The List: Four Figures and One Animal Who Shaped the States

Explore the people behind the creation of the borders that form America’s states

Sequoyah Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

For most people, it’s not a big deal to cross from Ohio to Indiana, Washington to Oregon, or Texas to Louisiana. For New York Times best-selling author Mark Stein however, those borders represent centuries of treaties, negotiations, personal vendettas and national pride. Stein tells the stories behind the formation of the American states in his new book, How the States Got Their Shapes Too: The People Behind the Borderlines, published by our colleagues at Smithsonian Books, and a sequel to his best-seller How the States Got Their Shapes.. Here’s a preview of the explorers, politicians and, as the case may be, pigs, that are responsible for America as we know it:

1. Mason and Dixon: During the Civil War, the phrase was popularly used to mean the line between the free states of the North and the slave states of the South, a historical connotation it retains today. Although the Mason-Dixon line is well known in America, neither of its creators, Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, were American. In fact, they were accomplished British surveyors for whom the task of charting borders for the 18th-century American colonies was akin to “asking Mozart to play at the prom,” according to Stein. The pair took five years to define the boundary between Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware. And it is not just one line, it is actually three—the Mason-Dixon Lines.

2. Sequoyah: The only state line in the United States that preserves a treaty agreement with Native Americans is the border between Arkansas and Oklahoma. Sequoyah was a Cherokee leader (and inventor of the written Cherokee language) who helped form that border as part of a delegation that journeyed to Washington, D.C., in 1828, to come to an agreement over Cherokee territory. The resulting treaty moved Arkansas’ western border eastward and forced the Cherokee to migrate west. The tribe was unhappy with the agreement, and even threatened Sequoyah with death. Their anger faded over time, however, and Sequoyah was eventually able to return to his (now slightly more western) home.

3. Brigham Young: Brigham Young was a Mormon leader who played an integral part in forming the boundaries of Utah. After the United States took control of the region following the Mexican War, Young and his followers petitioned Congress to have the area entered into the Union as the State of Deseret, which spread expansively throughout the Great Basin, incorporating parts of modern-day Wyoming to the north, Colorado and New Mexico to the east, most of Nevada and parts of California to the west and the majority of Arizona to the south. Instead, Congress created the Utah Territory, which although smaller than the proposed State of Deseret, was still much larger than modern Utah. Young served as governor of the territory from 1850 to 1857, but Utah didn’t become an official state until 1896.

4. Lyman Cutler’s Neighbor’s Pig: Lyman Cutler was a 19th-century resident of the San Juan Islands, located off the coast of Washington state. On June 15, 1859, Cutler, an American, shot a pig belonging to his British neighbor because it was irritating him. Incredibly, the incident set off a series of events that led the United States and Britain nearly to the brink of war. At the time, the ownership of the islands was disputed between the two nations. When an American general heard of the pig’s demise and saw that tensions were running high, he ordered that American troops be placed on the islands. Britain reacted, and “within eight weeks, one man’s shooting of a pig had escalated to sixty heavily fortified American troops, backed by 400 offshore reinforcements, facing British battleships aiming 167 cannons at them and transporting some 2,000 troops,” according to Stein. The standoff ended, only as the Army became distracted by events leading up to the Civil War. But it wasn’t until 12 years later, that the U.S. was finally granted possession of the islands—even then, the dispute had to be decided by an impartial party from Germany. But that’s another story.

William H. Seward. Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

5. William H. Seward: William Seward was Secretary of State under Abraham Lincoln, and the man responsible for the United States’ purchase of Alaska. The Civil War was once again influential in the creation of the new state. An opponent of the war, Seward believed Alaska would strengthen the bond between the West Coast and the rest of the country. Seward hoped that the acquisition would distract from some of the tension between the North and the South. The plan obviously didn’t work, but after the war had ended, Seward continued to pursue the purchase. At 4 AM on the day that the Russians accepted the deal in 1867, Seward helped compose a treaty on the dinner table in his family home. The Senate ratified the treaty later that year and the U.S. paid $7.2 million for the state of Alaska, or a paltry $109 million in today’s dollars.

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