GeoCarta Has Moved

May 31, 2008

U.S. Screwy Borders Explained

Anyone that has ever stared at a map of the United States has questioned some things:

  1. Why does Michigan have that whole separate section that's attached to Wisconsin?
  2. Why is northern Idaho so narrow?
  3. Why does Oklahoma have that skinny panhandle?
  4. Why isn't Utah a rectangle?

Those are important questions that cartographers, anyone interested in Geography and probably more than a few bored schoolchildren have all wondered about. Mark Stein has wondered that too. In his book "How the States Got Their Shapes" Mr. Stein answers those questions and many more about our country's screwy state borders.

His work is reviewed in the weekend Wall Street Journal by Bill Kaufman. Mr. Stein explains the early states varied in size and shape, befitting a nation born of rebellion, but as the republic expanded, "Congress would locate the nation's internal borders with the goal that all states should be created equal."

He quotes a 1786 letter from Thomas Jefferson to James Madison: "Considering the American character in general, a state of such extent as one hundred and sixty thousand square miles [roughly the size of California] would soon crumble into little ones."

California did not crumble, despite persistent efforts in the 1850s by the Spanish-speaking agrarian south to detach itself from the gold-rush-fevered north. Earthquakes notwithstanding, California hasn't split yet, so either Jefferson was wrong or the American character isn't what it used to be.

As for Texas, it came into the union with a provision permitting its division into as many as five separate states, but Texans never went for fission. Apparently the prospect of 10 senators can't compete with the bragging rights belonging to the biggest (pre-Alaska) state.

An the answers to the questions at the top?

  1. Congress gave Michigan the Upper Peninsula as compensation for losing Toledo and Gary.
  2. Idaho's border is largely due to Sidney Edgerton who "went to Washington with $2,000 in gold packed away." Mr. Edgerton left the capital without his gold. He also left with title of territorial governor of newly created Montana; and Idaho got a new boundary.
  3. Texas ceded what is now Oklahoma's panhandle to the U.S. in order to keep beneath the Missouri Compromise and remain a slave state.
  4. Utah was drawn the way it was so that Wyoming could be the seven-degrees of longitude that was considered ideal for Western states. The minimizing of the state 's Mormon influence was considered an added bonus. An additional bonus is that it's unusual shape makes it a lot easier to pick out among the other western states with their boring rectangles.