The Way It Was: Mason and Dixon

By February 10, 2008The Way It Was

The%20Way%20It%20Was.jpgMost of us have heard of the famous Mason Dixon Line that separates Pennsylvania from Maryland. It is generally regarded as the dividing line between north and south, though of course Maryland was actually a Union state in the Civil War.

But the Mason Dixon line preceded the Civil War by a century. In the 1760s, when we were still a British outpost, wealth landowners in Pennsylvania and Maryland commissioned a survey to settle a decades old dispute about boundary lines.

Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon were actually trained astronomers and mathematicians in Britain, well known for charting the transit of Venus when it passed near the Earth in 1761. Thomas Penn, the proprietor of Pennsylvania, and Cecilius Calvert, otherwise known as Lord Baltimore, came to England looking for someone to settle their border dispute. Mason and Dixon got the job.

It was no small undertaking. They headed into the American wilderness with 115 ax men and cooks dragging along tents and 500 pound stone markers. They hired dozens of Indian scouts to protect their flanks as they cut an eight-yard wide swath 230 miles into the wilderness.

Mason and Dixon were the first true geodetic surveyors, which means they took into account the shape of the Earth when making their boundary calculations. Given the technology they had to work with, their calculations were astoundingly accurate. At last report, Maryland was still a Union state.

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