July 5th, 2016
Over the past weekend, visiting family and friends and celebrating Independence Day, I drove over the Mason-Dixon Line a few times. My curiosity was piqued and I began to wonder about its cultural and scientific significance. While the Mason-Dixon Line’s initial creation sparked scientific innovation, the Line later became the crossroads of enslavement and freedom leading up to and during the Civil War.
The need for a division between Pennsylvania and Maryland started as early as the mid-1600s, as the two colonies’ land claims overlapped with one another. The Penn family, from Pennsylvania, and the Calvert family, from Maryland, began the discussion on creating a formal boundary in 1682. Because surveying technology was not advanced and neither family was willing to compromise on the suggested boundaries, they asked Britain to intervene in the mid-1700s. However, no one was satisfied with their decision either. This back and forth lasted for many years, and tensions between the neighboring lands intensified, sometimes with deadly results.
Finally, in 1793, the Penn and Calvert families commissioned Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, two surveyors from England, to professionally inspect the land and settle the dispute. Using astronomy and high-tech instruments, they worked for four years to create the 233-mile-long line between Maryland and Pennsylvania, and the 83-mile-long line between Maryland and the Three Lower Counties, which would become Delaware. (Fun fact: they spent a lot of time in St. Patrick’s Tavern, or what would become the Deer Park Tavern in Newark, Delaware!) The line was marked every mile by stones, and “crownstones,” which featured the two coats-of-arms, every five miles. While some of these stones have since been destroyed, a few are still standing. The Line became the first example of a successful surveying mission, and became the precedent for surveying worldwide.
However, when Mason and Dixon first took on the project of surveying the boundaries, they had no idea how important their contribution would be to the cultural tide of the soon-to-be United States. During the late 1700s, the Line became the divider between the North and the South, or better known as the division between the “free” and the “slave” states. In 1780, Pennsylvania abolished slavery, and as more Northern states followed suit, the topic of slavery became extremely heated in the 1800s.
Northern states were modernizing from 1780 to 1820—urban centers were rapidly growing, new factories were being built, and technological innovations were abound. With this new modern outlook, most Northerners believed slavery to be an antiquated, inhumane practice. But the South’s economy was still dependent on agriculture, and slavery was integral to that business. Southerners were also determined to keep what they believed to be their constitutional rights.
Because it was the boundary between the free and slave states, the Underground Railroad, a network of safe houses and routes for escaped slaves to follow towards the North, was especially prevalent in these states. The MD/PA border was the last stop before freedom for escaped slaves– and it was also the place where slave catchers were in full force. One of Elkton’s own was a slave catcher– Thomas McCready. After the federal government passed Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 that allowed slave catchers to find and return runaways back into slavery for generous rewards, McCready’s career flourished. He would capture escaped slaves, but also kidnap free men and women of color, sending them to the South to be sold into slavery again.
Although the Mason-Dixon Line is no longer used as a barrier between the North and South, its history remains an important step in understanding our history as the United States of America.
To learn more about the Mason-Dixon Line, check out these CCPL resources: