My geography book -- and why it'll never get written

PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island, February 17, 2007 -- As an old geography geek, I'm one of those people who love to stare at maps.  And when I look up at the sky, I don't see pictures of sea creatures, unicorns, or whatever most people imagine -- to me, the clouds always end up looking like countries and continents.  "Hey, that one's a good Scandinavia," I'll decide, "and there's an Africa, which fits in pretty well with the South America over there!"

Anyhow, I've also always had a fascination with the map of the United States, how states came to be in odd the shapes they're in, and how the borders got to be where they are.  Some are defined by geographic features -- usually rivers.  For example, New Hampshire and Vermont are separated by the Connecticut River (for the most part; there's a small section where that's not the case -- but I'm getting ahead of myself), and California and Arizona are separated by the Colorado.  That sort of thing.  But then, take a look at the border between Illinois and Indiana.  Most of the way down, it's a straight north-south line, and then, just southwest of Terre Haute, it begins to follow the Wabash River, from which point the river and the border coincide all the way down the two states.  Almost, that is.


There are pieces of Indiana that are on the "wrong" side of the Wabash, over with Illinois, because the river moved.

If you look closely (easily accomplished with a hybrid map/photo on Google Maps or other satellite mapping tools), you can see that the border does not follow the current course of the river -- it follows where the river used to go but doesn't anymore. Just south of York, IL, there's a place where the border jogs east for a mile or so, then bends south and back to the west, rejoining the river about half a mile south of where it departed.  The river used to meander to the east that way, but because of erosional processes that caused it to change course and take a shortcut, it now goes south.  The border -- going along the old course of the river -- cuts through an area of some trees, then through what we geography geeks call an "oxbow lake" (a cutoff meander that used to be part of the river but is no more) and back out to the river's current path.

We're cut off!

There are a few other places where the border does the same thing -- the border is a fixed line, but the river is not. There are also a few places where you can tell that it's going to happen again (exactly when may depend on how effective manmade attempts to constrain the river with levees might be at delaying the inevitable) -- a piece of Illinois that is now together with the rest of the state, on the West side of the Wabash, will get cut off, and it'll end up over with Indiana, on the east side, when the river changes course again.  Predictably, there are also pieces of Indiana that are on the "wrong" side of the Wabash, over with Illinois, because the river moved.  Further down, after the Wabash joins the Ohio, the same thing happens with the border between Illinois and Kentucky; the Ohio, like most rivers, meanders over time, and parts of each state get cut off from the rest of the state.  The same thing happens along the Mississippi, between Illinois and Missouri.  The village of Kaskaskia, IL is on the west side of the river, cut off from the rest of the state.  Wikipedia provides a short description of how that happened:

Most of the town was destroyed in April of 1881 by flooding. In that month, the Mississippi River, which then served as the state's western border, cut across an  oxbow and carved a new channel through much of the former town. The people of Kaskaskia, startled to find themselves on the Missouri side of the river, demanded that the state boundary conform to the old channel. Kaskaskia is therefore one of the few portions of Illinois west of the Mississippi. The state boundary line follows the old riverbed, now a creek or bayou.

That's an example of some material that would go into a book that, for years, I've wanted to write: The State Borders and How They Got That Way.  Other examples include the Kentucky Bend, Minnesota's Northwest Angle, and one that had piqued my curiosity for a long time, the Southwick Jog in Massachusetts. Full discussion of each of these would take more time than I have this weekend, and would also require travel to each location to obtain ground truth.  These days, you can do quick-and-dirty research on just about any subject with Wikipedia and Google Maps.  If I were to sit down and make an attempt to actually write the book, these sources would undoubtedly be my first cut at each state border area, followed by on-the-ground research at the sites themselves.  This image of the Kentucky Bend, from Wikipedia, illustrates what I'm talking about:

Kentucky Bend

What's even more interesting -- albeit probably just in a time-wasting, geography-geek sort of way -- is to picture what the map will look like in the future, after the river changes course again and cuts off the Kentucky Bend from the south. Let's assume that the river takes the shortest path, cutting across at what is now the narrowest point of the peninsula that includes the Kentucky Bend.  If that happens, it'll probably cut off a tiny bit of Tennessee along with the Bend, attaching them to Missouri by land, and leaving the map with tiny bits of Kentucky and Tennessee isolated from the rest of their states.

Get out there!

(Doing all of this on-line sounds too much like cheating -- and it's also dangerous, as the Wikipedia article on the Southwick Jog contains erroneous information, which I discovered by reading the article by the Rev. Edward R. Dodge that is linked from Southwick's site.  Rev. Dodge's 15-page article on the Southwick Jog is quite well researched and delves into a lot of Colonial history -- because that information is essential if you want to understand how Massachusetts and Connecticut determined their borders, why the border between them was in dispute for so long, and how the Southwick Jog came into being as a way of resolving the matter.  Now, have I piqued your interest enough to make you go off and read Rev. Dodge's article?  Once you're done with this one, that is.)

The further down the Lower Mississippi you go, the more frequent -- and strange-looking -- the border jogs, to the point where there are many small sections of Mississippi and Louisiana that are on the "wrong" side of the river. 
In any case, you see what I'm getting at.  The state borders, while looking fairly obvious at first glance, are anything but.  When you start taking a look at where the lines actually are, you start asking a lot of questions.  And when you start delving into the history of how the lines ended up where they are, it's not as simple as you'd have thought -- or at least as I'd have thought.


The State Borders and How They Got That Way is not going to get written, because it's too big a subject!

I should also add that my intent here is not to trivialize or make fun of these geographic oddities.  Often, when a big river like the Mississippi changes course, it's because of catastrophic floods -- and in the case of the Kentucky Bend, there were also land and jurisdictional disputes that resulted in people being shot.  In other cases -- for example, the centuries-long border dispute between Massachusetts and Connecticut that led to the eventual deal involving the Southwick Jog -- the main issue was money.  To be more specific, tax money.  The general rule seems to be that a town does not change states because the river moved -- if that happened, the "new" state would get tax revenue from the town it acquired.  That, as far as I can tell, is the main reason why you get these funny-looking borders along meandering rivers.  Where a border dispute is caused by a surveying error (as in MA/CT), no state wants to give up tax revenue just because the state line may have been drawn in the wrong place and is being corrected at a later date.  But in any case, when you start delving into the history... it turns out that there's a lot of history to delve into.

That's why The State Borders and How They Got That Way is not going to get written; it's too big a subject!  Well, it's also probably not of interest to enough people to get a publisher to pay someone like me to travel around the country for a few years and interview all the state, city, and county officials, local historians, and crusty old-timers in rocking chairs to find out the history of exactly how and why each jog of the border got to be the way it is.  But it would make for great reading, if I (or someone better-qualified) had the time to write it....

Copyright © 2007 John J. Kafalas, except the Wikipedia image, which is in the public domain.


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