History's 'How the States Got Their Shapes' 

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The simple answer for how the states got their shapes is water, right? The Mississippi River alone gives 10 states at least one of their boundaries, and 46 of the 50 states have water on a border.

But as this highly entertaining new History Channel series shows, there’s much more to the answer than that. Glaciers, trains, sweetheart deals, measurement errors – those are just some of the reasons you might not suspect.

Brian Unger, one of The Daily Show‘s original correspondents, hosts the show, which is based on Mark Stein’s book How the States Got Their Shapes. (Stein provides expert commentary.)

Unger takes us to places such as a still-disputed Tennessee-Georgia border, where an incorrectly drawn map gave Tennessee an extra 51 square miles of territory originally intended for Georgia. Those 51 square miles includes Nickajack Lake, which would be a welcome water supply for Georgia and— more specifically—Atlanta.

Unger tries to have some fun with the border dispute, visiting a bar that has the Tennessee-Georgia state line right down the middle as well as a street that would end up in Georgia if the border were to be moved. Considering that Georgia has petitioned nine times since 1890 for the border to be moved, no one seriously expects it to happen. But the people in those parts don’t take it lightly, either, and the host’s attempt at humor feels somewhat forced.

But Unger is genial, and the show does a good job making history fascinating and using the border stories as a jumping-off point to explore related issues. In the first two episodes, we learn about Maine’s abundance of water and the history of Poland Springs, how the Colorado River ended up as part of California’s border, why there’s a concerted effort to keep Asian carp out of Lake Michigan, how Chicago could have ended up in Wisconsin, the genesis of the tradition of dropping a ball to mark each new year and how trains help create standardized time zones in the United States.

All of it is presented in a fast-paced, entertaining manner that will leave most viewers saying, “Wow, I didn’t know that.” Exactly the point.


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Marc D. Allan

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