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Blame Thomas Jefferson

Have you ever noticed that there aren’t any square states back east? As a devotee of all things trivial, I spend a considerable amount of time (some might say exorbitant) pondering such things. Fortunately there is a book and a subsequent television special which addresses this very subject. (How the States Got Their Shapes) In this particular instance I was ahead of the curve, having researched the subject already. But that didn’t stop me from eagerly reading the book and viewing the documentary anyway!

So here’s the scoop: upon arriving in the New World colonial settlers were too occupied with survival to have time to stake out tidy land claims. As a result, town plats, private property, and later colonial boundaries were inevitably based on natural landmarks such as ditches, hills, rivers, oceanfront, etc. Few things in nature are straight lines, so their political and otherwise man-made boundaries reflected the topography of the land instead.

This worked just fine until Thomas Jefferson came on the scene. America’s ultimate enlightenment philosopher, Jefferson also dabbled in inventions, experimental agriculture and was a consummate organizer. (He spent decades

putting the finishing touches on his Virginia plantation house, Monticello, only to end up repeatedly overhauling his previous improvements, almost literally until his death.)

And that was just his personal life. Like today’s Senator Elizabeth Warren, he had a plan for everything, from founding his home state’s colonial - and later state - university, writing endless political documents (including, famously, the Declaration of Independence). He even wrote his own bible!

So of course, he had a plan for carving up North America into future states as the population grew - and incidentally was largely responsible for that rapid growth by signing the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.

I happen to live in one of these so-called “square states out West” which he envisioned, and I never fly over this vast expanse - with its perfectly square lot lines, fences and roads laid out with precise right angles everywhere - without observing in awe. The state lines can’t be seen from the air, of course, but they too are often formed by perfect right angles. (I wonder what he would have thought of the circular irrigation systems which currently dot America’s agricultural landscape, seemingly in defiance of his perfect squares!) Nevertheless, I think he would be pleased. He has brought order to chaotic Mother Nature - and

that, after all, was his intention in the first place.

And yet, as North Dakota historian Clay Jenkinson has observed, “Mr. Jefferson’s rectangular survey grid system of section line roads breaks down on the lip of the Little Missouri River Valley [where Theodore Roosevelt lived for most of seven years in the 1880s]. That’s always a sign that something wild is about to happen.”

Shebby Lee is a historian, writer and tour operator specializing in the historic and cultural heritage of the Great American West. She is a frequent presenter at numerous history conferences and trade association meetings.  Her early training was in the theatre and she served a tour of duty as an entertainer with the USO. She is also an Admiral in the Nebraska Navy.

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