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American Boundaries

The Nation, the States, the Rectangular Survey

For anyone who has looked at a map of the United States and wondered how Texas and Oklahoma got their Panhandles, or flown over the American heartland and marveled at the vast grid spreading out in all directions below, American Boundaries will yield a welcome treasure trove of insight. The first book to chart the country’s growth using the boundary as a political and cultural focus, Bill Hubbard’s masterly narrative begins by explaining how the original thirteen colonies organized their borders and decided that unsettled lands should be held in trust for the common benefit of the people. Hubbard goes on to show—with the help of photographs, diagrams, and hundreds of maps—how the notion evolved that unsettled land should be divided into rectangles and sold to individual farmers, and how this rectangular survey spread outward from its origins in Ohio, with surveyors drawing straight lines across the face of the continent.   
Mapping how each state came to have its current shape, and how the nation itself formed within its present borders, American Boundaries will provide historians, geographers, and general readers alike with the fascinating story behind those fifty distinctive jigsaw-puzzle pieces that together form the United States.

472 pages | 317 halftones | 8 1/2 x 11 | © 2009

Architecture: American Architecture

Geography: Cartography

History: American History


“For all of us who are fascinated by America’s political geography—with its odd mixture of straight lines, right angles, and quirky panhandles—American Boundaries is the closest thing we have to a definitive treatment of this essential but oft-neglected subject. It answers more questions about our literal political landscape than even scholars can ask. And it is also a labor of love, a tribute to the fine art of surveying that subjected woodlands, mountains, and fruited plains to the mathematical discipline of the rectangular survey.”

Jack N. Rakove, author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning Original Meanings

“John McPhee exposed the geological story under our country’s diverse ecological regions. Bill Hubbard, in his book American Boundaries, reveals in his detailed history of the American Rectangular Survey the political maneuverings, technological inventions, mathematical problems, environmental situations, and cultural conflict involved in the conversion of the wilderness geology to a productive democratic urban landscape for a fast-growing nation. As our nation faces the tasks of civilizing metropolitan suburban sprawl and taking measure of the realities of global climate change, we need to address the issues of setting the next new public domain boundaries. Whatever the final form, Hubbard’s book reminds us that the future of a vital nation is tied to how we as a country set out ‘fair’ boundaries that unite us into communities rather than subdividing land into a segregated society.”

William R. Morrish, author of Civilizing Terrains: Mountains, Mounds, and Mesas

“Americans identify with and feel strong ties to particular places—suburban homesites, historic farms and ranches, national parks, and states. Each of those places receives its definition from borders and boundaries produced by a historical process, astonishing in its scale and enterprise, of determining and drawing lines on the land. In a remarkable work of synthesis and reflection, Bill Hubbard guides us through this wildly complicated story with both clarity and enthusiasm. Reading this book—and just as important, pondering its many maps and illustrations—gives both residents of and visitors to the opportunity to escape the temptation to take our current arrangements for granted and, instead, to contemplate the choices and decisions that literally laid out the terms of our lives on the land.”

Patricia Nelson Limerick, author of Legacy of Conquest and Something in the Soil

"[Hubbard] has done what he clearly set out to do: weave together a history of our boundaries in a thoughtful and provocative way. In this sense, American Boundaries is both a welcome addition to cartographic history and a major project that will encourage more research into the development, standardization, and theoretical implications of place."

Matthew D. Mingus | Material Culture

Table of Contents

Introduction: Boundaries in the United States as the Manifest Division of the Nation’s Lands
Overview; The Maps in the Book      
1: The Colonies Stake Claims to Land in the West      
2: The Idea of a National Domain Emerges          
3: The National Domain Expands             
4: A Method of Forming New States Emerges         
5: The Evolution of the Territories and States     
Overview and Recap       
6: Inventing a Rectangular Survey in the Ordinance of 1785      
7: Putting a Rectangular Survey on the Ground in Ohio       
8: The Rectangular Survey Evolves into Its Final Form         
9: The Survey Is Extended across the Public Domain       
10: The Spread of the Survey across Montana         
Epilogue: Other Ways to Apportion a Public Domain         
Illustration Credits    


Foundation for Landscape Studies: John Brinckerhoff Jackson Book Prize in Landscape Studies

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