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How the States got their Shapes

Natural and man-made influences on how the states got their shapes as well as names.

1. The History of Statehood

From the beginning of time and even during its progressive years, the Congress of the United States adopted a new plan to admit its neighboring and western states into the Union. With equal status as the thirteen original colonies, the region first became a territory with a limited government. Then, once the population reached the number of 60,000, the legislature could submit to its voters a proposal for drafting. It was sent to the US Congress with an application for statehood.

2. Distinguishable & Indistinguishable States

When you look at the map of the United States of America, you can easily identify certain states that have peculiar shapes. For instance, you can recognize Texas and Florida at one glance because of how unique their shapes are.

However, other states have similar shapes and it isn’t easy to differentiate one from the other. For example, it might be difficult to tell apart South Dakota from North Dakota without looking at the full map. (See What City in the United States uses the AreaAcode 800?)

3. Natural Geography Defining Boundaries

The division or shapes of the earliest states weren’t man-made. Their shapes were defined by natural geographic boundaries, such as rivers & mountainsides. For example, the Ohio River defines the southern boundary of Indiana. The Colorado River separates California from Arizona.

4. Proposal by Thomas Jefferson

The earliest states varied wildly in shape and size but this did not sit well with Thomas Jefferson who believed in equality. Hence, he suggested that future states be equal in shape and size based on longitude and latitude. Therefore, in the creation of more states, Congress used the same method as suggested by Jefferson to bring about similar shapes and sizes.

5. Man-made Factors

  • As civilization progressed, cross-country railroads were constructed. At this point, the shapes of states didn’t depend solely on the natural routes of rivers. Instead, the railroad routes began to shape where one state ended and another began.
  • The Erie Canal also served as an influence on how the states got their shapes.
  • The issue of slavery was another man-made factor that helped to mold the shapes of states.

Hence, this is how the states got their shapes.

6. Issues over Borders of Iowa

After multiple false starts, finally, one of the proposals was approved in the year 1844. Though it took two more years before Congress and Iowa could agree on the terms and conditions of a constitution. Yet, there were a lot of topics and issues that were debatable but the borders of Iowa were not the first to face such a situation. Since Missouri was already taken in and admitted as a state, Iowa’s southern section of the border was already established.

When this constitutional proposal from Iowa reached Congress, the Northern smaller states’ interests started to redraw the western borders leading to Iowa. But they ended up rejecting it due to the small space that was provided to them as their borders. This resulted in the whole measure being a complete failure. Looking at the matters at hand, and as to how this decision was leading to constant clashes, the terms were negotiated and compromises were made that lead to the final establishment of the Iowan borders as we know them today.

Even to this day, issues relating to borders still arise from time to time, and though drastic methods were not done in the name of change, but imagine the shape of the United States and its neighboring states being a little out of place. Well, all of it would have just felt odd. (Also read 6 Most Liberal Cities in the United States)

7. State Shapes and Names

While the origins of some States are unconfirmed or disputed, the majority have definitive etymology.

  • Some states were named after the native tribes that lived in the land, such as, Dakota, Indiana, Illinois, and Kansas.
  • While others were named after the kings and queens of the empires who sent explorers to colonize them.
  • Some others were named after their rivers like Connecticut, Delaware, Minnesota, and Colorado.
  • States like Washington, Maryland, Virginia, Louisiana, Georgia, and New York are named after influential people.

8. The Television Series

How the states got their shapes used to be a television show that was broadcasted back in the year 2010. It continued to entertain and inform us about the different states till the year 2012. The show had two seasons, and a total of 29 episodes. The show dealt with the topic of how the various states of the United States established their borders. In addition, it also discussed matters like the history, local culture, proposed new states, failed states, and other related topics.

It aired an additional special episode telecast on the History Channel hosted by Brian Unger which held its discussions based on a book written by Mark Stein with the same title: How the states got their shapes.


Written by Alex Williams

Alex Williams is a PhD student in urban studies and planning. He is broadly interested in the historical geographies of capital, the geopolitical economy of urbanization, environmental and imperial history, critical urban theory, and spatial dialectics.

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