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From Absaroka to Yazoo: The 124 United States That Could've Been

Most of my life, I've daydreamed about history -- not so much the incredible depth of historical events that have already occurred, good thinking as that might be. No, I've constantly fictionalized history by changing the outcome of one event here and there and exploring the possibilities of what would have come next. Sometimes I come up with some utterly ridiculous progressions on these alternate timelines of whole new worlds based on relatively minor changes.

Though I admit my imagination was far more active in my youth, I've had a little help getting things going again... mainly, of all things, Wikipedia. A treasure trove of information, the online encyclopedia that anyone can edit has tons of information on historical minutiae that can be used to pass idle time. One of my favorite things to read about, oddly, is defunct sports leagues and teams. These always make me think of the random "what if" questions: What if the USFL hadn't failed in its anti-trust suit against the NFL? (It won, but was only awarded $1.) What if, instead of Green Bay's Packers, that the Muncie Flyers had survived as a small-market team to the present? What if the Federal League, or World Hockey Association, or ABA had made it? Sure, the world of sports is limited in application, but think: if something so arbitrary can spark the imagination, what about larger world events like World War II or the American Civil War? The possibilities are seemingly endless.

I'm certainly not the only one who's done this. It seems like a good third of all Star Trek episodes deal with timeline issues like this. In fact, there's a whole genre of literature, called "alternate history," dedicated to exploring these very possibilities. Harry Turtledove is probably the king of this genre in the US. Turtledove explored an alternate reality in which the south won the American Civil War, all the way through present day. Philip K. Dick's contribution (The Man in the High Castle), a book in which he explores the opposite possible outcome of World War II, is probably the most well known in the genre. Even Newt Gingrich as gotten in on the action. His book.... wasn't completely terrible, as much as it pains me to admit it, though it's probably more the subject matter than the writing.

Recently, on Wikipedia, I discovered a list that really intrigued me like none other: the List of U.S. State Partition Proposals. For a geographer/cartographer who's a U.S.-specialist and who's interested in alternate history, this was Kryptonite for my productivity. From this list, I stumbled onto listings for U.S. Territories that Failed to Become States and the listing for the hypothetical 51st State. I even came across a nice little book called Lost States, a humorous account from Michael Trinklein that briefly explores a number of random states that never quite happened.

After reading all of these things, and all of the linked pages connected -- that's where Wikipedia really sucks you in -- I, of course, allowed my own mind to wander and I came up with the beginnings of a historical geography narrative for the United States of my own, drawing on each of these sources. How could I spell this out? Well, I'm no novelist, because I just really don't have the imagination or skills necessary to put together a story in that format. However, I can make maps here and there, and I firmly believe that maps can do a pretty good job telling a story.

What did I end up with? My own alternate history U.S. map of 124 states (click on it for a bigger version):

Of course, as the map has stated right in the legend, this is NOT a proposal of any sort, it's only a fictional work based loosely on history. Depending on my free time in the next few weeks, I'm hoping to post a summary of how I came up with this map (in other words, my timeline), and a brief capsule about each of these newly created states. I might even make a GIS shapefile so that I could do some rudimentary analysis. That'd be a bizarro GIS article to write, wouldn't it?

Who knew fictional geography could be so much fun?

UPDATE: With the sudden interest in this post, I figured I should link to the other parts of the project I've completed: