Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Mason-Dixon Line

Jeremiah Dixon died 230 years ago today. Although he lived and died in the north of England, his name is much better remembered in the United States, where he worked as a surveyor and astronomer with another Englishman, Charles Mason. Between them, they surveyed and created what became known as the Mason-Dixon border line. It was a job that took the best part of four years, and there’s a journal to prove it.

Dixon was born in Cockfield, County Durham, in July 1733, and he finished his life there too, on 22 January 1779 - 230 years ago today. His father, Ralph, was a coal mine owner, and his brother, George, who took over the mines is said to have invented coal gas. Jeremiah’s interest in astronomy and mathematics led him to being chosen, in 1761, to serve as assistant to Charles Mason on a Royal Society sponsored trip to Sumatra to observe the transit of Venus. However, their passage to Sumatra was delayed, and they landed instead at the Cape of Good Hope and observed the transit there.

Two years later, Mason and Dixon journeyed to the United States, to Pennsylvania and Maryland, to assist with resolving a boundary dispute between two land-owning families, and their two provinces, each one having been granted by different English monarchs. They began their work in November 1763 and completed it in 1766.

Dixon’s story is briefly told by Lynne Hall in an article for The Teesdale Mercury published in 2008. She explains that surveying the border line was an enormous task because not only did the two men have ‘to battle through an unforgiving landscape, they also had to contend with temperatures of well below zero’. And, although they had Indian guides with them, ‘there was a constant danger of confrontations with more hostile Indians as they travelled further west’.

Between the American War of Independence and the Civil War, the line acquired additional significance because many people saw it as both a symbolic and physical border between the northern states, which had banned slavery, and the southern slave-owning ones. The term Mason-Dixon Line continues in use to the present day, to distinguish between the northern and southern states, and is more famous than the men that created it - Wikipedia’s entry for the Mason-Dixon Line is twice as long as the entries for Mason and Dixon put together.

For a more detailed version of the story see The Evolution of the Mason and Dixon Line by Morgan Poitiaux Robinson, originally published in The Oracle Magazine, Richmond, Virginia, but now available online thanks to the Pennsylvania State University website. Or John Mackenzie’s article on the website of the College of Agriculture & Natural Resources, University of Delaware. Mackenzie says surveying the line was ‘one of the great technological feats of the century’.

Mackenzie also provides some information about a journal kept by Mason and Dixon during their time in the US but actually written in Mason’s hand. It was lost for most of a century, but turned up in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1860. The original is kept at the National Archives, Washington. It’s mostly mostly technical notes and calculations and diagrams, although there are also copies of letters and some comments by Mason on his travels.

More than a century after it was found, in 1969, the journal was transcribed and published - as The Journal of Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon - by the American Philosophical Association. The full text can be viewed online through the website of The Mason and Dixon Line Preservation Partnership (an organisation established in 1990 to inventory and preserve the original stones - some of which were shipped from England - used by Mason and Dixon to mark the boundary).

For a much longer and fictional treatment of the story, try Thomas Pynchon’s novel Mason & Dixon. According to Mackenzie again, Mason and Dixon are portrayed as na├»ve, picaresque characters, the Laurel and Hardy of the 18th century, surrounded by an odd cast including a talking dog, a mechanical duck in love with an insane French chef, an electric eel, a renegade Chinese Jesuit mercenary feng-shui master, and a narrator who swallowed a perpetual motion watch. These two protagonists, though, come to personify America’s confused moral compass, ‘slowly realizing how their survey line defiles a wild, innocent landscape, and opens the west to the violence and moral ambiguities that accompany ‘civilization’.’

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