Sterling Evans, ed. The Borderlands of the Canadian and American Wests: Essays on Regional History of the Forty-Ninth Parallel. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2006. x + 388 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8032-1826-0.
Reviewed by Erik Strikwerda (History Department, York University)
Published on H-Canada (March, 2007)
Crossing the Borderlands
The Borderlands of the American and Canadian Wests is an edited collection of nineteen (mostly lively) historical essays, each addressing some aspect of western regional life along both sides of the forty-ninth parallel. One of the essays is very old (Paul Sharp's now classic examination of the Whoop-Up Trail was first published in 1955). The rest are relatively recent forays into cross-border studies. But all have been either presented or published elsewhere before finding new digs in this collection.
Any collection addressing a "region" must, of course, first define its geographical terms, and the editor of The Borderlands has done so here. The borderlands' constituent parts include the Pacific Northwest, the Columbia Plateau, the Northwestern Plains and Rocky Mountains, and the Northern Plains. Some readers might quibble with dividing the region so starkly but doing so works here, mainly because the region's geography and environments (or "bioregions," to borrow environmental historian Ted Binnema's use of this thoughtful term) played so large a role in defining the rhythms of life there.
The collection's central premise is that, for the most part, the region's rivers and streams, rolling plains and sprawling mountain ranges, coastal areas, and yes, even people, paid little heed to the lines some men somewhere else drew on pieces of paper through the first half of the nineteenth century. The official western Canada-U.S. border, subject to various disputes, revisions, and contestations, appeared first in 1818. The far western portion was clarified in 1846 in the aftermath of the Oregon Boundary Dispute. Few in the West apparently took much notice. Instead, according to this collection, they carried on with their fishing, hunting, and trading, their ranching, their farming, and their colonizing. In other words, it was business as usual.
The essays are organized into six thematic sections ranging from the colonization of the borderlands to explorations of specific economic activities carried on there (salmon fishing, buffalo hunting, ranching, farming, fruit growing). One of the more interesting themes is cross-border traffic (thirsty Prohibition-era Americans seeking a tall cold one in British Columbia; American Mormons seeking religious freedom in Alberta's southwest; American Klansmen setting up shop in western Canada; and draft-dodging young American men and their families migrating north, hoping for a happier alternative to Vietnam's horrors).
You might be sensing a strictly south to north migration trend here, but a few essays deal with "Canadian" settlement patterns south of the border. Gerhard Ens's "The Border, the Buffalo, and the Métis of Montana," for example, shows how "Canadian" Métis in the late nineteenth century moved to the U.S. side of the medicine line in search of the last of the buffalo herds and chose to stay there. Michel Hogue's effort similarly traces "Canadian" Cree efforts to settle in the Montana Territory.
Together, the greatest contribution of these essays is their collective emphasis on the commonalities and shared experiences that transcended the international boundary line. It is an emphasis all historians of the western region, on either side of the border, would do well to note. After all, as historian John Herd Thompson remarks in his terrific foreword to this collection, "the northern borderlands connect the Wests as surely as they divide them" (p. xiii).
One of the collection's more useful features is the editor's series of introductory remarks in each section, setting the groups of essays into a wider historical context. Readers interested in more information on any theme or topic included in the collection will also be delighted to find at the end of each essay grouping a healthy listing of related articles and books. The sheer number of secondary source material speaks to the evident vibrancy of the field.
Given the richness of this collection's cross border analysis, I was only a little disappointed to find that just a few of the essays deal in any substantive way with interactions among the sub-regions. Most of the contributions are neatly packed into their sub-regions, leaving one with the impression that activities and experiences on the Northern Plains, for instance, had no relationship with the Pacific Northwest or the Columbia Plateau. Similarly, it is only Eckart V Toy Jr.'s Klansmen and Evelyne Stitt Pickett's hoboes and itinerant laborers who seemed to interact with the whole of the region, passing through sub-regions as easily as they passed through the forty-ninth parallel.
Editor Sterling Evans has assembled a fine collection of essays prepared by a widely varying collection of scholars. The book's dust jacket maintains that it is "the first collection of interdisciplinary essays bringing together scholars from both sides of the forty-ninth parallel to examine life in a transboundary region." If this collection is any guide, we can only hope there are many more to come.
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Erik Strikwerda. Review of Evans, Sterling, ed., The Borderlands of the Canadian and American Wests: Essays on Regional History of the Forty-Ninth Parallel.
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