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The Mason-Dixon Line

Mason-Dixon Survey Limit

           Originally the Mason-Dixon Survey, completed in 1767 during the English Colonial  Period, established an exact boundary between the lands of William Penn, Lord Proprietor of the Province of Pennsylvania, and those of Cecil Calvert, the second Lord Baltimore, Proprietor of the Province of Maryland. By mere coincidence, over time the Mason-Dixon Survey Line morphed into the Mason-Dixon Line which was the border between the States of the United States where the enslavement of African Americans was legal and the States of the United States where the enslavement of African Americans was illegal.

            The Mason-Dixon Survey was initiated in 1763, when Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon landed the monumental task of resolving an 80-year property dispute. Mason was an astronomer employed by The Royal Society in Greenwich, England. He had spent his time observing the stars and the moon, and establishing lunar tables that could be used to determine longitude. Dixon was a surveyor from Cockfield in Durham County, England, and who had been educated by John Bird, a renowned maker of high precision astronomical instruments. 

            Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon left England and arrived at Philadelphia on the 15th day of November, 1763. They worked as a team for a total of 58 months plotting the  boundary between the English Colonies of  Pennsylvania and Maryland and extending the survey westward to include the boundary between Pennsylvania and Virginia in what today is West Virginia.

            Mason and Dixon at once determined the latitude and longitude of the city of Philadelphia, the boundary began exactly 15 miles south of the southern most tip of the city of Philadelphia . This was at the northeastern corner of Maryland, which was, the beginning of the parallel of latitude that had previously been agreed upon as the boundary between the two provinces.

            On the 17th day of June, 1765, the party reached the Susquehanna River, where they received instructions to carry the line “as far as the provinces of Maryland and Pennsylvania are settled and inhabited.” On the 27th of October 1765 they reached North Mountain.  On the 4th day of June, 1766, they reached the summit of Little Alleghany. At that time, they were delayed by Indian raiding on the frontier. Surveying was halted until Sir William Johnson negotiated a treaty with the Six Nations in May, and on the 8th day of June. 1767, the surveyors resumed where they had left off the year before.

            On the 14th of June, they advanced as far as the summit of the Big Alleghany (Savage), where they were joined by an escort of Indians, with an interpreter, who had been deputed by the chiefs of the Six Nations to accompany them. The Indians became restless and suspicious of so much gazing into the heavens and marking on the ground. Some of the Indians and number of workers left the party with only fifteen axe men. Mason and Dixon sent back to Fort Cumberland for more men, and kept on towards the setting sun.

            Finally they reached a point two hundred and forty-four miles from the Delaware River, where they came upon an Indian warpath at Dunkard's Creek on the Pennsylvania line at present day Blacksville, West Virginia. Here the Indians of the escort told the surveyors that it was the desire of the Six Nations that they should stop, so the party returned to Philadelphia, reported to the commissioners under the deed of 1760, and were honorably discharged from their surveying duties on the 26th day of December, 1767.



            Eventually the line was surveyed west between Pennsylvania and Virginia to the Ohio River. Pennsylvania abolished slavery in 1780 and the Ordinance of 1787 prohibiting slavery north of the Ohio River, made the Ohio River an extension of the Mason-Dixon Line that separated the Slave States of Virginia and Kentucky from the Free States of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois.  

       During debates of the Missouri Compromise in 1820 the U.S. Congress defined the Mason-Dixon Line, (the Red Line on the Map below), as the border between the States where slavery was legal and States where slavery was illegal.


            This map shows the years when each of the Northern States abolished slavery. Slavery in Southern States continued to be legal until  the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 and the passage of the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1865.  


The red line on this Map shows the MASON-DIXON LINE.