Rediscovering Minnesota before the United States

When I was a kid growing up in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, I was fascinated by the fact that the U.P. had not always been part of the United States, much less part of Michigan. Visiting the reconstructed Fort Michimilimackinac at the northern tip of the Lower Peninsula and Fort Mackinac on Mackinac Island in the channel between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, I loved learning that this territory had been France, Britain, and Canada before it was the United States — and though nobody really dwelt on it, that the land had belonged to the Ottawa and Ojibwa before any white men showed up.

As I grew up, my interest in the U.P.’s history shifted from the 18th and early 19th centuries to the region’s industrial golden age between roughly the Civil War and World War II, when the U.P. furnished the copper and iron that the burgeoning American economy needed, and when the area’s population was as large, diverse, and affluent as it had ever been or would ever be. In those years, I lived first in Ironwood at the far western tip of the U.P., a town that had been the biggest city in the Gogebic Iron Range, and later in Hancock at the southern end of the glorious Keweenaw Peninsula, in the heart of the Copper Country. Both Ironwood and Hancock were hollowed-out, depressed, and depressing towns that had lost half or more of their boom-time populations by the time I lived there.

That direct experience of living in busted towns colored by outlook on life, for sure, but also impelled me to study — in college and in grad school — how any why American capitalism works this way, in cycles of brief, amazing nooms that create something out of nothing, and the long, sad busts that see the something fade back almost to nothing. In pursuing those questions by focusing on World War II , my former interests in the political and social history of the the 17th/18th centuries all but faded away.

Since moving back to Minnesota, and especially since moving to Northfield, where the annual commemoration of the defeat of Jesse James’ raiding gang is literally a town holiday, I have started rediscovering these older interests, though: the efforts by whites from Lewis & Clark to Zebulon Pike to tie the Old Northwest into the new republic at the beginning of the 19th century, the subsequent “settlement” of Minnesota by whites in the middle of that century, the conversion of pre-contact forests and prairies to farmland, the Dakota Wars that coincided with the Civil War…

These revived interests matched perfectly with a new book by historian Theodore Catton, Rainy Lake House: Twilight of Empire on the Northern Frontier, which tells the amazing and sad story of white colonization of the lands between the western end of Lake Superior and the Red River Valley – what’s now the U.P., Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Ontario, and Manitoba. (My friend Michael Allen – a professor of history at Northwestern University – sent me the book, thinking correctly that I’d love it.)

Much of the story was generally familiar, from the ways that France, Britain, and the new U.S. drew Indians into the fur trade and then into land swindles to the competition among those three countries – empires – over the Old Northwest and the peoples in them: the Ottawa, Ojibwa, and Lakota nations; traders, settlers, and soldiers from each country; the mixed métis of Canada.

Some of the story was less familiar to me, such as the incredibly difficult, lucrative, and destructive fur industry; the efforts through the middle of the 19th c. to launch new colonies in Canada; and the out-of-placeness of the métis who were neither French-Canadian nor Indian. And some of the story was wholly new, such as the bizarre forms of society on the frontier (many white traders had two families: a white family back east in Montreal or Toronto and an Indian wife and family in some fort or factory deep in the interior) or the sad life of John Tanner, a white man who’d been kidnapped by Indians as a child and grew up as a sort of white Indian but who was not accepted either as an American or as an Indian.

Tanner’s story is the core of Rainy Lake House, and Catton tells the story well, using Tanner’s upbringing in Ojibwa culture and maturation as a skilled hunter and trapper to show how the Indian nations adapted – or failed to adapt – to the expansion of the British in the north and the Americans to the south. Tanner was an enigma to almost everyone who met him, not least to the wife who tried to murder him. Tanner’s near-mortal injury led to his meeting the curmudgeonly, frustrated Canadian doctor and fur trader John McLoughlin and the ambitious American army officer and explorer Stephen Long. Working on opposite sides of the grand game to control the fur territories, McLoughlin and Long reflected, enacted, and created the economic, political, and cultural views on the exploitation and settlement of what was then and is still now a remote and thinly settled region.

As much as I enjoyed Catton’s skillful triple biography of these three men, I enjoyed even more his subtle sketching of the places where they lived, places I know a little bit now through my winter bike riding – the forests and swamps between Ely and International Falls, Minnesota or the plains along the Red River south of Winnipeg, Manitoba. Leaving aside the ultimately sad, if riveting, narratives about the various ways that Tanner, McLoughlin, and Long contributed to “settling” the Old Northwest, I was fascinated by the simple fact that any travel in this area required insanely arduous travel by foot or canoe. A few miles of fatbiking in January in northern Minnesota pales in comparison to the seasonal treks of the voyeageurs between what’s now far-northeastern Minnesota and Montreal, or the endless roving by the Ojibwa and Ottawa across their homelands.

I highly recommend Rainy Lake House to anyone interested in the history of Minnesota or the Upper Midwest, in the history of the early American Republic, or in the history of American Indians. The book reads like a much shorter work than its heft suggests, and any reader will come away with a new appreciation for the complexities of the 19th c. frontier, a place that was both a deeply multicultural society (though not an egalitarian one) and an ecosystem transformed by political, economic, and cultural pressures.

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