Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Book Review: How the States Got Their Shapes, by Mark Stein (2008)

Cover of How the States Got Their Shapes, by Mark Stein, 2008.

Have you ever wondered why the Upper Peninsula of Michigan isn’t actually connected to the rest of Michigan? Why is South Dakota larger than North Dakota? Why is Delaware even a state? If these thoughts have ever crossed your mind, then Mark Stein’s 2008 book How the States Got Their Shapes is the book for you. Stein covers all of the borders of all 50 states, and tells us why those borders are where they are. 

How the States Got Their Shapes is an interesting idea for a book and it provides the answers to some really good questions, but the execution isn’t all that it could be. While Stein’s writing is succinct and workmanlike, it’s rarely vibrant. It’s tough to summarize all of this information in just a few pages for each state, but the never ending treaties and colonial charters quickly become a blur. How the States Got Their Shapes is interesting as I was reading it, but there’s little that will stick with me for very long. The nature of the book means that there will inevitably be a fair amount of repetition, as you will read about disputes involving Connecticut under several different states. It’s probably read best in small doses, and not cover to cover.

But, those reservations aside, there are still many interesting facts in How the States Got Their Shapes. Some of my favorites are:

No one knows if North Dakota or South Dakota was admitted to the Union first. President Benjamin Harrison deliberately shuffled the statehood papers on his desk so he didn’t know in which order he signed them. 

Wisconsin and Michigan had a border dispute about whether or not their border follows the East branch of the Montreal River or the West branch. This dispute has never been formally resolved, although I don’t think anyone in Wisconsin or Michigan is still that upset about it.

The town of Carter Lake, Iowa, is across the Missouri River from the rest of Iowa.

There are two tiny pieces of land on the New Jersey shore, just across the Delaware River, that actually belong to Delaware. This land was created when the Delaware River was dredged, but because they were created from areas on Delaware’s side of the river, they belong to Delaware. 

The area of Washington, DC, was originally supposed to be a square, and it was for a while. But in 1846, upon learning that DC might outlaw the slave trade, Virginia took its land back.

The “Southwick Jog” is a tiny little bite that Massachusetts took out of Connecticut so Massachusetts could have access to the Congamond Lakes.

Michigan got its Upper Peninsula as compensation for losing land along Lake Michigan to Indiana and along Lake Erie to Ohio, in order that those two states would have ports on the Great Lakes. Ohio and Michigan even fought the so-called Toledo War over the port of Toledo. (It wasn’t really a war, more like just some bad feelings.)

If those are the kind of historical tidbits you like, How the States Got Their Shapes is the book for you.

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