Are things getting better or worse? To answer this question—about ourselves, our families, communities, and about humanity—we imagine ourselves balanced between the past and the future. This is, in a simple way, what the practice of History is all about. We gather up the artifacts left to us from past generations, and we make sense of them in the context of events that came later. Our present is the future of the past we study.
The region we call the Global Heartland plays a symbolic role in the history of Canada and the United States. At different times over the past 300 years, the region has symbolized wilderness beyond the reach of civilization, hope for a democratic society, wonder at the creative power of industry, and despair for the collapse of the same industries.
Visions of the region quite often vied for dominance. Thomas Jefferson structured the Northwest Ordinance as a vision of the future: the orderly settlement of newly acquired territories. The Shawnee leader Tecumseh and his brother the prophet Tenskwatawa, to the contrary, worked to secure Indian power over the region and hoped to drive out white settlers. Industrialist George Pullman believed his model town would foster harmony between workers and employers in an era of industrial strife. The labor conflict that emerged from the Town of Pullman in 1894 instead made it, and its namesake, into symbols of greed and violence. How we remember and retell these stories from the region’s past help us understand the complexity of its present.
The term “heartland” was not very much used to describe the region before the 1950s, and the term is most widely used in the US. In the last two decades of the 20th century it became more common to speak of the American Midwest as the “heartland.” Perhaps this was a reaction to the dislocations of as global trade, renewed immigration, and deindustrialization that have transformed communities and undermined the political power of the region at the national level. Talk of the “heartland” conjures up small town life, and a certain cultural sameness that is free of conflict. In short, it helps us forget globalization. Calling the region the “Global Heartland” is intended to challenge readers to see a more complex vision of the past and the present, in order that we may chart a more realistic future.
Charles Currier and James Merritt Ives, Across the Continent: “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way” (New York: Currier and Ives, 1868), George A. Poole III Collection, Newberry Library.
Main Gate to Works, Pullman, in The Story of Pullman, 1893.
Pictorial Map Showing the Route Travelled by the Mormon Pioneers from Nauvoo to Great Salt Lake (Salt Lake City: Millroy & Hayes, 1899), Everett D. Graff Collection, Newberry Library.