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How the States Got Their Shapes


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Quick note--Dave Doyle was featured on the show How the States Got Their Shapes last night on History Channel. Although he didn't mention benchmarks, or benchmarkers, he did describe what geodetic surveying is. Also on the show is a short segment about surveying in the 1700s.


This show is notable on the History Channel for not being shown repeatedly ad nauseum. I can't find this show on again in the near future, nor can I find any reference to it on the website other than the two times it was shown last night.


I had just finished the book the show is based on and found the TV show much more interesting.


Since I can't find this show on again I will burn it to DVD for "archival purposes". Please contact me if you wish you had seen this show. :P

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I saw the show at a friend's house and found it somewhat interesting, particularly the two segments you mention plus a couple other facts I wasn't aware of.


I was disappointed with how brief the survey reenactors appearance was. On the POB forum Dave Ingram, who got a few seconds on the program, said that they filmed over an hour with several retakes, just to use less than a minute. That was done at the Surveyors Historical Society gathering last fall in West Virginia where they were retracing an actual historical line using period equipment. Sounds like that event would have been worth a half-hour program all by itself (at least for some of us if not the general public).


I was disappointed that they did the build-up for why western states are "boxy" but then didn't spend a half-minute on the public land survey system of townships and sections. There was a flash of an aerial view of section-line roads somewhere but not well tied in. A quick illustration of convergence of meridians and curved parallels of latitude would fit there. That would have made a great lead in to Dave's segment about doing the best they could to follow straight lines.


I was reminded why I don't routinely watch television. If you aren't attention deficit going in, it will make you that way. The real content could have been put in one hour, or else the two hours used to fill in the stories with more meat. The teasers are annoying. There was no reason every map view needed to keep rotating. The trivia questions were ok because they gave you something to talk about during the commercials, but there was no value added by the call-in scores by state. Guess I'm old and easily get sensory overload.

Edited by Bill93
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The book is "How the States Got their Shapes" by Mark Stein. Stein had a number of explanatory scenes during the two hours. The book is much better than the show. There is a section on each State, obviously with much more information. I recommend.

Edited by tosborn
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If you aren't attention deficit going in, it will make you that way.


LOL! Bill hit a home run with that comment!


Seriously, I figured it was my ADD which caused me to become frustrated with the pace of the show. (I almost didn't make it through the football segment in the beginning.) Glad to know I wasn't the only one who wanted them to get to the point!


The period surveyors were great--and it was impressive to hear how many Big Names from our Nation's past were surveyors. (Also, that was interesting trivia about the folks on Mt. Rushmore.)


The stories about the states were interesting, too....just spaced too widely apart. I think I'll purchase the book.






A very inspirational story about ADD:

"So This Is What Normal Feels Like."

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I just sent the book on to another Paperbackswap member. I guess I should have offered it around here first.


I wasn't impressed with the book. Stein chose to arrange the book alphabetically by state, and that put me off quite a bit. It led to a lot of duplication--four or so times per state to be honest as he rehashed each border--so we got to hear about Delaware's arc in the Delaware chapter, the Maryland chapter, and the Pennsylvania Chapter, in that order. At times he would reference other chapters--"for more information see Delaware" but at times the same information was presented in multiple states. I found myself fighting to finish it--it was what I consider a "painful read".


I wondered as I read the book, and even more so now, if the reasoning behind the organization of the book was to fill space. If he had described each border only once it would have been half the size. To me the book would have been much more readable if it had been arranged chronologically. I also thought the maps were often too small and some were very hard to understand.


As for the show, I agree with the others. It was fragmented and targeted to a typical television audience with no ability to understand anything of depth. I never like when shows spend time doing "man on the street" questioning. I don't CARE what the man on the street knows or doesn't know. It is totally irrelevant. Additionally, the time spent on the football game was wasted. The surveying part though! Nicely done and way too short. The show did have some good visuals of the borders, which filled in some of the holes the book left.


By the time I got done with the book (and, later, the show) I really wasn't in the mood for any more border information. The only really interesting piece of information I got from both was regarding Ellis Island. I will not spill the beans about the details, but it was the only true "Ah Ha!" moment I got from the book (the show wasted a lot of time with a tour of an Ellis Island hospital, which had absolutely nothing to do with its borders).


To summarize--I wouldn't exactly recommend the book unequivocally, but if you are interested in the states and their shapes, it is the only game in town. The information is there. Stein's writing style is very readable and the maps help. I just would have liked to see less duplication, and less "refer to..." in the book.


As for the show, a similar recommendation. The good parts make it worth the watch, perhaps with a thumb on the fast forward button. It is well filmed and the host is good. Dave should have showed a tri-station and mentioned the great work that benchmark hunters are doing though! (perhaps he did and it ended up on the cutting room floor).

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I suppose two borders I was interested in aren't as interesting to the general public, but I had a tiny hope that they might get a brief mentions.


The CO-NM border we discussed here at length a few years ago was one, since it had multiple surveys and a Supreme Court decision. Also the Iowa-Missouri border that is near where I grew up. I have the 1851 Supreme Court volume with that case. I guess a lot of borders went to the Supreme Court.

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Given the general audience Mark Stein's book was written for, most people probably won't read every State chapter. They will read about their own State, a couple of neighboring States, the State where Aunt Martha lives, and maybe one or two others. I think Stein decided that despite the duplication, it was best to have a chapter for each State that presented all the borders of that State, rather than having the reader jumping around all over the book.


But there is another even more recent book that you might find more to your liking. It is called "American Boundaries: The Nation, The States, The Rectangular Survey" by Bill Hubbard Jr. It is considerably more detailed than Mark Stein's book and treats the development of US boundaries in a chronological manner. Also, about 60 percent of the 450 page book is devoted to the invention, development, and practice of the Public Land Survey System. Ever wonder how a random line was corrected to establish the true position of a quarter corner? .....it's in there and illustrated.

Edited by tosborn
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If you didn't see the program, try to catch this rebroadcast.


I got the Hubbard book and find it a fairly good general review of the history of royal land grants and division of the country into territories and then states.


I also recommend its good introductory discussion of the rectangular public land survey system (PLSS) for those who want to know what townships, ranges, and sections are all about and why Ohio has so many angles to its roads. This discussion is nowhere as detailed and dry as Albert White's very technical history of the PLSS instructions.

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The show is definitely worth watching but has a lot of fluff in it. The graphics are decent and overall it is well presented. The host is likable. If you aren't an Ohio or Michigan football fan, beware of some lengthy side-trips to discuss the states' football rivalry though. It has a point but they take a while to get to it!

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If you like to read old US History look for a copy of U.S. Geological Survey "Boundaries of The United States and of the Several States and Territories with an outline of the History of all Important Changes of Territory" by Henry Gannett. Do a Google search and you'll find a PDF copy on line.

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