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Permeable Border: The Great Lakes Basin as Transnational Region, 1650-1990

Author(s):Bukowczyk, John J.
Faires, Nora
Smith, David R.
, David

Published by EH.NET (January 2006)

John J. Bukowczyk, Nora Faires, David R. Smith and Randy William Widdis, Permeable Border: The Great Lakes Basin as Transnational Region, 1650-1990. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press and Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2005. xii + 298 pp. $35 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8229-4261-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Jerome K. Laurent, Department of Economics, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.

This volume was the result of a conference held at Wayne State University in Detroit with sponsorship by the Michigan Council for the Humanities. The four authors consist of two Americans, one Canadian and an American of Canadian descent; three are historians and one a geographer. The resulting seven chapters provide various perspectives on the development of the Great Lakes region from 1650 to the present, both as a borderland and as a transnational region of Canada and the United States.

John Bukowczyk of Wayne State University begins by writing about “the production of history, the becoming of place” and suggests that in many ways the Great Lakes region has been “difficult to define” as changes in the economic, social and political scene occurred over time. He surveys the thoughts of many scholars who have written on the subject in the past. The Great Lakes area was affected by nation building, capital formation, and migration of labor during the period.

Bukowczyk continues the discussion in Chapter 2 entitled “Trade, War, Migration and Empire in the Great Lakes Basin, 1650-1815.” He focuses on the movement of peoples in and through the Great Lakes region, ties to the St. Lawrence River Valley, especially in early times by the French, the prominence of the fur trade, the impact of the French and Indian War, the significance of British involvement in the area, the movement of several Indian tribes, the importance of the Treaty of Paris (1763) and the setting of international boundaries in the area. Moreover, he discusses the role of the “Long War” — the period from 1763 to 1815 in the development of the Great Lakes as a region. There was a westward movement of land seekers from both western New York and Ontario into the area, which now had a formal boundary between British Canada and the United States. Yet in many ways the region was “an economic whole” (p. 28), according to Bukowczyk.

In the third chapter, also by Bukowczyk, the emphasis is on the roles played by emigration, transportation, capital, and the government in the Great Lakes region during the 1815 to 1890 years. He covers the canal building era, especially the Erie Canal, and the role of the state in providing for this transportation route to Lake Erie. This project and others had the effect of encouraging the development of urban areas and their agricultural hinterlands. The British, meanwhile, wanted to develop the St. Lawrence Valley “based no longer upon fur but now upon a new set of staples: timber, flour, and wheat” (p. 35). The result was the Rideau Canal, which provided water connections from Montreal to Kingston, Ontario for geopolitical reasons, as well as for commercial traffic, but it was a “boondoggle,” according to the author. The canalization of the St. Lawrence River and building of the Welland Canal was to improve connections with the Great Lakes region, but with “mixed results” for the Canadians. Beyond transportation ventures, the Canadians, French and British, had other crises to solve; they “had to renegotiate their relationship both to the British Empire and to the expansionist American agrarian republic” (p. 46). As time went on there was a flow of population from Canada to the United States in the Great Lakes region. To many Canadians, this “was a symptom of … dependency and underdevelopment” (p. 49). The beginning of the railroad age added another dimension to economic relationships in the region. The integration of Canada as a nation separate from the British Empire and the United States had economic and political ramifications: it included railroad building into Western Canada, tariffs mainly protective in nature, and the development of a Canadian industrial heartland in Ontario and Quebec.

Chapter 4 by Nora Faires of Western Michigan University deals with the “migration from Ontario to the Upper Midwest in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (p. 78). This reader-friendly chapter covers in detail the patterns of Anglo-Canadian migration into new areas affording cheap land, especially in the United States. A number of examples of the experiences of actual migrants are included showing the variety of work and business opportunities available to enterprising persons. The movement of population back and forth over the border areas was fairly common although the net change over time favored population gains for the American Upper Midwest. Of special interest is the short discussion of African American emigration to Canada during the pre-Civil War period.

David R. Smith of the University of Michigan covers the topic of “channeling and regulating cross-border traffic in labor, capital and goods” in the Great Lakes region (p. 120). He suggests that by the late nineteenth century the “national policies of both Canada and the United States established the essential patterns of Canadian emigration and the reciprocal movement of American capital throughout the region” (p. 121). According to Smith, an open transnational labor market developed between Canada and the United States along with protective tariff policies, which benefited U.S. manufacturers and extractive industries. Border points, such as Point Edward-Port Huron and Detroit-Windsor, were important crossing locations. He examines in detail the Census records showing the percentage of Canadian-born migrants in the population of the Upper Midwest of the United States. He suggests that this pattern of migration must be understood within the broader context of the effort of the United States (government and private capital) “to exert power and influence over the economic development of the continent’s economy” (p. 148).

In Chapter 6, Randy William Widdis of the University of Regina discusses directions for future research on the topic of “migration, borderlands, and national identity.” Various ideas from a number of scholars are included. Of special interest is his discussion of migration patterns using Canadian border-crossing records for the early twentieth century years showing a high percentage of Canadian migrants settling mainly in ten American cities. He emphasizes that “borderlands are organic; they evolve over time to become different places” (p. 174).

In the final chapter John Bukowczyk concentrates on “region, border and nation” as to where research efforts should move in the future. He points out that the authors of this work generally define a region “regionally and historically, not culturally, spatially, or teleologically” (p. 177). They also see the Great Lakes area as “historically transnational” given “the economic (and other) relationships that have spanned the border” (p. 177). He concludes by emphasizing that the Canada-U.S. border “never was a fixed structure, but rather a bundle of contingencies presenting both opportunities and constraints” (p. 180). This reviewer would agree with his assessment.

Overall, the book is a well-researched effort on the part of the four authors. It is a needed addition to the professional literature on this subject. They are able to weave together a discussion of the economic, political and social aspects of developments in the Great Lakes region for a long period of time. Moreover, they are able to fit the situation existing in the Great Lakes area into a broader historical context for both Canada and United States. This reviewer would have desired more discussion of the important role of Great Lakes water transportation in the movement of people and products, on both sides of the border, during the period. Of special note is the Appendix, which details primary sources available for use in migration studies, the extensive Notes (totaling 46 pages) and excellent suggestions for further reading provided on a chapter-by-chapter basis by the authors. Scattered throughout the text are numerous illustrations, maps and tables containing useful information for the reader.

Jerome Laurent is the author of articles on Great Lakes transportation history, which have appeared in Explorations in Economic History, the Journal of Transport History and the International Journal of Maritime History. His most recent article is “‘And Cut Throat Competition Prevented:’ Concentration and Control in Great Lakes Transportation, 1915-1940,” International Journal of Maritime History (December 2002): 43-84. Currently, he is researching the economic organization of Great Lakes transportation during the pre-World War I period.

Subject(s):Transport and Distribution, Energy, and Other Services
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII