Unveiling the Mystery: The Fascinating Story Behind State Shapes
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While some states in the United States boast uniquely-shaped borders, like Texas and Florida, others can be trickier to distinguish at first glance. States like Wyoming and Colorado, or North Dakota and South Dakota, are virtual look-alikes that require a little geographical context to tell apart.
Across America, curious minds have pondered over the history of state borders, and there's no simple answer to this complex question. Regardless, we're eager to investigate some factors that have influenced the shapes of these entities.
With 50 unique states to parse, receiving multiple explanations for how each state gained its shape, there's a lot to unpack. Author Mark Stein has extensively researched this topic and credits four primary forces that influenced the shapes of states ranging from the American Revolution right up through the political controversies concerning slavery.
In certain instances, natural geographical features, such as rivers, played a profound role in the creation of state borders, like the Connecticut River between Vermont and New Hampshire, the Ohio River in the southern part of Indiana, or the Colorado River between Arizona and California.
When examining the map of the original thirteen colonies, one cannot help but notice how disparate their shapes and sizes were. However, Thomas Jefferson, a staunch advocate of equality, was not content with this state of affairs. To remedy this issue, he suggested that Congress devise new states that are uniform in size based on their latitude and longitude coordinates.
More specifically, Jefferson posited that the new Northwestern lands that lie between the Ohio and Mississippi rivers be separated into regions that are approximately two degrees of latitude and four degrees of longitude (or approximately 138 miles high and 276 miles wide). While the Congress did not follow Jefferson's recommendation in the Northwest Territory, they did employ his idea in creating states in the West that were similar in both shape and size.
For instance, Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Wyoming, North Dakota, and South Dakota all stretch over approximately seven degrees of longitude (about 483 miles wide); similarly, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota are approximately three degrees of latitude (about 207 miles tall).
Moreover, as cross-country railroads became a more feasible mode of transportation, the shapes of states ceased to be dictated by natural river routes. Instead, the location of railway tracks came to determine the boundaries of individual states. Similarly, the construction of the Erie Canal had a significant influence on the shaping of states in the regions it traversed.
On another note, the issue of slavery fundamentally impacted the shape of states included in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. The Missouri Compromise of 1818 effectively established the practice of determining state borders based on where slavery was legal. Thus, slavery was permissible in states with northern borders located below the latitude of 36 degrees, 30 minutes, with the sole exception of Missouri.
Lastly, two states merit special attention in this context: California and Texas. Unlike other states, these two states had the liberty of deciding their own borders. Other states and Congress had no choice but to accept their proposed boundaries due to their political clout and the potential danger of their secession in the event of territorial discord.
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