I grew up in Indiana, north of the Mason-Dixon Line. While I’m a Yankee by birth, my family on my mother’s side moved to Indiana from Tennessee. When my mother grew up, there was a steady stream of Barrett and Ritchie family members driving between Indiana and Tennessee to visit one another. I also have an ancestor, William Barrett Travis, who fought at the Alamo. So, I’m a Yankee with southern ties.
Having lived in both the north and in the south, I was curious about where exactly the Mason-Dixon Line was and if indeed it was a real geographical line or just something that people talked about.
In popular usage, the Mason-Dixon Line symbolizes a cultural boundary between the North and South and often makes reference to the Civil War. But in reality, the Mason-Dixon Line existed 100 years before the war between the states.
There was a land dispute between the Penn family of Pennsylvania, and the Calvert family of Maryland, over the border between the two (British at the time) colonies. In 1763, the two families commissioned Englishmen, Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, to do a survey to solve their 80 year, three-generation-long property dispute. Both families had been deeded land by British kings but the deeds overlapped. Mason and Dixon were hired to settle the dispute once and for all.
Mason was an astronomer and Dixon was a surveyor and they used celestial measurements to determine an accurate 233 mile-long boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland, as well as an 83 mile-long boundary between Maryland and Delaware. It took them four, almost five years to accomplish this task and Charles Mason kept a hand-written manuscript journal that now rests in the National Archives in Washington D. C.
In his journal, Mason detailed facts about the American Frontier at the time as well as information about the work he and Jeremiah Dixon were doing. Mason’s journal provides the most complete record of the survey and its progress. The journal includes his astronomical observations, personal notes about the American frontier, and his notes about his experiences in colonial America.
Mason and Dixon started their work in the southwest corner of present-day Delaware. As they surveyed, they measured distances with wrought-iron chains and computed distance, heights, and angles using trigonometry. They had a team with them which included Native American guides, tent carriers, chain carriers, and ax men who cut trees for them. They faced snakes, wild animals and the elements as they made their 233 mile trek to the north and west.
The new border was marked with large blocks of limestone; some weighing as much as 600 pounds. Although most of the stone markers have disappeared over time, there are efforts by state officials and history buffs to protect the 81 original markers that remain.
The Mason-Dixon Line was resurveyed in 1902 and found to be surprisingly accurate. It is still a demarcation line for four U. S. states…Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware and West Virginia.
So how did the Mason-Dixon Line become associated with the Civil War?
The southern plantation owners relied on their slaves to produce cotton and tobacco and other crops. Southerners saw the actions of the northern states to abolish slavery as a threat to their way of life. Abraham Lincoln had already spoken out against slavery before the election, so the South was not happy when he became our 16th president.
The Civil War began after seven states which permitted slavery decided to secede from the United States after Lincoln’s election in November of 1860. These seven states…Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas…created their own government in February of 1861 and called themselves the Confederacy.
President Lincoln took office in March of 1861, and the United States rejected the secession and declared the Confederacy illegal.
The Civil War began in April of 1861 and four more states…Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia…joined the Confederacy. Later, Kentucky and Missouri joined the Confederacy although neither state officially seceded from the United States. The Mason-Dixon Line came to symbolize the boundary between the slave states of the Confederacy and the non-slave states of the Union. The division line began in the east where Mason and Dixon had created it, and then extended westward to and along the Ohio River to the Mississippi River and then farther west to Kansas.
Fortunately, this boundary is a thing of the past, but it still reminds us of a very divisive and difficult time in our nation’s history.
Author’s note: Check out the song link in the comment about this post by my friend, Ron Webster. The song is “Sailing to Philadelphia” by Mark Knopfler and is about Mr. Mason and Mr. Dixon.