Mason-Dixon: Origins – 10/18/1767

US History |


In 1632, the Calvert family was given a land grant by Maryland up to the 40th parallel. In 1681, Charles II gave a royal charter to William Penn, thus creating Pennsylvania. Because Charles had taken his information from an inaccurate map, the charter included land belonging to Maryland and the Calverts. Matters were further complicated in 1682 when Pennsylvania took possession of modern-day Delaware, territory that Maryland considered its own.

In 1730, settlers in the disputed area took up arms against each other in a series of violent clashes. In 1736, Maryland militiamen were sent into present-day Pennsylvania by Lord Baltimore. During one scuffle, a Marylander killed a Lancaster County, PA, Sherriff’s deputy. When Pennsylvania demanded Maryland arrest him for murder, Maryland made him a captain in the militia.

In 1760, the British Crown, sick of continuing violence, demanded something be done. Two surveyors – Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon – were given the task of defining the border. They began in 1763 and wrapped up on October 18, 1767, determining the boundary at a northern latitude of 39 degrees and 43 minutes.

In the Missouri Compromise of 1820, it was decided that states north of the Mason-Dixon Line would be free while those south of it would be slave-holding. This led directly to the Mason-Dixon Line becoming a symbol of the cultural differences between the North and the South. The North was free and largely industrialized, while the South retained its use of slavery and relied heavily on agriculture. To non-Americans, the most apt comparison one can make is of the Berlin Wall. Though only a few feet from each other, East and West Germany were vastly different in terms of culture, government, and society. The differences between lands flanking the Mason-Dixon Line weren’t quite as stark, but as time wore on, it became apparent that the North and the South might as well be two different countries. In 1861, the South attempted to break away from the Union. The North fought to keep them from leaving. The American Civil War (1861-1865) remains even today the bloodiest conflict in the history of the United States, claiming the lives of 620,000 people (all other wars combined claimed 644,000). 

Today, the Antebellum South, with its stately plantation homes and Southern belles, is a romanticized memory. All things that go with it as well. Including the Mason-Dixon Line, perhaps one of the most well-known borders in all of history.

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