Thursday, April 11, 2013

Road Trip - The Mason-Dixon Line

We live just south of the Mason-Dixon line in Maryland. It forms the border betwen Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, & what is now West Virginia. Over the years, the Mason-Dixon line has evolved into a symbolic borderline between the North & the South.

North of the line is the beautiful Pennsylvania countryside with its lush farmlands and its rich Amish heritage.

South of the line is Maryland with its rolling green horse farms.

And across the Chesapeake Bay is Maryland's slow, relaxed life on the Eastern Shore.

In 1763-67, Englishmen Charles Mason & Jeremiah Dixon surveyed & marked most of the boundaries between Maryland, Pennsylvania and the 3 lower counties that became Delaware. The survey was commissioned by the William Penn & Charles Calvert families to settle their long-running boundary dispute.

A 19th-Century depiction of the Mason Dixon Line showing a crownstone.

Mason & Dixon marked their line with stones every mile & "crownstones" every 5 miles, using stone shipped to them from England. The Maryland side says (M) and the Delaware and Pennsylvania sides say (P). Crownstones include the two coats-of-arms of the Penn & Calvert families. Today, while a number of the original stones are missing or buried, many are still visible, resting on public land and protected by iron cages.

The survey journal of Mason & Dixon, written in Mason’s hand, was lost for most of a century, turning up in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1860. The original is now in the National Archives in Washington DC. The journal is mostly technical notes of from the survey, plus letters received & comments by Mason on his travels interspersed. An abridged copy of the journal, titled “Field Notes and Astronomical Observations of Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon,” is in the Maryland State Archives in Annapolis.

A depiction of the Mason Dixon Line with one of its crownstones from a 1903 post card

Thomas Pynchon’s 1997 novel Mason & Dixon generated a resurgence of interest in the two Englishmen. In his tale, Pynchon mixes history & fantasy. Mason & Dixon are portrayed as na├»ve, picaresque characters, surrounded by a fantasy 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.

19th-Century Surveyors near the Mason Dixon Line on US 40 from the Maryland Historical Society

The two surveyors in the novel personify America’s sometimes confused moral compass, slowly realizing how their survey line defiles a wild, innocent American landscape opening the West to the violence & moral ambiguities that often accompany the onslaught of Western civilization.