders were decisively drawn, it wasn’t uncommon for territories to issue deeds to property that weren’t actually theirs to sell.  Colonists from Virginia had ventured across Chesapeake Bay and began working the land at the tip of the peninsula that was actually part of Maryland.  Maryland argued that the entire peninsula was part of their claim but colonists had already paid their money to Virginia for the rights to the land.  As had happened in many other land disputes, the English government stepped in to mediate.  The final decision was weighted toward the colony that had sold the land first so Virginia won the dispute by default.

And it got even worse for Maryland.  Virginia was awarded an even larger part of the peninsula because of a surveying error that stands to this day.  The point of reference for surveyors no longer existed by the time they began their task of marking the boundary.  A little settlement called Watkins Point was supposed to be the starting point for the east/west line to separate the Virginia property from Maryland, but since erosion had gradually eliminated the point, surveyors had to guess at its location.  Very simply, they guessed wrong and Virginia ended up with a larger chunk of the peninsula.

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Maryland’s skinny neck

Maryland surely must have one of the oddest shapes of all of our states.  The ultra skinny panhandle and the split lower wing with a flared end can’t possibly be the way the state was originally planned.  And, in fact, it wasn’t.

The royal charter described the northern border of Maryland as the 40th parallel, which should have been easy to settle because Pennsylvania’s southern border was also mandated as the 40th parallel.  The problem was that the 40th parallel actually cut just north of Philadelphia which was at that time the capital city of Pennsylvania.  This discrepancy was one of many examples of how hard it is to draw up borders sight unseen from across the ocean.

Pennsylvania wasn’t giving up Philadelphia, and Maryland was sticking to the border as dictated by the royal charter.  The dispute took 100 years to resolve and led to a border conflict that was known as Cresap’s War.  The intervention of King George II in 1738 finally re-located the Maryland/Pennsylvania border to 15 miles south of Philadelphia, which explains how Maryland was stuck with the thin little strip that stands today.

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How Pennsylvania was born

William Penn was an English real estate entrepreneur, a philosopher, and a Quaker.   In 1681 King Charles II,  heavily involved in expanding his empire to the New World, handed over present day Pennsylvania to William Penn to pay off an old debt!   It probably sounded like a good deal, but Penn had to accept the pay-off sight unseen – the territory being across the Atlantic Ocean from his home in England. Weeks later Penn sailed to the new country to take a peek at his new asset.  The territory was quite wild with ill-defined borders and in the very early stages of having settlers move in.

Penn’s plan was to name the new colony “Sylvania”, which meant Woods, but the King insisted on the name “Pennsylvania.”   The humble William Penn, influenced by his Quaker upbringing, was embarrassed by the name and worried that people would think he had named it after himself.   But one learns early in life that it doesn’t pay to argue with the King, so the name stood.

Penn brought his religious ideals with him and immediately established his new territory as a Quaker territory.  It wasn’t uncommon in those early days that territories identified themselves with one religious offshoot or another, but as populations grew and people began to relocate and build cities, those designations became harder to enforce.

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Turn your kids into writers

This is just a brief time out from blogging about my new book.

One of the things I like to talk to kids about when I make author visits is how much storytelling they already do, even if they never write anything down. Even very young children find themselves daydreaming about people and things around them. At the grocery store they see a guy with an unusual hat and start to wonder where he got it? Who gave it to him? What is that strange looking symbol on the side? Why doesn’t it fit him better?

Before they know it they’re weaving together a tale about the man and his hat – and a story is born! And that family with the two boys – are they twins? They must like baseball because they’re wearing baseball shirts. Why is the taller boy wearing that bandage on his elbow?

Talking to kids about things they’ve wondered about is a perfect way to start them on the road to writing stories. Maybe they think about the bright colors they see at sunset and wonder where all the shades of orange and red come from. Encourage them to make up their own story about the colors in the sky.

Where do earthworms go when they tunnel below the ground? As adults, we can look it up – but why not just make up some fun story with some silly explanation? Encourage your kids to make up their own answers to life’s funny oddities. Just like a rose bush, an imagination blooms the more attention you pay to it. Ask your kids what they think about earthworms, and you might be surprised at their imaginations!

I also encourage kids to think of their favorite fairy tale and change the ending. What if Cinderella had been in the bathroom when the clock struck twelve? What if the three little pigs didn’t speak the same language as the wolf? What if there was an eighth dwarf with a super power?  Go for it.

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Is Rhode Island even an island?

At first glance it may seem odd that a state that is not an island has the word “island” in its name.  Even odder is that the full legal name of Rhode Island is:  The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.  The smallest state has the longest name.

The explanation comes from the fact that the state that we know today was formed from a merger of two colonies.  Providence Plantations was a colony in the area of the modern city of Providence, established as a site of religious freedom in 1636.  Rhode Island colony was founded two years later on the largest island in the adjacent Narragansett Bay.  At that time the island’s name was Aquidneck, but was later changed to Rhode Island.

By 1647 the two large settlements, along with two other small ones, agreed to unite in order to protect themselves against other colonies.  It was at that time that they united under the “Charter of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations” which was the predecessor of the state name.

An interesting sidenote:  In November of 2010 residents of the state were invited to vote on whether to keep the full, long version of their name, or legally change it to simply “Rhode Island.”  By a vote of almost 80%, residents made it clear they wanted to keep the long version.

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Michigan trades Toledo for the Upper Peninsula

It’s hard to imagine it now, but two states once fought over Toledo, and a third state lost hundreds of square miles of wilderness because of that spat.  In the early 1800’s, the four territories of Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana and Ohio were getting close to achieving statehood.  At that time the legal threshold to become a state was a population of 60,000 and of the four, Wisconsin was the last to achieve that mark.

Michigan wrangled with Ohio over the location of Michigan’s southern border, and at stake was the determination of which future state would claim Toledo.  As a thriving port city, Toledo was key to Ohio’s movement of commerce.  After much wrangling, during which each side actually armed themselves and prepared for war, a compromise was finally reached and the border was located far enough north that Toledo officially became a part of the new state of Ohio.

Since Michigan had made the concession on its southern border Congress compensated them by giving them the Upper Peninsula.  Wisconsin objected, of course, because that land was attached to their territory, but short of the population numbers necessary to become a state Wisconsin had no say in the matter and the borders were redrawn.

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Men making sense of the wilderness

One of the most fascinating aspects of the creation of our jigsaw puzzle map has been learning about how early surveying work was done.  We live in a GPS world now, but in the 1700’s, surveyors were astronomers and they depended on star charts and telescopes to define the borders of our states.  Two of the earliest surveyors were Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon who marked out the famous Mason Dixon line.

The project took them four years, from 1763-1767.  In addition to the two astronomers, the team consisted of about two dozen assistants, a team of packhorses to carry all of the equipment, and about 100 ax men to physically carve the border through the forests.  Mason and Dixon positioned themselves on high points along the way and spent many evenings observing the positions of the stars in the sky.  They consulted their charts and used their knowledge of the heavens to determine exactly where they were with regard to the lines of longitude.   When it was decided that they were in the correct place, the ax men followed behind and literally chopped down trees to carve a line of demarcation.  After months of exhausting labor, the group could look behind them and see with satisfaction a straight line carved out of the wilderness to mark the border.

And they were remarkably accurate.  What may be surprising to many is that the Mason Dixon line was NOT a line that separated north from south in the Civil War as it is often characterized.  That four years of fighting the grueling wilderness was merely the southern border of the state of Pennsylvania.

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