The line of Mason and Dixon

The Mason-Dixon line today has a lot of cultural significance, since it came to serve as a conceptual boundary between the free states of the North and the slave-holding states of the South during the Civil War. But neither Mason nor Dixon were involved in the Civil War. They weren’t even Americans (gasp!). In fact, they were Englishmen hired a hundred years before the war (in 1763) to survey their eponymous line. The Provinces (not States) of Pennsylvania and Maryland hired Charles Mason (then 35) and Jeremiah Dixon (then 30) to settle a border dispute. The job cost the provinces’ controlling families (the Calverts in Maryland and the Penns in Pennsylvania) £3,512 — although Mason and Dixon weren’t actually able to survey the entire distance, allegedly due to a run-in with Native Americans (but they got pretty close). They also surveyed the border between Maryland and Delaware, which was apparently the harder feat due to its more complex description.

The sheer magnitude of (and the motivation for) this kind of surveying feat is hard to imagine today, in the age of Google maps and satellite reconnaissance. Beyond the tedious nature of the actual surveying, Mason and Dixon (why never Dixon and Mason?) also had to deploy physical markers so that local farmers and other folk could literally see the boundary. They marked their line with “crown stones” every 5 miles, which had the Calvert coat of arms engraved on the south-facing side and the Penn arms on the north-facing side, and smaller “M”/”P” stones every 1 mile. Apparently many of these still remain today and you can go see them—I wish I’d known that while living in Maryland!

So why were Mason and Dixon of England chosen for this job? Their travel costs alone surely inflated the surveying bill. Wikipedia notes that “Colonial surveyors had been unable to accurately establish the boundary due to their poor training and inadequate scientific instruments.” Thomas Pynchon wrote a historical-fiction novel about their experience called (of course) “Mason & Dixon”. I’ve actually opened this book a couple of times at the library out of curiosity, but so far have found it entirely unreadable (apparently Pynchon requires “investment” on the part of the reader). Here is the first sentence:

Snow-Balls have flown their Arcs, starr’d the Sides of Outbuildings, as of Cousins, carried Hats away into the brisk Wind off Delaware,– the Sleds are brought in and their Runners carefully dried and greased, shoes deposited in the back Hall, a stocking’d-foot Descent made upon the great Kitchen, in a purposeful Dither since Morning, punctuated by the ringing Lids of various Boilers and Stewing-Pots, fragrant with Pie-Spices, peel’d Fruits, Suet, Heated Sugar,– the Children, having all upon the Fly, among rhythmic slaps of Batter and Spoon, coax’d and stolen what they might, proceed, as upon each afternoon all this snowy Advent, to a comfortable Room at the rear of the House, years since given over to their carefree Assaults.

I mean, I can sort of see the liveliness conveyed in this storm of commas and Punctuated Words, but it just smashes into my brain like a blizzard, and really what I want is some clear cool prose to tell me about Mason and Dixon. On the other hand, Mark Knopfler was apparently so inspired by the novel that he crafted a much more accessible song, providing these mini-biographies of the main players:

I am Jeremiah Dixon; I am a Geordie boy
A glass of wine with you, sir, and the ladies I’ll enjoy
All Durham and Northumberland were measured out by my own hand
It was my fate from birth to make my mark upon the Earth.

He calls me Charlie Mason; a stargazer am I
It seems that I was born to chart the evening sky
They’d cut me out for baking bread, but I had other dreams instead
This baker’s boy from the west country would join the Royal Society.

Despite its rather weird use of uneven rhythm and simplistic notions, I find this song (Sailing to Philadelphia) persistently haunting. The song doesn’t even touch on their actual surveying, taking place as it does during their journey to, and anticipation of, the American colonies. But maybe that’s what gives it such staying power: it describes the build-up before the action, the drawn-in breath before the speech.

I admire these men for the work they did, akin in some ways to that of the Antarctic explorers, although in more hospitable conditions. Pennsylvania and Maryland were likewise pleased with the outcome, and both men were inducted into the American Society for Promoting Useful Knowledge (what a name!). Could they have known that their Line would persist to today? Even if they dreamed of that longevity, they surely could not have imagined the role it would play in the Civil War, years after their deaths.