- Rainy Lake House: Twilight of Empire on the Northern Frontier by Theodore Catton
Under a blistering summer sun in 1823, an injured John Tanner stalked up the path to the Hudson’s Bay Company trading post at Rainy Lake House, near the border between the United States and Ontario. When Tanner—known to the Company’s traders as “The American” and to Ojibwe peoples as Gichi-mookomaan—reached the fort, he pounded his fists against the gate and accused the men inside of abducting his daughters. When the Company men dismissed Tanner’s accusations, he solicited the aid of both the Company’s “chief factor,” Dr. John McLoughlin, and a U.S. military officer, Major Stephen Long, who happened to be leading a scientific–military expedition into the region at the time. These three men were well acquainted with one another, having interacted in the fur trade, westward exploration, and the navigation of U.S.–Canadian relations in previous years. Together, they eventually located Tanner’s children and brought the tense situation to a close.
Theodore Catton uses many such intersections in the lives of Tanner, McLoughlin, and Long to illustrate “the wider world” in which they lived—a world seemingly on the fringes of the United States but one with profound attachments to, and consequences for, the early republic. For instance, “all three were participants in the changing power dynamics between Europeans and Indians, American and British, Ojibwas and Sioux, and the rivalry of fur companies great and small” (5). As Tanner and McLoughlin demonstrate, having spent their entire lives in the fur trade, the ability of Europeans or Americans to assert any semblance of influence or control in the Great Lakes, Great Plains, or Canada hinged on the local actions of individuals like Tanner and McLoughlin, who bridged the divide between Europeans and Americans with Native groups like the Ojibwe and Odawa. For example, Tanner was a “white Indian,” captured by the Odawa as a child and then assimilated into that [End Page 375] society, who migrated with his Native family throughout the Great Lakes and Canada as they engaged in the fur trade; he eventually forged his own Odawa family (9). Meanwhile, Long led a series of efforts by the U.S. Army to explore and map the Great Lakes and Great Plains to define and expand the territorial limits of the nation during the early nineteenth century. However, Long (a New England blueblood) imposed Euro American attitudes toward race, religion, and civilization on the peoples and places he encountered. To him, Tanner “gave proof that the Indian and white races must be kept apart,” to avoid the “problem of degeneracy” (317). Such racial sensibilities were not only shared by government officials in the early nation but also shaped plans for later Indian removal in the 1830s. Ultimately, Catton juxtaposes the lives of Tanner and McLoughlin with Long to illustrate how racial ideologies in the United States contrasted sharply with the cross-cultural realities that defined the world beyond the early nation.
From start to finish, Catton creates a masterful narrative. This book is not simply three biographies in one; it is a captivating story that knits together disparate peoples and places. It is, then, a microhistory with macrohistorical implications, reminiscent of Anne Hyde’s Empires, Nations, and Families: A New History of the North American West, 1800– 1860 (Lincoln, NE, 2011) or Joshua Piker’s The Four Deaths of Acorn Whistler: Telling Stories in Colonial America (Cambridge, MA, 2013). One might even argue that Catton’s book is a thoughtful reflection on how historians construct narratives of the past, especially when it comes to peoples like the Odawa and places like Rainy Lake House that have, until recently, remained marginal to the story of the early American republic.
Nevertheless, Catton’s conception of the “frontier” is problematic. Despite using the word in his book’s subtitle and throughout its narrative, Catton surprisingly shies away from defining or exploring the dreaded “F” word. One would think Catton...