Book details history found in shapes of all our states

  • Follow Glynn Moore

We've all seen a lot of maps of the United States lately. Red states and blue states. Undecided states and swing states. Landslide states and runoff states. Did you ever wonder, though, why our states look the way they do?

Mark Stein did, and so he wrote a book called How the States Got Their Shapes (2008, Smithsonian Books), and its 51 chapters detail how the boundaries of each state and the District of Columbia were derived.

In his introduction, Mr. Stein -- a Broadway playwright, Hollywood screenwriter, and college drama and writing instructor -- acknowledges that he had long wondered why each state is the shape and size it is. As I read his book, I learned an American history I had never heard before.

There are reasons, for example, why Colorado and Wyoming are similar rectangles with nearly the same area; why Wyoming cuts out a corner of Utah, ruining another rectangle; why Michigan's Upper Peninsula is actually attached to Wisconsin instead; and why Mississippi is a mirror image of Alabama. Let's deal with our state, though.

Georgia's shape and size have changed greatly over the years. England's charter called for the colony's northern boundary to extend from the headwaters of the Savannah River (northwest of us) straight west past Los Angeles (swimming pools, movie stars). That encroached French and Spanish claims, though, so a more realistic colony was drawn. (Say goodbye to Hollywood.)

A few years later to the south, The Battle of Bloody Marsh determined that the St. Marys River would separate us from Spanish Florida. That's why Georgia has a little appendage hanging down near its southeastern corner.

Our state's western boundary was determined after the Revolutionary War, when Georgia donated land to the federal government. The north-south Chattahoochee River would separate Georgia from the land it gave up, which was split into two states roughly the size of Georgia: Alabama and Mississippi.

After reading How the States Got Their Shapes, I was left with only a few questions. Why is Missouri shaped like a chubby Georgia, for instance, and why can Alaska's governor see Russia from her porch? Maybe a sequel will tell us all that.

MOORE WORDS: The other night, my wife said: "You grew up on a farm. Is 'maw' part of a barn? My novel says this man walked into the maw of the barn."

The only meaning of "maw" I knew was "mouth" or "throat," so I looked it up. I found it means the mouth, jaws, gullet or throat of a cud-chewing or carnivorous animal (picture the gaping jaws of a roaring grizzly bear).

A secondary meaning is a hole that devours something, or a huge, open space, so I suppose a barn can have a maw.

The word comes to us from the Germanic for "stomach," and, before that, "bellows" -- anything to do with "skin" or "bag."

"Mark my words," I told my wife. "Before I fall asleep tonight, I will encounter 'maw' in my own book. Stuff like that is always happening to me."

I went to sleep mawless. The next day, though, I read a news article about a businessman wondering how he could survive "in the maw of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression?"

Stuff like that is always happening to me.

Reach Glynn Moore at (706) 823-3419 or glynn.moore@augustachronicle.com.


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