Rediscover America’s ‘Lost States’

Reading Time: 3 minutes
Image: Quirk Books

American history is one of my biggest passions, and the weird stories of things that don’t make it into the textbooks are my favorite bits. If you read my posts here, this will come as no surprise to you.

I’ve recently found yet another history/geography book that has captured my interest, Lost States: True Stories of Texlahoma, Transylvania, and Other States That Never Made It. Related to this, I am a big fan of How the States Got Their Shapes. My kids and I watched the show, and I quickly procured the book. But Lost States focuses on the states that didn’t quite make it, rather than the ones that did.

As the author, Michael J. Trinklein, says in the introduction, it might seem that our tidy 50 states were preordained. Fifty is such a nice, round number. But you only have to go back to my parents’ childhood to remember the days of 48 states. And my own state, Arizona, only became the 48th a little over 100 years ago. Forming these United States into one cohesive whole was a process, one that stretched from the Revolutionary period until the 1950s, and is still debated today. For example, will the District of Columbia ever be a state? What about Puerto Rico? Our static country is an illusion, though one we make ourselves comfortable with. And in Lost States, we learn about dozens of states that could have been. While it is not a new book, I find that we’re examining our nation’s history more than usual these days, and how our states formed (or didn’t, in this case) is an important part of our combined history.

From Absaroka to Yucatan, north, south, east, west, every corner of this country has bits of history that were never fully realized. As the book says, “The real stories of the states are often laugh-out-loud funny, replete with absurd characters, stunning ignorance, and monumental screw-ups.” And Trinklein is hilarious in his own right. I laughed out loud before I even got to the book’s main content.

Some of these states overlap many U.S. states, and some are a portion of one. And others aren’t even on current U.S. soil (Albania as the 51st state?). But each one is covered in a two-page spread with history that will pique your interest and includes plenty of visuals, like old maps with “state” overlays, new maps made to look old, and other artifacts. Each failed state also includes a punchy tagline. For example, for Absaroka: “Just what we need: Another squarish western state.” And for Navassa: “And the Guano Islands. If it has bird poop, it’s ours.”

The book doesn’t promise to be exhaustive, but it does cover more states-that-never-were than any other source I’ve seen. And it really is laugh-out-loud funny. And that’s saying a lot for me, as someone who requires quite a lot to audibly laugh. (Make me laugh and I will be forever grateful.)

Underlying the history and the humor on each page is a bit of somewhat-between-the-lines commentary on other issues regarding the potential state. So, read this book, learn quite a number of things, laugh, chuckle, and roll your eyes. But the book will also help change your perspective on just how states and nations are made, and why some states are considered and then denied.

This is what the unfolded dust jacket looks like. Pretty snazzy. Image: Quirk Books

As a bonus, the thick and sturdy dust jacket comes off, unfolds, and is a larger map of what you see on the cover, complete with guide to many of the locations covered in the book. It would make a nice wall hanging, or you can just use it as a larger reference as you read through the book. A neat touch, Michael J. Trinklein!

Lost States: True Stories of Texlahoma, Transylvania, and Other States That Never Made It came out in 2010, but it’s still a great read today. Perfect for students of history, geography, and politics, each page takes only a minute or two to read, and is thus perfect for reading before bed or anywhere else you relax for a couple of minutes.

Note: I received a copy of the book for review purposes.

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