From Fur Trade to Free Trade: Rethinking the Inland Empire

Article excerpt

"One cannot understand the implications of free trade without understanding the geography of free trade."

--Christopher D. Merrett, 1996

The settlement of the Oregon Boundary Dispute between Great Britain and the United States in 1846 was a definitive moment in the social, economic, and political evolution of the interior Pacific Northwest.(1) However, the creation of the new international boundary and the consequent evolution of a distinct northern borderland region has been little appreciated, especially by historians and sociologists. From Frederick Jackson Turner's classic "Frontier Thesis" of 1893,(2) to the most recent work of the so-called "New Western Historians," the central role of the 49th parallel west of the Great Lakes has largely been either neglected or ignored. In the latter case, for instance, the most distressing instances are Patricia Nelson Limerick's 1987 The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West, and Richard White's 1991 It's Your Misfortune and None of My Own, two recent and popular reinterpretations of Western history, both of which barely acknowledge Canada's existence and completely ignore the issue of the border.(3)

It is our contention that, if the issue of the northern borderland is approached via the discipline of geography, a much clearer image emerges, and some significant details stand out in stark relief. The term "borderlands" has been developed and utilized by geographers to refer to distinctive regions that have formed along the political boundaries of nation-states. While, by definition, borders divide nations, they in turn join both sides together through interaction and trade, and create common characteristics in the landscape and people. As a result, residents of the borderland region are often more closely linked to each other than to other citizens of their respective countries. In this way there is a blending which takes place along the border that creates a distinctive cultural landscape. By utilizing this approach, we are following a trail suggested by such fellow geographers as Donald W. Meinig, Julian Minghi, and Victor Konrad, to name but a few.(4) Among the Pacific Northwest historians, the work of Carlos Schwantes and John Fahey has been essential in understanding the borderlands concept.(5)

Our primary theme focuses on what we refer to as the reemergence of "Columbia"--a geographical region long frustrated by both politics and history. Columbia has finally come of age, transformed by the geographical and economic realities of new technologies, economic globalization, and free trade. The first Columbia was created by the trade networks of the Coastal and Interior Plateau groups of American Indians, although this interaction was restricted owing to the difficulties of limited transportation. However, by the 1830s the region had been successfully integrated by the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) into what was termed the Department of Columbia (Map 1). The transportation of resources and people by the HBC extensively utilized the interior drainage system, especially the Columbia River and its tributaries. The name Columbia long served as a toponym for the entire region--as in British Columbia--and may be considered a more logical term for the region also known by the trendier but less accurate "Cascadia."(6)

Today, Columbia stands on the threshold of rebirth. This contention is based on observations, impressions, and the occasional lively argument arising from a four-year research project involving cross-border shopping, travel, and trade in the "Inland Empire" region of the interior northwest. This term refers to the vast area extending from southeastern British Columbia on the north to northeastern Oregon on the south, and from the Cascade Range in the west to the Rocky Mountains in the east.(7) Thus, while the Inland Empire does not lie within what Alan Artibise refers to as the "Main Street" of Cascadia--the Interstate 5 corridor--it is indeed part of the greater Columbia region. …