The Mason and Dixon Line’s real origins
By Gregory J. Alexander
Most people know that the Mason and Dixon Line separates Maryland from Pennsylvania, but if you ask people what they think of first when you say, “Mason and Dixon Line,” many will say, “slavery,” as in the Mason and Dixon Line separated the free states from the slave states during the Civil War. However, the origins of the Mason and Dixon Line have nothing to do with slavery and predate the Civil War by more than 200 years.
The origins of the line actually begin way back in 1632 when King Charles I of England gave the first Lord Baltimore, George Calvert, the colony of Maryland. Fifty years later, King Charles II gave William Penn the land to the north of Maryland, which later became Pennsylvania, and in 1683, he further gave Penn land on the Delmarva Peninsula that included the eastern part of Maryland and Delaware. Due to the fact that Calvert and Penn received their grants by different kings, the language in the grants did not match and confusion arose as to what land Calvert and Penn owned. The two families took the matter to the British court, and the chief justice decided that the boundary between Maryland and Pennsylvania should lie 15 miles south of Philadelphia. In 1860, the two families decided that a new boundary should be marked. Unfortunately, there were no surveyors in the colonies that could handle this difficult task, so two experts from England were hired.
Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, who had worked as a team before - Mason as an astronomer and Dixon a surveyor – were sent to Philadelphia in 1763 to tackle the job of marking the boundary and settle the dispute. Mason and Dixon – after first determining the exact location of Philadelphia – set out to mark the line by laying stone markers to indicate the boundary. A continuous line of latitude was the goal, and Mason and Dixon used the stars to chart their path through the rugged terrain. The task was enormous – Mason and Dixon were responsible for marking a 233-mile-long boundary line between Pennsylvania and Maryland and the 83-mile-long line between Maryland and Delaware. The process took five years.
“What they were able to do is simply amazing, especially considering the instruments that they were using and the conditions they were battling,” says Todd Babcock of the Mason and Dixon Line Preservation Partnership (MDLPP). “To be able to mark a continuous line of latitude this precisely gives testament to their brilliance. There is some discrepancy along the line due to gravity’s effect on the equipment that they were using, not miscalculations by Mason and Dixon,” Babcock stresses.
Besides the enormous amount of territory that Mason and Dixon had to cover, the conditions they battled were tough, says Babcock. “First, there was the terrain. They battled hills, marshes and rough land. Secondly, there was the weather with temperatures well below zero. Also, remember that this territory was not safe; it was very hostile,” says Babcock. “In 1763, 25 Native Americans were massacred near Lancaster, Pa., by locals, and here are Mason and Dixon living and working in this area trying to haul around massive pieces of limestone to mark the Line.”
The Mason and Dixon Line was marked with limestone markers with designs on each side depicting what side was Maryland and Pennsylvania. Over time, these markers have been damaged by weather, age and vandalism; so Babcock and others gathered together in November 1990 to discuss what could be done to save the markers, which had survived through the Revolutionary War, Civil War, Industrial Revolution and 20th century expansion.
“Some surveyors in Maryland and Pennsylvania were concerned about the conditions of the stones, and 16 of us gathered together to brainstorm to see what could be done. We decided first to conduct an inventory,” Babcock says. “We started with the 132 miles of the Mason and Dixon Line that are marked with limestones. We photographed them, described them and took inventory. We’ve located 200 of the 230 stones that separate Maryland and Pennsylvania.” The photographs of the stones also allows the MDLPP to compare the condition of the stones at a later date. The stones that remain to be inventoried are located in the remote and mountainous sections of West Virginia and western Maryland and will be inventoried later. The last inventory of stones had occurred in the early 1980s, and the MDLPP inventory report was utilized in 1990 and 2000 to satisfy the legal requirement that the State of Maryland conduct an inventory of the state boundaries once every 10 years. Babcock says that the MDLPP is currently working with a professor and student at Penn State University to create a complete online database of all the stones that will include photographs, latitude and longitude coordinates and directions to each stone.
Babcock says that utilizing satellite technology to assign GPS coordinates was crucial, which allows the MDLPP to obtain the latitude and longitude of the stones to sub-centimeter precision. And, the work of the MDLPP has already proved useful, as it led to the finding of Milestone No. 9, which had been reported missing for many years. According to the organization, “The position of the stone was calculated using the locations of other stones to the east and west of the calculated position. An excavation was made in the plowed farm field and the stone was recovered. These positions were also used to conduct an analysis of the work and procedures implemented by Mason and Dixon during the survey.” “The location of the stones is more important than the stones themselves. The location of the stones gives us the exact boundary and shows the hard work of Mason and Dixon,” Babcock says, adding that the organization has purchased granite stones to replace damaged or missing stones.
The association with the Mason and Dixon Line and the debate over slavery originates with the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which established a boundary between the slave states of the South and free states of the North. The Mason and Dixon Line was used as the eastern origination point and the free/slave state dividing line then went west. Babcock notes that the confusion over the Line’s association with slavery is troubling. “The Mason- Dixon Line had nothing to do with slavery, and actually it didn’t separate the slave and free states. Maryland, which lies to the south of the line, had slaves but remained in the Union. Delaware also had slaves but stayed in the Union. I feel as though Mason and Dixon’s hard work gets lost in history due to this misconception.”
Babcock adds that – although it was not the original intent of the MDLPP – the organization has aided in the effort to better educate people about the real origins of the Mason and Dixon Line. “It wasn’t one of our original objectives, but we now have a CD with our report and have collected papers and books on the origination of the Line, scanned them and put them in PDF format on the CD to better educate the public. Over the past three years, we’ve really focused on creating a new Web site (mdlpp.org) that will allow the public, middle and high school students, researchers and college history students to go to our Web site and learn everything they need to know about the Mason and Dixon Line,” he says.
Although it’s been a long process to document the location of the Mason and Dixon Line and the markers, Babcock says it’s worth it. “These two men and their techniques were well ahead of their time. I’m just happy to be a part of their work.”
Mason-Dixon ARRIVE magazine debuted in March 2005, and in that premier issue we included an article on the real origins of the Mason and Dixon Line. Our goal was to provide some historical context for the Line to help explain why we chose it as part of our name and to dispel some common misconceptions and misnomers about the Mason and Dixon Line. The original article remains the most popular article on our website, www.mdarrive.com, as we have received thousands of “hits” from those linking to the article from a simple Google search. (We even had a Web surfer in Australia read the article.) As we celebrate our fourth year of
Mason-Dixon ARRIVE, we wanted to revisit the topic and provide some additional information and photos. We hope that you enjoy reading what we’ve learned.
March 25-June 29
Borders and Boundaries: The Mason-Dixon Line
The Maryland Historical Society
From March 25 to June 29, as part of the Baltimore Festival of Maps, the Maryland Historical Society will put on display one of its most amazing cartographic treasures: the original map of the “boundary between the provinces of Maryland and Pennsylvania,” printed by Robert Kennedy in Philadelphia in 1768. Commissioners for both colonies signed this print of Mason and Dixon’s “true and exact” plan in 1768 and affixed their wax seals. (Three of the commissioners were later to sign the Declaration of Independence.) The boundary line represented on this map is 244 miles long, beginning at 15 miles south of the southernmost tip of Philadelphia and following constant latitude west. The map itself measures 76 inches long by 27 inches wide.
The exhibition will feature additional historic maps and documents recording the 80-year dispute between Maryland and Pennsylvania, alongside samples of the surveying instruments used by Mason and Dixon.
The Maryland Historical Society is located at 201 W. Monument St., Baltimore, and is open Wednesday-Sunday, 10am-5pm. For more information, call 410-685-3750 ext. 321 or visit mdhs.org.
So, Where on Earth Are These Stones?
If you’re looking to see some of the Mason and Dixon Line stones up close, you’re in luck! Since some stones are hard to find and many are on private property (we never like to encourage our readers to trample through people’s front yards), we asked Todd Babcock of the Mason and Dixon Line Preservation Partnership for his list of favorite publicly-accessible locations to see some stones for yourself. For exact directions, enter the latitude and longitude coordinates in the search field on Google maps (maps.google.com), which will provide directions.
Located near Ellerslie
and west of Maryland’s Rocky Gap State Park. Stone is on the top of bank on the west side of PA Route 96 and MD Route 35 approximately 22 feet off the shoulder of the road. Located in the lawn of the Ellerslie Redeemer United Church of Christ
(no exact coordinates available).
Near Lineboro, Pa. Stone is in a steel cage on the north side of Baugman Mill Road, just northwest of the intersection of Brodbeck Road, Hokes Road and Baughman Road. Coordinates: N 39 43’ 14.40665”, W 076 49’ 25.27426”
The Tangent Stone
Located on the Delaware/Maryland line just north of Interstate 95. From Newark Del., go southwest on Elkton Road (DE Route 2 & 896) to Christiana Parkway, continue on Route 2 through traffic light 1.2 miles passing MD 277 on right at the State line. Turn left on Tron Hill Road (by State Line Liquors) and go 1/4 mile to entrance of Iron Ridge Apartments. Turn left onto South Gate Boulevard and enter apartment complex. Take the third right and park in the parking lot between the 1300 and 1400 unit buildings. Stone is located adjacent to a detention pond approximately 100 feet southeast from the southeast corner of the parking lot. Coordinates: N 39 38’ 56.96122”, W 75 47’ 18.96136”
Near the northeast corner of Maryland, 0.8 miles west of Route 896. The stone is located on the south side of Elbow Lane on the top of 3-foot high bank and eight feet from the edge of pavement. Coordinates: N 39 43’ 19.78909”, W 75 48’ 26.61755”
The Stargazer’s Stone
Embreeville, Pa., take Route 167 north. Turn Left onto Stargazer Road, go 1/4 mile to stone located 100 feet east of the road. Stone is north of a residential driveway. Coordinates: N39 56 21.11594, W75 43 56.81958
HARFORD CO. AT PA LINE
Near Fawn Grove, Pa., just south of PA S.R. 2080 (Route 851 PA & Route 624 MD). Stone is located on the south side of PA Route 851 approximately 0.2 mile west of the intersection of PA Rte 851 and Constitution Road and 16 feet west of Conowingo power pole # 19041. Coordinates: N 39 43’ 16.22189”, W 76 24’ 40.34284”
Near Hanover, Pa. From the intersection of Garrett Road and Baltimore Pike (Route 94 in Pennsylvania and Route 30 in Maryland), take Garrett Road west approximately 0.2 mile to stone on left (no exact coordinates available).
Near Waynesboro, Pa. From the intersection of Highland and Pennersville Roads, go northeast on Pennersville Road 300 feet then southeast 36 feet from centerline of road. Coordinates: N 39 43 11.96684, W 77 29 03.85195
Near Waynesboro, Pa., east of Interstate 81. From the intersection of Marsh Pike and Marsh Road, travel 0.5 mile east on Marsh Road to stone on left opposite historical marker on right. Stone is located adjacent to mailbox with address #16103 Marsh Road. Coordinates: N 39 43 15.012, W 77 40 21.74689
East of Interstate 81 at State Line. Stone is located at the southeast quadrant of Mason-Dixon Road and Citicorp Drive on the east side of I-81. Stone is 21 feet east of a catch basin. Coordinates: N 39 43 16.20679, W 77 43 43.70408