Mason-Dixon Line

The Mason-Dixon Line Divided the North and South

Mason Dixon Line marker

Joe Sohm / Getty Images 

Although the Mason-Dixon line is most commonly associated with the division between the northern and southern (free and pro-slavery, respectively) states during the 1800s and American Civil War-era, the line was delineated in the mid-1700s to settle a property dispute. The two surveyors who mapped the line, Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, will always be known for their famous boundary.

Map indicating the Mason Dixon line.
 Alvin Jewett Johnson / Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

Calvert vs. Penn

In 1632, King Charles I of England gave the first Lord Baltimore, George Calvert, the colony of Maryland. Fifty years later, in 1682, King Charles II gave William Penn the territory to the north, which later became Pennsylvania. A year later, Charles II gave Penn land on the Delmarva Peninsula (the peninsula that includes the eastern portion of modern Maryland and all of Delaware).

The description of the boundaries in the grants to Calvert and Penn did not match and there was a great deal of confusion as to where the boundary (supposedly along 40 degrees north) lay. The Calvert and Penn families took the matter to the British court and England's chief justice declared in 1750 that the boundary between southern Pennsylvania and northern Maryland should lie 15 miles south of Philadelphia.

A decade later, the two families agreed on the compromise and set out to have the new boundary surveyed. Unfortunately, colonial surveyors were no match for the difficult job and two experts from England had to be recruited.

The Experts: Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon

Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon arrived in Philadelphia in November 1763. Mason was an astronomer who had worked at the Royal Observatory at Greenwich and Dixon was a renowned surveyor. The two had worked together as a team prior to their assignment to the colonies.

After arriving in Philadelphia, their first task was to determine the exact absolute location of Philadelphia. From there, they began to survey the north-south line that divided the Delmarva Peninsula into the Calvert and Penn properties. Only after the Delmarva portion of the line had been completed did the duo move to mark the east-west running line between Pennsylvania and Maryland.

They precisely established the point fifteen miles south of Philadelphia and since the beginning of their line was west of Philadelphia, they had to begin their measurement to the east of the beginning of their line. They erected a limestone benchmark at their point of origin.

Surveying in the West

Travel and surveying in the rugged "west" was difficult and slow going. The surveyors had to deal with many different hazards, one of the most dangerous to the men being the indigenous Native Americans living in the region. The duo did have Native American guides, although once the survey team reached a point 36 miles east of the end point of the boundary, their guides told them not to travel any farther. Hostile residents kept the survey from reaching its end goal.

Thus, on October 9, 1767, almost four years after they began their surveying, the 233 mile-long Mason-Dixon line had (almost) been completely surveyed.

The Missouri Compromise of 1820

Over 50 years later, the boundary between the two states along the Mason-Dixon line came into the spotlight with the Missouri Compromise of 1820. The Compromise established a boundary between the pro-slavery states of the South and the free states of the North (however its separation of Maryland and Delaware is a bit confusing since Delaware was a pro-slavery state that stayed in the Union).

Digital illustration of the Missouri Compromise.
Blue indicates free states, red indicates pro-slavery states, and green is the Missouri Compromise line.

JWB / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

This boundary became referred to as the Mason-Dixon line because it began in the east along the Mason-Dixon line and headed westward to the Ohio River and along the Ohio to its mouth at the Mississippi River and then west along 36 degrees 30 minutes North.

The Mason-Dixon line was very symbolic in the minds of the people of the young nation struggling over enslavement and the names of the two surveyors who created it will evermore be associated with that struggle and its geographic association.

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Your Citation
Rosenberg, Matt. "Mason-Dixon Line." ThoughtCo, Oct. 24, 2020, Rosenberg, Matt. (2020, October 24). Mason-Dixon Line. Retrieved from Rosenberg, Matt. "Mason-Dixon Line." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 28, 2023).