Writing Michigan History from a Transborder Perspective

By Gray, Susan E. | Michigan Historical Review, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Writing Michigan History from a Transborder Perspective


Gray, Susan E., Michigan Historical Review


Histories of individual American states constitute a peculiar kind of political history. Pivoting on the fact of statehood, these works invariably combine a geopolitical narrative of how a state came into existence with a heavily social and economic account of the subsequent fortunes of its citizens. They are thus histories both of boundary making and of human experience confined within those borders, qualities they share with historical overviews of the development of other North American political units--whether the United States as a whole, Canada, or the Canadian provinces. Even though the process of boundary making is by definition as much exclusive as inclusive of lands and peoples, state histories do not usually consider what difference statehood made for either lands divided or people excluded. This is in part because state histories tend to be teleological in structure; typically, they are organized to depict the march of progress to the present. (1) It is also true that state boundaries have generally received little attention within the larger narrative of American history, except as artifacts of the conflict between slave and free states and of the displacements of Native Peoples with the advance of white settlement. But some state borders are also national ones, as between Michigan and Ontario. Here the process of boundary making--the division of lands and the exclusion of peoples--proved integral to the evolution of a state within a borderland of several centuries standing.

As any Michigan schoolchild is supposed to know, before the state came into existence, and for roughly as long as Michigan has been a state, the two peninsulas formed part of a larger contact zone embracing the Great Lakes basin. There, indigenous, mostly Anishinabe, inhabitants, engaged with the representatives of three successive empires--French, British, and American. The various groups all made territorial claims in their own ways and for their own purposes. Native Peoples, of course, had occupied homelands on and around the two peninsulas long before Europeans arrived in the upper Great Lakes region in the mid-seventeenth century. But after statehood, something disappears from the histories of Michigan: neither Indians within nor anyone outside the borders of the state plays much of a role in post-1837 narratives. This absence is puzzling, because most Native Peoples in Michigan managed to evade the federal program for their removal west of the Mississippi. Indian removal does not, therefore, signal the closing of the frontier and the coming of statehood in Michigan, as it does in most other histories of states in the trans-Appalachian West. (2) Similarly, social and economic ties between the peninsulas and the rest of the Great Lakes basin were not limited to the fur-trade era before statehood. On the contrary, even if scholars do not tend to treat them as such, the social and economic histories of Michigan and Ontario have remained interpenetrated to this day. (3)

A brief survey of the five major histories of Michigan published in the past fifty years reveals their dependence upon statehood as the turning point away from narratives of a transborder region to state chronicles that exclude many of the actors of the earlier period who, nevertheless, continued to play roles in Michigan's history after statehood. In three of these histories--F. Clever Bald, Michigan in Four Centuries, Bruce Carton, Michigan: A Bicentennial History; and Willis F. Dunbar and George S. May, Michigan: A History of the Wolverine State--Native Peoples cease to be actors in the state narrative after the American achievement of political hegemony in the Northwest Territory, of which Michigan was a part, following the War of 1812. Between 1815 and the achievement of statehood in 1837, Indians figure in these accounts only as impediments to white settlement that were eliminated through a series of treaties that ceded indigenous lands to the federal government. …

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