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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