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Drawing the Line : How Mason and Dixon Surveyed the Most Famous Border in America

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

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Average customer review: 4.5 stars 4.5 stars
(33 customer reviews

Product Description


The Mason-Dixon line-surely the most famous surveyors' line ever drawn-represents one of the greatest and most difficult scientific achievements of its time. But behind this significant triumph is a thrilling story, one that has thus far eluded both historians and surveyors. In this engrossing narrative, professional surveyor Edwin Danson takes us on a fascinating journey with Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, two gifted and exuberant English surveyors, through the fields and forests of eighteenth-century America. Vividly describing life in the backwoods and the hardships and dangers of frontier surveying, Drawing the Line discloses for the first time in 250 years many hitherto unknown surveying methods, revealing how Mason and Dixon succeeded where the best American surveyors of the period failed. In accessible, ordinary language, Danson masterfully throws the first clear light on the surveying of the Mason-Dixon line. Set in the social and historical context of pre-Revolutionary America, this book is a spellbinding account of one of the great and historic achievements of its time.

Advance Praise for Drawing the Line

"Drawing the Line combines a fast-moving story, a human drama, and a clear account of surveying in the era of George Washington. An intriguing interaction of politics and science."-CHARLES ROYSTER, Boyd Professor of History, Louisiana State University, and Winner of the Bancroft Prize in History

Product Details

  • Amazon Sales Rank: #636134 in Books
  • Published on: 2000-12-08
  • Original language: English
  • Number of items: 1
  • Dimensions: 9.47" h x .89" w x 6.32" l, 1.10 pounds
  • Binding: Hardcover
  • 240 pages


  • ISBN13: 9780471385028
  • Condition: New
  • Notes: BRAND NEW FROM PUBLISHER! 100% Satisfaction Guarantee. Tracking provided on most orders. Buy with Confidence! Millions of books sold!

Editorial Reviews

From Booklist
Hailed as one of the "greatest scientific achievements of its time," and destined to designate the boundary between free states and slave states, the Mason-Dixon Line remains an extraordinary feat in the annals of the science of surveying. Commissioned to establish a borderline between Maryland and Pennsylvania in 1763, Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, two young British astronomers, toiled for more than four years in order to settle a century-old boundary dispute between the Calverts of Maryland and the Penns of Pennsylvania. Employing revolutionary survey techniques and laboring under often extreme conditions that included harsh weather, mountainous terrain, and Indian warfare, they ventured 325 miles into the American wilderness, accomplishing their task at great risk to their personal safety. A spirited, painstakingly researched account of the first comprehensive geodetic survey ever completed. Margaret Flanagan
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

"...thoroughly researched... a good story shines through..."(Sunday Times - Book of the Week, 18th March 2001)

From the Inside Flap
"Made famous as line between free and slave states before War Between the States. The survey establishing Maryland-Pennsylvania boundary began in 1763; halted by Indian wars 1767; continued to southwest corner 1782: marked 1784."

Behind these words, inscribed on a solitary monument in southwest Pennsylvania, lies the complex, compelling tale of the most famous surveyors’ line ever drawn. Originally created to settle an eighty-year border dispute between two aristocratic colonial families, the Mason-Dixon line not only became one of the greatest scientific achievements of its time but, nearly a century later, came to mark the monumental boundary between free and slave states.

In the first nonfiction chronicle of this ambitious undertaking, professional surveyor Edwin Danson takes us on a grand tour through a world now mostly lost to us. Drawing the Line reconstructs the making of the Mason-Dixon line, from the infamous quarrels between the patrician Baltimore family of Maryland and the powerful Penn family of Pennsylvania to the harrowing fields and forests of eighteenth-century America, where we accompany Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, two young, exuberant English surveyors, as they risk their lives to resolve the epic border feud and establish a precise survey that had begun to seem "impossible for the Art of Man."

After five grueling years in which the two intrepid Englishmen faced heavy rains and freezing sleet, along with angry Indians, they finally completed their assignment. Their great boundary survey was the first and, for many years, the most ambitious geodetic survey ever conducted. It set a precedent for the precise measurement and mapping of vast land distances. In addition to surveying 325 miles of boundary lines, Mason and Dixon measured the first degree of latitude and took the first scientific gravity measurements ever recorded in America.

In ordinary language, Danson introduces us to the fascinating science of surveying, revealing for the first time in 250 years many long-lost surveying methods and finally answering the question of how Mason and Dixon succeeded where the best American surveyors had failed. Weaving revelations about surveying into an engrossing historical narrative that captures the spirit of pre-Revolutionary America, this book accomplishes for the making of the Mason-Dixon line what Dava Sobel’s Longitude did for John Harrison and the science of time measurement.

Exhaustively researched and vividly written, Drawing the Line presents a brilliant exploration of how two men solved one of the most formidable problems of eighteenth-century America–and revolutionized the way we have come to map America’s grand landscape.

Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews

34 of 35 people found the following review helpful.
4Astronomy, trigonometry, and trans-Atlantic politics
By Corinne H. Smith
A few years ago, I was kidding around with a high school senior in our school library in northern Illinois, and I quipped, "Well, as Mason said to Dixon, you've got to draw the line somewhere." I expected at least a chuckle in return. The student, academically rated in the top 10% of his class, stared blankly back at me. "Mason and Dixon?" I asked. Nothing. "The Mason-Dixon Line?" Nada. "The border between Pennsylvania and Maryland? The boundary between The North and The South? The whole premise behind the Civil War?" Nope. He had never heard of it. The Line, I mean; of course, he knew about the Civil War.
Maybe I took it for granted, since I grew up in a suburb about 25 miles north of the Line, in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. The Line was there, but nobody made a big deal about it. I don't recall being taught anything about it, myself. I made a mental note to someday rectify that omission.
When Thomas Pynchon's _Mason & Dixon_ was released, I was ready and interested. Ready and interested, that is, until I spied a copy in a bookstore, randomly opened it, and tried to actually read and understand the words on that single page. Hmmm. I returned the book to its display and allowed it to entice another potential buyer.
As soon as Danson's book came out, I was ready and interested in the subject matter once again. And I believe I made the right choice with this one. There's A LOT of trigonometry and technical information in parts, and all of the math teachers in my past wouldn't be a bit surprised that I sort of skimmed over those paragraphs. But the extent of the politics and 18th-century science involved is intriguing. Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon had to contend with scientific authorities and governmental offices on both sides of the Atlantic -- not to mention local hostilities between European settlers and native Indians. In spite of a variety of challenges, they were ultimately successful in their mission and got little recognition (and even less pay) for their hard work in the colonial wilderness.
My favorite passages in _Drawing the Line_ were in the details surrounding the actual surveying of the PA-MD border, which had to be done in four separate phases. I followed the text along with a road atlas in my lap and could envision some of the familiar terrain. And I nodded at the descriptions of violent thunderstorms and crippling blizzards. Been there, done that ... though certainly not while living in a surveyor's tent.
Reading this book will help to answer the inevitable teenager lament, "When would ANYONE ever use trigonometry in real life?" And if you have a hankering to know more about life on the North American East Coast before the Revolution, here's a way to experience it without getting cold and wet. Or scalped.

16 of 16 people found the following review helpful.
4The Mason & Dixon 'how' & 'why' you didn't learn at school
By A Customer
No matter what you learned or didn't learn at school about Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon and the famous line(s) they drew. Its quite likely that no-one ever explained to you the how and the why of what Mason & Dixon did and how they achieved it and more to the point, just how extremely difficult and time consuming their task was in the 1760's.
To put their achievements in perspective. Then, it was probably the modern equivalent of putting a man on the moon - without a global audience.
Nowadays with modern clocks and Global Positioning satellite systems and the inclination to do so, we could do in a few days what took Mason & Dixon nearly 5 years to complete.
This book makes a good attempt to cover the how and why. It gives a lot of the back story and related history that covers the original granting by English royalty of grants of land that would eventually become the US states of Delaware, Pennsylvania and Maryland and why the vague and incorrect nature of these original grants caused the boundary disputes between these colonies.
The book also briefly covers what Mason & Dixon did to become the right people in the right place for this surveying job. Then it covers what & some of the how, Mason & Dixon did in the actual survey and boundary determination process and also what they did separately and sometimes together during the cold winters between the surveying 'seasons' when it was too cold to continue surveying which gives some flavour of the times shortly before America declared independence - most of this comes from the Journal that Mason kept, which is now preserved in the US National Archives having been lost for many years after the War of Independence.
Towards the end of the book, it covers what happened to Mason & Dixon after they left America and returned to England.
The appendix has more detail on how the boundaries were surveyed given that the Delaware/Maryland boundary needed to be 80 miles long, dead straight and on a 3 degrees west of true north angle and touching a 12 mile radius circle at the other end - something that had not been accomplished before they did it.
While I enjoyed this book immensely, I felt that the book lacked some of the real explanation of the finer points of how Mason & Dixon did their survey. While the text had 1 small map of the work Mason & Dixon did - I also found that a lack of any more detailed maps did not help me to understand what the surveying problems actually were - indeed I only know about this as I read up elsewhere [the Delaware Geographical societies web site has a excellent item on this] and also by studying a modern atlas of the area I got some idea of the problems from these maps.
If I compare this book to Dana Sobel's Longitude which is set around the same time and has a degree of overlap with people, places and events, I think that the Longitude book [especially the illustrated version] is a much, much better book. Longitude reads like a good novel about events that actually happened.
This book is more pedestrian and is not quite up to the same mark as even the original Longitude book without all the pictures. At the end of Longitude I cared more for John Harrison and the way he was treated than I cared about Mason & Dixon after reading this book.
Which is sad - all three men are up there on my list of people we all should know about but sadly don't. This book will help alleviate that problem for Mason & Dixon.
However, I'll look forward to reading the "Illustrated Mason & Dixon" by the same author when and if, it is ever written and published.
In the meantime this book is a good one to read if you want to know much more about Mason & Dixon and that famous line than what you were taught at school.

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful.
5Mason and Dixon � all you ever wanted to know
By Mark Johnson
Who hasn't heard of Mason and Dixon but Drawing the Line makes them seem like old friends. This is one of those books you occasionally find that gives you `two for the price of one'.
The book begins with the founding of Maryland and Pennsylvania and background to the quarrels between the colonies - interesting things I never knew about America and Britain. Danson then tells about contemporary astronomy science and surveying, which is equally interesting. There are no maths or complex equations (sorry Dreckman and Lorenzi but I couldn't find any and I read the whole book) but there is an appendix with technical explanations for those who like that sort of thing but I skipped it.
The story is how Mason and Dixon are recruited by the British Royal Society to go to South Africa to record the transit of Venus and measure the distance to the sun and on the way they are ambushed by a French warship. The excellence of their work in Africa makes them the ideal men to survey the Maryland / Pennsylvania border. Danson then follows the adventures of Mason and Dixon as they survey the borderlines and explore America. The period of their work coincides with the independence movement and the narrative is full of contemporary comment, issues and observation. They also measure a `degree of latitude' to discover the size of the earth. The book finishes with Mason and Dixon's twilite years and a bitter-sweet ending.
I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys the excitement mixing science with history makes. It is finely pitched enough to make you think a little but you don't need to be an astrophysicist to understand or enjoy it. Excellent fun.

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