Looking down from space at the middle of North America, it is hard to miss the deep blue of the Great Lakes. What you cannot see is the border that divides the lakes and the land around them into the United States and Canada. That invisible line defines two examples of the “nation-state,” possibly the most important invention of the modern era. Nation-states are the basic political unit of world society. Individually they organize the economic and social interactions of their citizens, and together they divide the earth and its bounty into mutually exclusive national spaces.
Borders have real consequences for the way people live: different laws, different languages, different school systems, and different opportunities. But they often separate land and people with a shared past. Far from preventing interaction between people on either side, borders organize and channel contact between nations and their people.
For thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans, the lakes and rivers, forests and prairies of mid-continent North America were home to cultures that did not recognize borders or property lines. In the 17th and much of the 18th centuries both sides of the future border were part of the fur trading hinterland of Montreal. France, Britain, and the United States in turn laid claims on the land around the lakes, and these shifting borders of empire and nation shaped the early history of the region. After the border between the U.S. and British Canada was set in the mid-19th century, Canadians and Americans continually crossed from one side to the other seeking work, land, and freedom. The economies of the U.S. and Canadian heartland developed in similar ways in part because of they shared one ecological zone, but the border between the nations would create distinct societies on either side.
Nicolas de Fer, Le Cours du Missisipi, ou de St. Loüis fameuse riviere de l’Amerique septentrionale aux environs de laquelle se trouve le païs appellé Louisiane (Paris: Chez Bernard, 1718).
Emma Willard, A Series of Maps to Willard’s History of the United States, or Republic of America. Designed for Schools and Private Libraries (New York : White, Gallaher & White, 1828).
“Oak Park Farm,” in E. A. Heisler and D. M. Smith, Atlas Map of Johnson County, Kansas: Compiled From Actual Personal Surveys and Records (Wyandott, KS: E. F. Heisler and Co., 1874), 81.