Web Exclusive: Mason-Dixon Line

April 30, 2008
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A Maryland Historical Society curator discusses an exhibit that showcases the surveying community’s “Holy Grail”-the original 1768 Mason-Dixon map.

Boundary Map

As part of the Baltimore Festival of Maps, the “Borders and Boundaries” exhibition at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore displays the six-foot-long map of the “boundary between the provinces of Maryland and Pennsylvania,” the map of the Mason-Dixon survey printed by Robert Kennedy in Philadelphia in 1768 and signed and sealed by members of the Boundary Commission.

As part of the Baltimore Festival of Maps, the “Borders and Boundaries” exhibition displays the six-foot-long map of the “boundary between the provinces of Maryland and Pennsylvania,” printed by Robert Kennedy in Philadelphia in 1768 and signed and sealed by members of the Boundary Commission. Before and during the Civil War (1861–1865) this boundary, popularly known as the Mason-Dixon Line, was considered the divider between North and South, free and slave states, giving rise to the popular designation of the South as “Dixie.”

The map itself, however, is only one of many treasures that will be featured from the Maryland Historical Society’s famed collection of Calvert Papers. This Collection consists of approximately 1,300 documents concerning the Calvert family and its relationship to the colony of Maryland. The history of the Papers is quite dramatic. First seen by a Marylander in the British Museum in 1839 in two large chests marked “Calvert Papers,” they were eventually purchased by the Maryland Historical Society in 1888 for $1,589.33 with funds raised by subscription from members.

The Calvert Papers archive holds hundreds of documents related to the 80-year boundary dispute between the two provinces. Included in the exhibition will be a 1732 parchment map of the proposed line between Maryland and Pennsylvania and journals and accounts of earlier surveys. These contain documents determining the midpoint of the Eastern Shore peninsula of Maryland and Pennsylvania in 1751 and the 1760-1763 survey that laid the groundwork for Mason and Dixon’s work in 1763. One of the most exciting documents is the original 1763 parchment of the Articles of Agreement between Thomas and Richard Penn, of Pennsylvania, Frederick, Lord Baltimore, of Maryland, and Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon for surveying the boundary, complete with original signatures and wax seals for all parties.

This supporting material helps visitors understand what led Lord Baltimore and the Proprietors of Pennsylvania to hire in 1763 two British experts to lay stone markers between their two colonies: astronomer Charles Mason and surveyor Jeremiah Dixon and their crew of often hundreds of men placed the markers imported from England every mile. It took them almost five years to complete the survey. The boundary line represented in their map is 244 miles long and begins at 15 miles south of the southernmost tip of Philadelphia, following a constant latitude west.

On loan from David Thaler, vice president of the MdHS board of trustees, are pieces of surveying equipment made in Baltimore in the early 19th century. Among them are a transit made by F.W. and R. King (c. 1849-1875); a Vernier compass by Haggar of Baltimore (c. 1816-1834); and a set of 18th-century Gunter’s Chain (survey chain) of the type that Mason and Dixon would have used to measure distance on land. Lastly, the exhibition will display images of Mason-Dixon markers in the 20th century taken by Dr. Allie L. Trussell, of Baltimore, who conducted a photo survey in 1950.

Just around the corner from the “Borders and Boundaries” exhibition is the Mason-Dixon crownstone, which came into the MdHS collection in 1886. The north-facing side is carved with the crest of the Penn family. The south-facing Calvert crest is surmounted by a crown. The crown marked the land as the dominion of the English king and English law.

Baltimore Festival of Maps, organized by the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance, the Baltimore Festival of Maps, includes a major exhibition at the Walters, “Maps: Finding Our Place in the World,” developed with the Field Museum in Chicago, and smaller exhibits at many other locales. An Inuit map of Greenland is carved in wood. A three-dimensional relief of the Circus Maximus in ancient Rome is sculpted in marble. Leonardo da Vinci used colors to show different elevations of central Italy. Thomas Jefferson sketched the westward expansion of America. There are astoundingly beautiful maps of the universe generated by computers at the Hubble Space Telescope Institute. A hand-drawn map of Middle Earth springs from the imagination of J.R.R. Tolkien. A medieval monk carefully draws a route to Jerusalem, the center of the Christian world, while an internet pioneer maps his vision of the information highway.

The exhibition will continue through June 30, 2008. For more information visit www.baltimorefestivalofmaps.com.

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