What Is the Mason-Dixon Line and Why Was It Important?

What Is the Mason-Dixon Line and Why Was It Important?

The Mason-Dixon line was the solution for a border dispute during the lead up to the American Civil War. Pennsylvania was a free territory, while Maryland was slave-owning and the line divided the two territories. It has been 250 years since Mason and Dixon completed the feat of resolving the dispute, but it has served as a symbol for the separation of Civil War North and South ever since. Here is the history behind the Mason-Dixon line.

The 80 Year Dispute

For almost a century, the two established families, the Penns of Pennsylvania and the Calvert family of Maryland, had been at odds about the line separating the colonies. The territories had originally been given to them by the English crown. And no one could agree on where one colony ended and the other began.

One of the resulting problems caused by the unestablished borders was that citizens didn’t know where they should pay taxes. All of this confusion and tension resulted in regular warfare along the border. 

The Penns and the Calverts could agree on one thing: they couldn’t resolve this issue on their own, so they decided to hand the duty over to Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixion. The pair were regarded as masterful astronomers and surveyors. 

Can you name the states through which the Mason-Dixon Line passes?

An Astonishing Scientific Achievement

The scientists used the most advanced surveying equipment of their time. The map that the two men came up with would later become one of the most significant documents in American history. 

The final product of their labor determined the division of where slavery was legal and accepted and where it was not. For the first few years of its existence, it was unnamed. It was eventually recognized as the Mason-Dixon Line during the Missouri Compromise, which came into effect in 1820. Newly named, the line gained more notoriety and people came to know its significance. Years later, it would become a part of the border that divided the Union Territories from the Seceded Confederate States.    

The survey took the men five years to complete. Despite this landmark achievement of immeasurable cultural and national significance, both Mason and Dixon passed away with little notoriety and were buried in unmarked graves. 

Early Life

But thankfully, history has not forgotten the two men that divided the colonies. The early life of Jeremiah Dixon is recounted by Dixon’s distant relative, John Dixon. John recounts that Jeremiah grew up in a family involved in the mining industry. He was a Quaker and showed an early aptitude for math and surveying. He joined The Royal Society. John states that he was not a typical Quaker. He never married and he was not reserved. He was exiled from his community for alcohol consumption and keeping “loose company.” 

Mason had a quieter beginning. He was chosen to be an assistant at the age of 28 in the Royal Observatory. He was a gifted observer of geography and nature. Mason’s family were bakers and did not have much money. Mason did not get a post-secondary education, but he was connected to a famous astronomer, James Bradley, who assisted young Mason in finding mason work at the Royal Observatory. 

Can you identify the states south of the Mason-Dixon line? Quiz yourself.

Faults in the Line

When all was said and done, 83 miles were surveyed between Maryland and Delaware and 233 miles were surveyed between Pennsylvania and Maryland. The pair did not survey all that land on their own, in fact, the survey entourage consisted of 115 people. When Mason and Dixon began, they might have expected the work to take them one or two years, but the job stretched over five years. As exceptional as their technological achievement was, modern technology has unveiled that the line was not as accurate as the pair might have thought. While Mason and Dixon believed the stones that marked the line were accurate but upon closer look, some were as far off as 850 feet from the calculated latitude.

The Legacy of the Mason-Dixon Line

Imagine, however, the tedious task of traversing through the thick wilderness with equipment that had never before been used. However, their efforts weren’t trivial in the slightest, as the line came to represent freedom from slavery post-Civil War. It drew a line in the sand, per se, that divided the future America aspired to, and the inhumane traditions it wanted to leave behind. 

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