Saturday, 25 April 2009

Getting things straight.....

Firstly, my apologies to my American friends if I appear to be 'teaching my grandmother to suck eggs', but it is a fascinating story. In fact, it was my maternal grandmother who I first heard use that expression...smiling. I especially think the music and lyrics, sung here by Mark Knopfler and James Taylor, 'fits the facts' as they say.
Isn't that a beautiful line, 'See America lies there, the morning tide has raised the capes of Delaware'.

Sailing To Philadelphia
I am Jeremiah Dixon
I am a Geordie boy
A glass of wine with you, sir
And the ladies I'll enjoy
All Durham and Northumberland
Is measured up by my own hand
It was my fate from birth
To make my mark upon the earth...

He calls me Charlie Mason
A stargazer am I
It seems that I was born
To chart the evening sky
They'd cut me out for baking bread
But I had other dreams instead
This baker's boy from the west country
Would join the Royal Society...

We are sailing to Philadelphia
A world away from the coaly Tyne
Sailing to Philadelphia
To draw the line
A Mason-Dixon Line

Now you're a good surveyor, Dixon
But I swear you'll make me mad
The West will kill us both
You gullible Geordie lad
You talk of liberty
How can America be free
A Geordie and a baker's boy
In the forests of the Iroquois...

Now hold your head up, Mason
See America lies there
The morning tide has raised
The capes of Delaware
Come up and feel the sun
A new morning has begun
Another day will make it clear
Why your stars should guide us here...

We are sailing to Philadelphia
A world away from the coaly Tyne
Sailing to Philadelphia
To draw the line
A Mason-Dixon Line

Although the Mason-Dixon line is most commonly associated with the division between the northern and southern (free and slave, respectively) states during the 1800s and American Civil War-era, the line was delineated in the mid-1700s to settle a property dispute. The two surveyors who mapped the line, Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, will always be known for their famous boundary.

In 1632, King Charles I of England gave the first Lord Baltimore, George Calvert, the colony of Maryland. Fifty years later, in 1682, King Charles II gave William Penn the territory to the north, which later became Pennsylvania. A year later, Charles II gave Penn land on the Delmarva Peninsula (the peninsula that includes the eastern portion of modern Maryland and all of Delaware).

The description of the boundaries in the grants to Calvert and Penn did not match and there was a great deal of confusion as to where the boundary (supposedly along 40 degrees north) lay. The Calvert and Penn families took the matter to the British court and England's chief justice declared in 1750 that the boundary between southern Pennsylvania and northern Maryland should lie 15 miles south of Philadelphia. A decade later, the two families agreed on the compromise and set out to have the new boundary surveyed. Unfortunately, colonial surveyors were no match for the difficult job and two experts from England had to be recruited.

Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon arrived in Philadelphia in November 1763. Mason was an astronomer who had worked at the Royal Observatory at Greenwich and Dixon was a renowned surveyor. The two had worked together as a team prior to their assignment to the colonies.

After arriving in Philadelphia, their first task was to determine the exact absolute location of Philadelphia. From there, they began to survey the north-south line that divided the Delmarva Peninsula into the Calvert and Penn properties. Only after the Delmarva portion of the line had been completed did the duo move to mark the east-west running line between Pennsylvania and Maryland.

They precisely established the point fifteen miles south of Philadelphia and since the beginning of their line was west of Philadelphia, they had to begin their measurement to the east of the beginning of their line. They erected a limestone benchmark at their point of origin.

Travel and surveying in the rugged "west" was difficult and slow going. The surveyors had to deal with many different hazards, one of the most dangerous to the men being the indigenous Native Americans living in the region. The duo did have Native American guides although once the survey team reached a point 36 miles east of the end point of the boundary, their guides told them not to travel any farther. Hostile residents kept the survey from reaching its end goal. Thus, on October 9, 1767, almost four years after they began their surveying, the 233 mile-long Mason-Dixon line had (almost) been completely surveyed.

Over fifty years later, the boundary between the two states along the Mason-Dixon line came into the spotlight with the Missouri Compromise of 1820. The Compromise established a boundary between the slave states of the south and the free states of the north (however its separation of Maryland and Delaware is a bit confusing since Delaware was a slave state that stayed in the Union).

This boundary became referred to as the Mason-Dixon line because it began in the east along the Mason-Dixon line and headed westward to the Ohio River and along the Ohio to its mouth at the Mississippi River and then west along 36 degrees 30 minutes North.

The Mason-Dixon line was very symbolic in the minds of the people of the young nation struggling over slavery and the names of the two surveyors who created it will evermore be associated with that struggle and its geographic association.


  1. Most interesting history. I admit to knowing the civil war part most intimately as I and my relatives come from Missouri. And it is a shame that the Mason-Dixon line wasn't more like the Vietnam DMZ.

    Surveying in the past was an inexact art form as RedStatesBlueStates blog indicated recently with the erroneous location of the four corners. And New Mexico lost a ten mile strip along its eastern border to Texas which is still in dispute.

    If they level the Union which they are threatening to do can we have it back?

  2. ooops said 'level the Union' which GW definitely tried instead of leave the Union which we are all hoping for.

  3. That is indeed a beautiful line, M. Interesting post. I especially enjoyed the history set to music.

  4. Enjoyed both the music and the history. I was not familiar with all this detail. I lived in Delaware for a short while in the 60's during a time of great racial tension. I haven't heard the term Delmarva (for Delaware Maryland and Virginia) in a long time.

  5. Excellent post, Michael. Very interesting about the Mason Dixon line and old Philadelphia. My daughter lives in Philly. It's a WON-derful city, so full of history and culture.

  6. Hello Michael,

    Thanks for this piece of history - of which I knew nothing! Gentle song too.