Book of the Month: February – a Geordie and a baker’s boy

(I’m determined to catch up on these books eventually!)

Drawing the Line: How Mason and Dixon Suveyed the Most Famous Border in America
Edwin Danson

I have to admit that I bought this book not really because of the Age of Sail, but because I was obsessed with the Mark Knopfler song Sailing to Philadelphia – I couldn’t see how there could have been a song about ships and stars and the Tyne and the sea for so long with me knowing it. But the story is very much of that time – both in exploration of the world and in exploration of new ideas and ways of doing things.

The first part of the book describes the background to the surveying of the boundary line – which is basically the disputes between the Penn family and the family of Lord Baltimore. Having already read about the history of the East India company, I found this fascinating – the American colonies aren’t quite as accidental, but there’s still this sense of being ruled not as part of or even by Britain but by someone or something that just happens to be British.

The next parts deal with the history and theory of surveying – and the instruments to be used and the scientific men most involved in their use and creation. This is possibly the first book I’ve ever read about a practical undertaking that told me as much as I wanted to know* about how it was actually done – both the idea of what needed to happen, and the business of carrying it out.

Mason and Dixon are first introduced as part of the observing teams for the 1761 transit of Venus, which they spent at Cape Town. Their backgrounds are very different, Mason the son of a baker and miller from the south west who ended up working as an astronomer for the Royal Observatory, and Dixon the son of a colliery owner in the north east who had apparently learnt surveying in the coal fields – the Geordie and the baker’s boy of the song.

The rest of the book is concerned with their slow journey(s) across America – mainly the famous line of latitude which would mark the boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland (and later between the northern and southern states), but also producing a line to bisect the Delaware peninsula. In all this the early American life shows through clearly – the lives of the settlers, both in the homesteads scattered across the country and in the eastern cities, the negotiations with the Indian tribes, and the tensions between the two. So much so that I was convinced that the book was written by an American – he treats Georgian London as much more foreign – but apparently I was wrong.

I’m glad I read this – I found out a lot that I hadn’t realised I wanted to know, and tied together odd threads in my mind, which is always satisfying.

*Possibly even more than I wanted to know, because I haven’t read the technical appendices yet – but I’m glad they’re there!

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