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.


May 30, 2008

Mapping Middle East Politics

When you mix cartography with Israeli-Palestinian politics, controversy is sure to result. That was recently discovered by Rhoda Rosen, director of Chicago's Spertus Museum.

Imaginary Coordinates was envisioned as the museum's contribution to the city's Festival of Maps. As reported by Chicago Reader, the exhibit "..juxtaposes antique and modern maps of the Holy Land (mostly from Spertus’s own collection) with the work of eight contemporary Israeli and Palestinian artists." Ms. Rosen told the Reader that she wanted to “explore the limits of mapping,” and “invite discussion.”

Any discussion was quickly cut off when the exhibit inexplicably closed a week after its May 2nd debut. The Reader reports that elevators wouldn’t take visitors to the tenth floor exhibition gallery, and museum staff were saying that the show would be closed indefinitely for “building maintenance". However, rumors began circulating that the exhibit was too controversial for some key members of the Spertus audience. One executive of a major Jewish charity confirmed to the Reader that he had canceled a major fundraiser at the museum because the exhibit "wasn’t appropriate”.

So a “tweaked” version of the exhibit reopened on May 15th. The new exhibit only allows visitors on to be admitted as part of guided tours. Museum director Rosen, who worked on the exhibit for three years, notes no items were removed from the show during the closure, although wall cards were revised and objects were rearranged.

In an essay in the exhibit's catalog Ms. Rosen says that the core of the exhibit is the understanding that “maps have less to do with landscape than with the intention of their makers.” What she apparently didn't fully consider was the effect some maps can have on their viewers as well.

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