The Final Piece of the Puzzle


Did you know that Four Corners, USA – the only spot in America where four states come together – was recently discovered to be in the wrong place?

Or that Missouri’s “boot heel” in the far southeast corner of the state, only exists because one powerful land baron liked Missouri better than Arkansas?

Or that a tiny corner of Massachusetts got snipped off and given to New York because it was inaccessible to the rest of the state of Massachusetts, making it a haven for outlaws?

And just what is the deal with that round part of Delaware on top or that bump on the crown of Minnesota?

Have you ever wondered how the states got their shapes?

I have, and so has Mark Stein who wrote a book called (oddly enough) How the States Got Their Shapes (Smithsonian Books, 2008).

Stein, who writes screenplays for Steve Martin when he’s not busy studying cartography, filled his book with lots of interesting history about the backroom bickering, gerrymandering, surveying mistakes, and actual armed skirmishes that gave us our current map.

We are so accustomed to the current configuration of our country that we don’t even think about how with just a few changes (and perhaps a bit more logic) the place could have looked very different.

The final piece of the puzzle of the continental United States was fitted on this date in 1853 when the U.S. acquired 30,000 square miles of Mexican desert which gave Arizona and New Mexico their southern borders.

The acquisition came to be known as the Gadsden Purchase, which was named after James Gadsden, the man who negotiated the deal. Gadsden was the president of a railroad company that wanted to build a transcontinental line across the southern portion of the country. The only problem was that the most suitable path in the southwest went through Mexican territory.

President Franklin Pierce appointed Gadsden to negotiate the deal with Mexican president Santa Anna. The men first settled on a parcel of 39,000 square miles for $15 million (which was the price the U.S. paid for the entire Louisiana Purchase 50 years earlier, which was over twenty times larger).

After debates in congress, the government eventually shelled out $10 million for a chunk of land about 9,000 square miles smaller than the original parcel.

And this is why we can go to Tucson, Arizona today without a passport, rather than having to cross a border to go the Mexican state of Sonora.

(Tucson, Sonora doesn’t sound as weird as Los Angeles, Georgia, which is where I would live today if Georgia hadn’t given up its territorial claims which once stretched to the Pacific Ocean.)

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About deadwrite

Freelance writer, film historian, taphophile View all posts by deadwrite

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