Why Is The Map Of The United States Shaped The Way It Is?

It is easy to identify that the United States of America map features an array of unique shapes. For instance, Florida and Texas have fascinating shapes that nearly everyone can recognize at first glance. However, several other states with similar shapes are difficult to recognize unless you view them in context on the entire United States of America map. Indeed, you may struggle to distinguish Colorado from Wyoming unless you view them in context because their shapes are similar. Many people have wondered why the states look the way they do, and there is no simple answer to explain this. Here are some factors that influenced the shape of America’s states and the map at large.

The Shape Of States

America has 50 states, meaning there are 50 unique stories explaining how each state acquired its shape. Mark Stein, famous author of the book “How the States Got Their Shapes,” is perhaps the biggest expert on this topic due to his extensive research. According to Stein, the biggest determinants of the shape of the United States of America’s map are the American revolution, railroad constructions, the proposal for the Erie Canal, and slavery. For instance, the American Revolution helped define the shapes of the original 13 colonies. Geographic boundaries like rivers defined these states’ outlines. For example, the Connecticut River separates Vermont and New Hampshire, while the Colorado River separates California and Arizona.

The original 13 colonies varied wildly in shape and size, which did not please Thomas Jefferson. This Founding Father suggested that Congress create states equal in size based on latitude and longitude coordinates. Jefferson recommended that states in the new Northwest Territory should be about two degrees of latitude and four degrees of longitude. Congress rejected his Northwest Territory recommendations but did use his longitude and latitude idea to create states similar in size and shape in the western parts of the United States of America. For example, Wyoming, Colorado, and both Dakota states are all approximately seven degrees of longitude. Similarly, Nebraska, Kansas, and the Dakota states are about three degrees of latitude.

Here is a how the Stein’s main factors influenced the shape of the states: 

  • Railroad construction

Cross-country railroad construction also helped shape the map of the United States of America. This construction meant that the shapes of states no longer depended solely on the rivers’ natural routes. Instead, rail routes shaped where one state ended and another started.

  • Erie Canal construction

The Erie Canal’s construction also impacted the shape of states in the areas it traversed.

  • Slavery

Slavery also contributed to the shape of states in the area included in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. The 1818 Missouri Compromise reinforced the practice of determining state boundaries in the region based on where slavery was legal. The Compromise permitted slavery in all states with 30 minutes north latitude and northern borders less than 36 degrees, except Missouri.


California and Texas determined their shapes on the map of the United States of America, unlike other states. These two large states were able to pull this off due to their immense political power and the fear that they might withdraw from the USA in the event of a territorial dispute.

Last Updated on October 24, 2022

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