By Daniel Hubbard | February 20, 2010
What makes a place a place? While writing A Very Porous Border I couldn’t help but think about what we mean by the concept of a place and, after that post, the natural example for me to use comes from the two largest countries in North America. Today we take the existence of Canada and the United States for granted. In the present and in the recent past, that is fine. Nevertheless, carrying modern thinking about places with us as we journey into the past has its dangers.
Understanding what is meant by a place and how that changes with time can save many research hours because so many things become clearer, like where to find records or how a migration path might have looked. Understanding how people’s ideas of place have changed is also important if we want to understand how they saw the world around them.
A favorite example is that you can sometimes read that the United States invaded Canada in 1775. What does that mean? In 1775 there was no “United States” only a group calling itself the “United Colonies.” So that part is an anachronism. Yet, in a sense, it is even worse than a simple anachronism because in 1775 people did not think with the limits that we automatically have in our minds when we hear “United States.” The invasion of 1775 was authorized by the Continental Congress and it was a few hundred men of the Continental Army that moved north. That word “Continental” is a clue to how people were thinking; parts of British North America were in a state of rebellion and the extent of that rebellion had not yet been defined. No one knew how far it would spread, if it might contract, or what the attitudes of people across British North America really were. A case in point is that the invasion was not authorized by delegates from the so called “Thirteen Colonies.” Georgia was still undecided and several weeks away from sending delegates to the Continental Congress.
Before the Continental Congress began meeting in 1774 there was no unifying body for the colonies of British North America except for the British government in London. People did not have predefined groups of colonies in mind that would serve as natural limits to the spread of a revolution. There was no reason to believe that the revolution would be limited to the twelve places originally represented in the Continental Congress, and of course, it wasn’t; Georgia soon sent delegates to congress. Quebec was invited to participate in the Continental Congress but did not join the rebellion. Nevertheless, two regiments from Quebec did serve in the Continental Army throughout the war. There was also a minor uprising in what is now New Brunswick in 1776 and only in retrospect is it obvious that it would lead nowhere.
So, what about invading Canada, what did that mean in 1775? Canada certainly had a meaning then but it is not the meaning that immediately pops into the modern mind, and so we may create an anachronism. Canada was not a country or even a group of colonies. It meant the colony officially known as “The Province of Quebec.” Its boundaries were very different from today’s Canadian province of the same name. Later “Canada” would mean other things as well. Lower Canada eventually evolved into the modern province of Quebec. Upper Canada eventually evolved into the modern province of Ontario. After uprisings against Britain in both of those colonies in 1838, Upper and Lower Canada were merged into the Province of Canada. That province was internally divided into two parts known as Canada West (approximately Ontario) and Canada East (approximately Quebec). When the modern nation of Canada began in 1867, the Province of Canada was redivided, forming Ontario and Quebec.
All this complexity is far from unique. Every place has a history that doesn’t just cover what happened there but what “there” has meant and what possible futures “there” once held. Using modern concepts often does not work and viewing changes from a modern perspective can give a false impression of what the people of the time, our ancestors, were actually thinking.
Something completely different: This is a note to someone I can’t identify but who I assume reads this blog. I take all my business calls, emails etc very seriously but yesterday afternoon (18 Feb) I received two calls that I answered but I couldn’t hear much of anything. After a few seconds the calls ended. I would call you back but caller id did not give me a number. Please try again or email me your number and I can call you.Twitter It!