January 16th, 2012


January Books 13) How The States Got Their Shapes, by Mark Stein

A popular history of the building blocks of US political geography (NB the author is not the wingnut Mark Steyn). I learned a number of things from it, including the importance of the 1790 Nootka convention and why Hawaii has more interesting borders than one might have thought. I had not really taken in that the block shapes of Colorado and Wyoming reflected a general aspiration to create states covering seven degrees of longitude and four of latitude (three for the four states immediately to the east). Some boundaries are set by landmarks which may be ephemeral - the circle in the Delaware/Pennsylvania border, centred on a spire in the town of New Castle; the Texas/Arkansas border running due south from a point 100 paces west of the southwest corner of the Fort Smith garrison building; the section of the Maryland/Virginia border which was supposed to align with Watkins Point, which had however been eroded into oblivion by the time the surveyors got there. And a lot of the colonial-era boundaries were badly surveyed, with mutterings that local settlers bribed or confused the surveyors with moonshine.

It struck me that there were several cases of states voluntarily giving up territory, on the grounds that it was impossible to control from the state capital due to geography and therefore would be better handled by a neighbouring jurisdiction - this is the explanation given for Washington shedding the gold fields which became part of Idaho, and for the trimming of the town of Boston Corner from Massachusetts to New York. That's rather different from the approach to territoriality I am used to elsewhere - it speaks to a trust that neighbouring jurisdictions could handle one's own troublesome citizens better. Armed conflict over territorial aggrandisement was very rare, the 1836 Toledo War between Ohio and Michigan being the most recent example.

Though I do wonder if it's true if, as reported here, those of the original colonies with claims west of the Appalachians surrendered them to the new federal government fairly smoothly, apart from the westernmost bits of Virginia and Connecticut's Western Reserve (now in Ohio). I also wished Stein had gone into more detail on the secession of Vermont from New York and of West Virginia from Virginia - I know that he left out some interesting details from the latter and I had hoped to learn more than I did about the former.

Since Stein covers all fifty states, and the Dictrict of Columbia, in alphabetical rather than historical sequence, there is a fair bit of repetition (the Watkins Point story is told in the chapters on Virginia, Maryland and also Delaware). But it's all lucidly done and nicely illustrated with clear maps.

Maybe someone should do a book like this on the borders of European countries. I have sometimes asserted that most of them were formed as tide marks in the ebb and flow of empires; maybe that proposition can be proved one way or the other.

The Pathan who settled in Ireland in the 1630s

I was fascinated to come across this snippet from seventeenth-century Ireland. It is one of the many depositions made by Protestant settlers who were attacked by Catholics during the insurrection of 1641 (I have modernised the spelling and punctuation). But the deponent is not an English or Scottish Protestant - he came from much farther away:
John Fortune, for 20 years a servant to Captain Richard Steele, and by birth an Indian Pethagorian, but now a Christian and Late an Inhabitant of Ballinakill in the Queens County, sworn and examined deposeth:

That since the begining of the present Rebellion, viz. about 2 months since, he, when the town and Castle [of Ballinakill surrendered, he] was deprived, robbed, dispoiled of, or otherwise lost his cattle, sheep, cloth, household goods & other goodes & chattels of the value of thirtie Pounds, by the means of besiegers & assailants of the said town & Castle which are all Rebels, viz. General Preston, the Earl of Castlehaven, the Lord Mountgarret, & their followers and divers other Rebellious soldiers whose names he cannot express.

Signed [mark] by the aforesaid John Fortune
21 June 1643
Ballinakill is about halfway from Roscrea to Nenagh, north of the main road just inside the Offaly (ie Queen's County) border. The castle had been confiscated from the Butlers in 1616, and then surrendered to the Confederate insurgents (led by Mountgarret, who was a Butler) in 1643 as Fortune reported, but was then shelled by Cromwellian troops a few years later and never rebuilt; the ruins are still visible from the main road apparently. 

So far, so normal for the horrors of war. But it is fascinating to see that an 'Indian Pethagorian', who would have left his homeland before 1621 at the latest (as he had been a servant to Steele for twenty years even before the rebellion started), had settled in Ireland. 

At first I thought that 'Indian' must here mean Native American, with 'Pethagorian' meaning either 'Patagonian' (as English pirates had settled there by 1586) or possibly 'Powhatan' (as in Pocahontas). The author of the book I am reading hints as much in another article published elsewhere on colonial links across the Atlantic, and on the face of it, given where English soldiers were active in general at the time, America seems more likely than actual India.

But in fact I now think that this is one of the rare cases in the early seventeenth century where 'Indian' actually does mean 'from India', because Captain Richard Steele was one of the early representatives of the British East India Company, and indeed left a description of his journey from the Moghul Emperor's court to Baghdad in 1615-16. Although he does not name any of his servants, it is notable that he still uses "we" after he parts company with the other Englishman in his party, so he was not travelling alone. I reckon that John Fortune was recruited by Steele at some point in the journey. Most likely he was a Pathan (not so far phonetically from 'Pethagorian'), probably recruited in Lahore where the two Englishmen appear to have hired extra staff (though the text is not clear), and sticking with him through war in Germany and rebellion in Ireland. That fits the dates rather well; if he had worked for Steele from 1616 to 1636 or so, and had followed him to Ireland, he then had seven years to build up £30 in capital before it was wiped out by the rebellion.

There cannot be many earlier identifiable examples of migration to Ireland from South Asia. No further record of John Fortune's adventures seems to survive, unfortunately.

(Steele's grandson of the same name became a famous writer.)