Book Review: How the States Got Their Shapes by Mark Stein


How the States Got Their Shapes (2008) by Mark Stein is exactly what the title says it is: a state-by-state description of how the borders of the fifty states were laid out (even Hawaii, which is more complicated than it looks).  Some general observations show how the US government tried to create all states of equal size.  The east coast states don’t count because they were laid out by kings and English charters.  That the rest of the states are not of equal size is due to a variety of factors: topographical borders that make more sense, confliciting land claims, land awarded to states for land lost to other states (seemingly an endless cycle), and sometimes just plain bad surveying that held up.

Still the efforts of the government can be seen in the borders.  The parrallel at 36°30′, which originated in error as the border between Virginia and North Carolina spreads across many states as far west as the Texas panhandle because it become the barrier between slave & free states after the Missouri Compromise in 1820.  The government also created tiers of states with equal height (North & South Dakota, Nebraska, & Kansas) or equal width (Washington, Oregon, North & South Dakota, Wyoming, & Colorado) that create some shared qualities even if there’s not equality of square mileage.

Some of my favorite facts learned from this book:

  • New Hampshire gained land from Massachusetts because the king wanted to reward good Anglicans at the expense of the Puritans
  • There’s a little piece of Delaware across the Delaware Bay attached to New Jersey!
  • The easternmost counties of West Virginia actually wished to remain part of the Confederacy but they were occupied by Union troops and attached to the counties that seceded from Virginia
  • The corner cut-off from Utah is due to a mountain range that makes a right angle at that point and thus would have made the valley it surrounds inaccessible from the rest of Utah
  • The Great Lakes states had the borders modified and adjusted several times mostly to allow all the states to have a window on the lakes
  • There are islands in the Hawaiian chain that are not part of the state (including Midway) even though islands to their east & west are part of Hawaii

Unfortunately, the writing is a bit dry.  There are some good stories to be told about the colorful characters who influenced the creation of the state borders, but Stein sticks with just the facts. It also suffers from repetition and overuse of rhetorical questions (“So why does the northern border have a chunk missing?”).  Each chapter also ends with kind of morality lesson about what the particular state’s borders can tell us, and its pretty corny.  This book may work better as a reference book than as something to read cover to cover.  On the other hand, as a nerdy ten-year old I would have ate this up, so it may be good for kids too.

This book has inspired an idea though, based on my childhood home state Connecticut and its claims of land from sea-to-sea.  I think it would be great to travel across the United States only within the boundaries of land once claimed by Connecticut.  One could visit some interesting landmarks such as the New York oblong, the site of the Yankee-Pennamite Wars in Pennsylvania, and Case Western Reserve college in Ohio.  West of there I guess one would have to look for evidence of Nutmeggers in in westward expansion.

Author Stein, Mark, 1951-
Title How the states got their shapes / Mark Stein.
Publication Info. New York : Smithsonian Books/Collins, 2008.
Description xv, 332 p. : maps, 24 cm.

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