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American States That Might Have Been

The strange history of states that never were, and their arbitrary borders.

History, Michael Trinklein explains, is filled with states that might have been, but weren't. Connecticut once claimed land that stretched to the Pacific Ocean. McDonald County threatened secession from Missouri when it was left off a state travel map in 1961. New Mexico might have entered the union in 1875, not 1912, had its delegate in Congress avoided a handshake with an unpopular congressman.

Those are some of the stories from Lost States, Trinklein's short, fanciful, funny new book. Lost States features Forgottonia, Vandalia, Absaroka and 71 other states that failed before they started.

Some of the tales are good stories about places that never really had a chance at statehood, such as the tiny sliver of Dakota Territory that was located between Idaho, Montana and Wyoming: Lost Dakota. Others focus on foreign lands that, for one reason or another, once were considered for statehood: Cuba, Iceland, Panama, England, Guyana and Albania.

Perhaps the most interesting stories, though, are the ones that tell how today's states might have been reconfigured. From these stories, it's easy to conclude that the state borders we all know are completely arbitrary -- or that they were designed to encourage political, economic and cultural incoherence. The Arizona and New Mexico territories were originally divided by an east-west line drawn by the Confederate government, but the Union later rejected that border. Southern land was grafted to territory stretching to Lake Michigan to keep Illinois oriented toward the North -- no wonder Chicago pondered statehood in the 1920s. The east-west lines that divide the Great Plains states were drawn to create states balanced by wet, populous areas in the East and arid areas to the West. To this day, the design has created political tension, including the 1992 West Kansas statehood movement.

Trinklein's lesson from all of this is that we shouldn't assume our current state lines are the final word. "Our borders might seem fixed," he says, "but they're really fluid and they've always changed." Still, no existing state has splintered since Virginia in 1863. The political and logistical obstacles to doing so are huge.

The lesson, then, may be that states -- and the regions within them that tend to bicker -- must embrace their incoherence. No one would draw today's borders if we started from scratch, but no one is going to start from scratch. Plus, there's something to be said for a system that forces dissimilar regions to find a way to work together.

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Josh Goodman

Josh Goodman is a former staff writer for GOVERNING..

Twitter: @governing


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