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by Mark Stein



352pp/$22.95/May 2008

How the States Got Their Shapes

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

When looking at a map of the United States, the boundaries of the states seem unchanging, some borders obviously follow rivers while others are straight lines, clearly drawn for expedience.  In a few cases, there are aspects of a stateís shape the do make you wonder what the surveyors and cartographers were thinking.  Mark Stein not only answers the obvious questions, but also delves into the less obvious and even mundane answers to explain How the States Got Their Names.

At the beginning of the book, Stein offers a chapter which he calls ďDonít Skip This,Ē in which he explains some of the basics of state formation. Throughout the rest of the book, he continuously refers back to this chapter, so actually reading it is a good idea. In it, he explains some commonalities between several states and lays the groundwork for the variety of exceptions which will follow.

Each of the fifty state chapters begins with a question or series of questions about the stateís shape to hook the reader in.  Obviously, these questions will all be answered in the subsequent pages (although in some cases, since the shape of a state is often dependent on the neighboring statesí claims, Stein directs the reader to other parts of the book, not just ďDonít Skip This.Ē)  Stein looks at the boundaries that form the four cardinal directions, explain the politics behind the state and why there have been deviations from the way the state was initially contemplated. His style, when he does this, is  nice conversational style.

While the chapters do provide historical and geographical context, often Stein only touches cursorily on the most interesting aspects behind the stateís shapes.  When discussing the Toledo War in both the chapters on Ohio and Michigan, he gives a quick outline of what happened, but doesnít go into any real depth on the events. The war is germane to the statesí shapes, the specifics arenít. Unfortunately, in many cases, those tangential facts are as interesting as the ones included.

One thing that does become clear in Steinís book is that the boundaries didnít just occur, even when they run along a river or mountain crest.  Individuals were involved, such as Sidney Edgerton, who helped carve a slice of Montana out of Idaho.  Similarly the boundaries arenít always settled once a state is formed.  Kentucky has frequently laid claim to all of the Ohio River to the North bankís high water mark and land on the opposite side of the river when the river changes its bed. In some of the early instances of state (or colony) formation, religion played a large role as well.

Although there are maps throughout the book, How the States Got Their Names is best read with a more detailed atlas to allow the reader to fully visualize the intricacies of geography that Stein describes and which arenít completely illustrated by the bookís own maps.

The short chapters, subject matter, and Steinís light style make the book easy to read straight through, although it can also be dipped into a chapter at a time for some light, but informative, reading. Stein provides a cogent mix of history, politics, and geography in explaining why the fifty states that make up the United States look the way they do, as well as a reminder that no matter how natural some of the borders appear, they were all laid out by men who had a motive.

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