The strange history of efforts to redraw the New England map
For most Americans, the notion of adding a 51st state to the Union seems about as likely as adding a new president to Mount Rushmore. But it wasn't always so. Previous generations saw the US map as a work in progress, a collaborative effort worth debating, even fighting over. Our map isn't cast in stone--it's more like soft clay.
Making new states--by promoting territories, budding off some backcountry, or just annexing a foreign country--has always been an essential part of the American experience. Over the years, re-drawing the map of the states has been a way Americans imagine their future, express unhappiness, or vent their territorial ambitions. New states--or the threat of new states--have forced legislative change, separated quarreling groups, and sometimes just made a point.
As old as its borders are, New England hasn't been insulated from this process. In fact it has been the most active state-making region. From the creation of the Rhode Island colony in 1636 to an attempt to make Boston a separate state nearly 200 years later, New Englanders have been especially interested in shaping and re-shaping their state borders. While some proposals seem quixotic, New Englanders do have a knack for getting things done. Consider the residents of the "North District" of Massachusetts, who cajoled the state Legislature into setting them free--to become the brand new state of Maine in 1820.
It might seem like this process is long over, but history suggests otherwise. Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket tried to secede from Massachusetts in 1977. Killington, Vt., tried to defect to New Hampshire in 2004. And just last month, Maine Representative Henry Joy renewed his long-running attempt to split Maine into two parts. Here are five New England states that might have been--and, for all we know, might still be.
On July 23, 1919, State Representative James H. Brennan of Charlestown marched over to the clerk's office in the Massachusetts House of Representatives and filed a bill to make Boston a separate state.
Brennan's beef was unjust taxation--specifically, the $600,000 the city was required to pay into the state's school fund, "of which not a cent's worth of benefit will be derived," according to Brennan. He didn't want Boston to go it alone--his plan included adding Chelsea, Revere, and the town of Winthrop to the 49th state, to be named the State of Boston.
The proposal created certain practical obstacles, like how Massachusetts was supposed to operate with its capital in a now-separate state. Brennan didn't have a chance to work through the details, though. His outrage regarding the Republican-led Legislature "loading us down with unjust taxation" didn't stir any groundswells of support. In fact, there is no record of anyone else in the Legislature endorsing Brennan's plan.
Pennsylvania wasn't too happy about all this, asserting that the Wyoming valley was actually in their state. The resulting conflict, called the Pennamite-Yankee War, went on for decades. Armed militia from Pennsylvania would periodically try to chase out the interlopers; shots would be exchanged and a few people were actually killed. After the American Revolution, Congress settled the matter in favor of Pennsylvania.
After getting kicked out of Pennsylvania, Connecticut continued to claim ownership of the rest of its coast-to-coast swath, focusing on portions farther west in what is now Ohio. Eventually, it was forced to abandon Ohio too. One vestige: Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, located in the former "western reserve" of Connecticut.
Just last month, Henry Joy, a Republican state legislator who represents the northern Maine town of Island Falls, proposed legislation to split Maine into two states. He cited a series of irreconcilable geographic differences between Maine's rural north and more settled south. There is a certain logic to Joy's position. For example, recreation in the north includes hunting and snowmobiling, whereas southerners tend to be more interested in Shakespeare festivals and weekend antiquing.
Joy has pitched this idea several times over the last 13 years, getting media attention every time.
One recurring hangup has been choosing names for the new states. Joy wants to call the upper half "Maine," forcing the lower half to find a new name for itself--he disdainfully suggests "Northern Massachusetts." More conciliatory advocates suggest letting the south keep "Maine" and calling the north "Acadia."
It's hard to imagine any more independent-minded people than the citizens of New Connecticut. In 1777, they unilaterally declared their independence from the neighboring colonies. Just a few months later, they even changed New Connecticut's name--to ensure it was clear that they were not associated with any "old" Connecticut. The new name: Vermont. Throughout the 1760s and 1770s, New York had tried to swallow up Vermont, as had New Hampshire. The plucky Vermonters ended those threats by raising a militia called the Green Mountain Boys and successfully defended their autonomy.
In no rush to join the Union, Vermont minted its own currency and even entertained offers to join Canada. No other state has ever been quite that gutsy. Vermonters patiently weighed their options, and finally agreed to join the United States--on their own terms--in 1791.
As recently as the 1940s, Newfoundland was a self-governing British dominion completely independent of Canada. When it became clear that Newfoundland would be better off joining a larger nation, most Newfoundlanders began looking south. They wanted to attach themselves to the United States, not Canada.
Polls taken in 1947 report that 80 percent of Newfoundland's population wanted to become Americans. After all, if you're going to join a club, why not go with the most powerful group on earth? Plus, Newfoundland's proximity and economic ties to New England made it a logical candidate to become the 49th state.
So what happened? Canada played hardball. In desperation, the Canadian government orchestrated elections to ensure the outcome they wanted. The United States government, not especially interested in acquiring a new state, didn't wage a counter-campaign.
Even today, talk of Newfoundland statehood resurfaces every so often--especially whenever Quebec threatens to leave Canada. Given Newfoundland's distinct history and isolated geography, it remains among the provinces most likely to extricate itself from Canada. If that happens, the United States is still the probable place to land.
Michael J. Trinklein is the author of "Lost States: True Stories of Texlahoma, Transylvania, and Other States That Never Made It," recently published by Quirk Books.