48 Altered States


I saw this intriguing map produced by Brian Brettschneider.

He made it on and for Twitter, as best I can determine. I found it from a stray post in Usenet newsgroup soc.history.what-if, dedicated to ways history could have gone otherwise. It also covers ways that it could not possibly have gone otherwise but would be interesting to see happen. Very different United States state boundaries are part of the latter set of things.

The location of these boundaries is described in English and so comes out a little confusing. It’s hard to make concise. Every point in, say, this alternate Missouri is closer to Missouri’s capital of … uhm … Missouri City than it is to any other state’s capital. And the same for all the other states. All you kind readers who made it through my recent A To Z know a technical term for this. This is a Voronoi Diagram. It uses as its basis points the capitals of the (contiguous) United States.

It’s an amusing map. I mean amusing to people who can attach concepts like amusement to maps. It’d probably be a good one to use if someone needed to make a Risk-style grand strategy game map and didn’t want to be to beholden to the actual map.

No state comes out unchanged, although a few don’t come out too bad. Maine is nearly unchanged. Michigan isn’t changed beyond recognition. Florida gets a little weirder but if you showed someone this alternate shape they’d recognize the original. No such luck with alternate Tennessee or alternate Wyoming.

The connectivity between states changes a little. California and Arizona lose their border. Washington and Montana gain one; similarly, Vermont and Maine suddenly become neighbors. The “Four Corners” spot where Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona converge is gone. Two new ones look like they appear, between New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut; and between Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia. I would be stunned if that weren’t just because we can’t zoom far enough in on the map to see they’re actually a pair of nearby three-way junctions.

I’m impressed by the number of borders that are nearly intact, like those of Missouri or Washington. After all, many actual state boundaries are geographic features like rivers that a Voronoi Diagram doesn’t notice. How could Ohio come out looking anything like Ohio?

The reason comes to historical subtleties. At least once you get past the original 13 states, basically the east coast of the United States. The boundaries of those states were set by colonial charters, with boundaries set based on little or ambiguous information about what the local terrain was actually like, and drawn to reward or punish court factions and favorites. Never mind the original thirteen (plus Maine and Vermont, which we might as well consider part of the original thirteen).

After that, though, the United States started drawing state boundaries and had some method to it all. Generally a chunk of territory would be split into territories and later states that would be roughly rectangular, so far as practical, and roughly similar in size to the other states carved of the same area. So for example Missouri and Alabama are roughly similar to Georgia in size and even shape. Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri are about equal in north-south span and loosely similar east-to-west. Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and North Dakota aren’t too different in their north-to-south or east-to-west spans.

There’s exceptions, for reasons tied to the complexities of history. California and Texas get peculiar shapes because they could. Michigan has an upper peninsula for quirky reasons that some friend of mine on Twitter discovers every three weeks or so. But the rough guide is that states look a lot more similar to one another than you’d think from a quick look. Mark Stein’s How The States Got Their Shapes is an endlessly fascinating text explaining this all.

If there is a loose logic to state boundaries, though, what about state capitals? Those are more quirky. One starts to see the patterns when considering questions like “why put California’s capital in Sacramento instead of, like, San Francisco?” or “Why Saint Joseph instead Saint Louis or Kansas City?” There is no universal guide, but there are some trends. Generally states end up putting their capitals in a city that’s relatively central, at least to the major population centers around the time of statehood. And, generally, not in one of the state’s big commercial or industrial centers. The desire to be geographically central is easy to understand. No fair making citizens trudge that far if they have business in the capital. Avoiding the (pardon) first tier of cities has subtler politics to it; it’s an attempt to get the government somewhere at least a little inconvenient to the money powers.

There’s exceptions, of course. Boston is the obviously important city in Massachusetts, Salt Lake City the place of interest for Utah, Denver the equivalent for Colorado. Capitals relocated; Atlanta is Georgia’s eighth(?) I think since statehood. Sometimes they were weirder. Until 1854 Rhode Island rotated between five cities, to the surprise of people trying to name a third city in Rhode Island. New Jersey settled on Trenton as compromise between the East and West Jersey capitals of Perth Amboy and Burlington. But if you look for a city that’s fairly central but not the biggest in the state you get to the capital pretty often.

So these are historical and cultural factors which combine to make a Voronoi Diagram map of the United States strange, but not impossibly strange, compared to what has really happened. Things are rarely so arbitrary as they seem at first.

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Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there.

4 thoughts on “48 Altered States”

  1. New Zealand’s provincial borders were devised at much the same time as the midwestern and western US and in much the same way. Some guy with a map that only vaguely showed rivers, and a ruler. Well, when I say ‘some guy’ I mean George Grey, Edward Eyre and their factotum, Alfred Domett among only a handful of others. Early colonial New Zealand was like that. The civil service consisted of about three people (all of them Domett) and because the franchise system meant some voting districts might have as few as 25 electors, anybody had at least a 50/50 chance of becoming Prime Minister.

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    1. I am intrigued and delighted to learn this! For all that I do love maps and seeing how borders evolve over time I’m stronger on United States and Canadian province borders; they’re just what was easily available when I grew up. (Well, and European boundaries, but I don’t think there’s a single one of them that’s based on anything more than “this is where the armies stood on V-E Day”.)

      Would you have a recommendation on a pop history of New Zealand for someone who knows only, mostly, that I guess confederation with Australia was mooted in 1900 but refused since the islands are actually closer to the Scilly Isles than they are Canberra for crying out loud?

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  2. Europe has had so many boundary changes since Roman times that I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a tradition for governments to issue people with an eraser and pot of paint to update their maps – and, no question, their history IS the history of those boundary changes. Certainly it explains their wars…

    On matters NZ, I wrote just such a book – it was first published in 2004 and has been through a couple of editions (I updated it in 2012). My publishers, Bateman, put it up on Kindle:

    It’s ‘publisher priced’ but I’d thoroughly recommend it! :-) The parallels between NZ’s settler period and the US ‘midwestern’ expansion through to California at the same time are direct.

    The reasons why NZ never joined Australia in 1900 have been endlessly debated and never answered but probably had something to do with the way NZ was socially re-identifying itself with Britain at the time. The British ignored the whole thing for defence/strategic purposes, deploying just one RN squadron to Sydney as the ‘mid point’ of Australasia. Sydney-siders liked it, but everybody from Perth to Wellington was annoyed. I wrote my thesis on the political outcome, way back when.

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    1. Aw, thank you kindly! I’d thought you might have something suitable.

      The organizing of territory that white folks told themselves was unsettled is a process I find interesting, I suppose because I’ve always wondered about how one goes about establishing systems. I think it’s similar to my interest in how nations devastated by wars get stuff like trash collection and fire departments and regional power systems running again. The legal system for at least how the United States organized territory is made clear enough in public schools (at least to students who pay attention, like me), but it isn’t easy to find the parallel processes in other countries. Now and then I try reading about Canada and how two of every seven sections of land in (now) Quebec and Ontario was reserved to the church and then I pass out and by the time I wake up again they’re making infrastructure promises to Prince Edward Island.

      I’m not surprised that from the British side of things the organization of New Zealand and Australia amounted to a bit of afterthought and trusting things would work out all right. I have read a fair bit (for an American) about the British Empire and it does feel like all that was ever thought about was India and the route to India and an ever-widening corridor of imagined weak spots on the route to India. The rest of the world was, pick some spot they had already, declare it “the Gibraltar of [ Geographic Region ]” and suppose there’d be a ship they could send there if they really had to.

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