The War of 1812, by any name, was pivotal for Minnesota

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 6, 2014 - 6:49 PM

Did you know that? Here’s your chance to become better acquainted with history.

It was a week of remembrance and enlightenment at the Editorial Department History Desk.

On Friday, the Desk paused to remember the brave young Americans who at dawn 70 years earlier stormed onto the beaches of Normandy, France, swallowing seawater and fear, dodging death, and making possible the world we know today. Our debt to them is immeasurable.

The D-Day invasion is a pivotal moment in what 20th-century people called World War II. But earlier last week, the History Desk learned that 19th-century Americans, including a few Minnesotans, might dispute that name if they could speak today. They might say that the conflagration of 1939-45 was World War III, and that they fought in the first one.

They’d be referring to the French land grab we call the Napoleonic Wars. The chapter of that conflict that occurred in North America was between the United States, France’s ally, and Canada, and is known in these parts as the War of 1812.

The Desk will permit a brief pause to let those claims sink in. The Desk needed one herself.

The United States fought a war with Canada? The War of 1812 was part of the Napoleonic Wars? Which were a world war? And Minnesotans were involved — even though statehood didn’t come until 1858?

The answers are mostly yes, Minneapolis-based Canadian consul Brian Shipley said, with one caveat: Canada wasn’t a country yet in 1812-14. It was a bunch of British provinces, some of which were originally French, coexisting with several allied American Indian nations. But the war helped make Canada a nation. The provinces’ resistance to American efforts to “liberate” them pushed them toward unification, he said.

These previously unfamiliar (to the Desk) facts and more were gleaned from a visit to the new exhibit at the Minnesota History Center, “The War of 1812: Canada, the United States, Great Britain and Native Americans.” It’s all of that, courtesy of a touring display created by the Canadian War Museum, plus a few fun maps and artifacts gleaned from the cavernous archives of the Minnesota Historical Society.

The exhibit is fairly modest as these things go. But that it’s in Minnesota at all, and plans to stay through September’s 200th anniversary of the decisive Battle of Baltimore — at which Francis Scott Key wrote the lyrics of “The Star-Spangled Banner” — is something of a coup. After all, there was no state of Minnesota in 1812. Some veterans of that war eventually settled here, but their names and youthful escapades are not part of the exhibit’s story.

Yet a group of descendants of the war’s veterans, headed by former state Rep. Paul Gardner of Shoreview, is promoting the show. Gardner says that’s because the War of 1812 left an indelible mark on this state — specifically, on its map. The 1814 Treaty of Ghent and subsequent U.S.-British compacts ceded control of the Great Lakes to the United States and set the boundary between what would become western Minnesota and Manitoba at the 49th parallel.

The War of 1812 essentially ended in a draw. But American successes were sufficient to give them a strong negotiating position in setting the nation’s northwestern boundary. An 1818 Anglo-American Convention affirmed the 1783 Treaty of Paris that assigned to the United States the northwesternmost corner of Lake of the Woods. That’s how Minnesota got its odd little northern bump called the Northwest Angle.

If the 1812-14 war had gone otherwise, it’s easy to imagine that a more southerly line would have been drawn. Benjamin Frankin and the other U.S. negotiators in 1783 weren’t quite sure where Lake of the Woods was. They thought it was south and east of the headwaters of the Mississippi. Had the 1783 understanding of the lake’s location prevailed in 1818, Minnesota today might not include much of the Iron Range or the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, not to mention the fertile Red River Valley.

Soon thereafter, the United States put a military presence in the region to make sure the spoils of commerce accrued to American interests. That’s how Fort St. Anthony was born in 1819. We know it as Fort Snelling — the cradle of modern Minnesota.

Canadians evidently are a forgiving lot. They managed to set aside ill feelings associated with little things like the 1813 American shelling and looting of Toronto (then called York) to become America’s closest national ally and largest trading partner.

That’s the other reason to examine the War of 1812 exhibit this summer. In plenty of other places and times, a conflict like the one 200 years ago would have spawned recurring hostilities, generation after generation. That didn’t happen to Canada and the United States. I asked the Canadian consul general in Minneapolis, Jamshed Merchant, why it didn’t.

“Both countries were growing, and they saw a chance to grow together,” Merchant said. To be sure, they had a common language and culture to facilitate understanding. But it was abundant economic opportunity that made the difference, he maintained. On this big, resource-rich continent, two nations could coexist and prosper. They didn’t need each other’s territory.

Today, Canada is Minnesota’s No. 1 export customer. More than 160,000 Minnesota jobs depend on trade with Canada, including 18,800 Minnesotans employed by Canadian-owned businesses, by the consulate’s tally. Those numbers attest to the peacemaking power of trade, and underscore the importance of trade agreements today.

According to Editorial Department legend, one editor had a timeless editorial squirreled away for publication during severe summer doldrums. Its evergreen title: “Canada: Sleeping Giant to the North.” Here at the History Desk, we think this summer might be a fine time to unearth that ancient writ and update it. The giant is awake, and Minnesotans should not take him for granted.

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