Michael H. Frisch
Professor of History and American Studies
University at Buffalo
State University of New York
The story traced in these pages is wonderfully rich and complex, fascinating
in its detail and in the diversity of its themes. These all speak to our
regionís unique character and identity, and to its equally unique opportunities
at the start of a new century. To help make this story an even more usable
resource, let me step back from the vivid detail traced here, in order
to comment briefly on three broad themes the narrative shows running through
our history from the beginning to the present, themes that can be applied
in approaching the questions we face today.
There are really three distinct stories told in these pages. Each is
true and crucial in its own way, but they are not at all the same story.
They both do and donít overlap. They are at once consistent and yet in
profound, energizing tension with one another. In sum, it is the individual
evolution of these stories, and their intricate intertwining over time
that has defined the history of our region ó and that will shape our future.
In this sense, it may prove worthwhile for readers to use these as organizing
tools for holding in focus the whole of the rich narrative presented here.
The first story is the story of the border as such ó as something real,
meaningful in both law and culture, something evolving over time. The
story begins in the days before the Niagara River was an international
border, and then follows how it became and then evolved as one ó from
the time of the French and Indian War through the American Revolution
and the War of 1812, to dramatic moments of international conflict at
the time of the Caroline incident and the Fenian raids, and to the modern
era where the border has been embodied mainly in trade policy from Reciprocity
Treaties to NAFTA, and in the complex relationships of immigration law
and policy. In this story, the connections across this border have been
many, and important ó but the border has always marked two distinct societies,
and its unfolding meaning traces the evolving story of their complex relationship
and interaction over time.
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The second story is the story of a region in which the concept of border
is more a hindrance than help. This is a story of the intimate connections
and intertwined relationships, especially in economic life and geography,
which have always defined this area as a trans-border region. This is
a story of competition and cooperation, but above all of interdependence
and interaction, however different the forms this has taken over the centuries.
From this vantage, what is important is understanding how the region has
always existed, historically, and certainly must approach its future now,
as a middle ground defined by place, and its connection to other places
and economic regions. It is a story that has seen the successive re-imaginings
of time, space, and regional relationships driven by history itself.
From the complex international diplomacy of the Iroquois, to the way
the Erie and Welland Canals reshaped the meaning of geography and connection
throughout North America, much less the Niagara Corridor, to the coming
and then the decline of heavy industry and the dawning of a new identity
as trans-national regional hub in a global economy, this is the story
it is now crucial to tell: the story of a region whose breadth, depth,
and fundamental character only become clear when we get beyond the blinders
that the international border almost necessarily imposes on any vision
of the region, from our vantage here, let alone from outside.
The third story touches both of the first two but comes at their relationship
from a very different angle. It is the story, or stories, of how various
peoples over time have experienced both the border and the region that
transcends it. This begins with the Native Americans, who have continued
to live in a world in which the international border has very limited
meaning, and whose unique status in some way anticipates the kind of trans-border
economic, cultural, and legal identities others are seeking to develop
today. It includes African Americans and a range of immigrants, for whom
race, identity, and culture have been intertwined with border and the
opportunities of our region in distinctly different ways at various points
in history. And it includes visitors and tourists who have been drawn
to the area for almost two centuries now by Niagara Falls, but whose interests
and experience have not been narrowly limited by that phenomenon or fixed
by the patterns or relationships of a particular time period; this too,
in other words, is a dimension within history, and with its own, still-evolving
Imagine these three stories as overlapping rings or circles, for almost
any of the moments described in the narrative touches at least two of
them: Border as Real, Region as Real, and People experiencing both Border
and Region in wonderfully diverse, evolving ways. Does this way of mapping
the complexity of the past not also describe our moment in the present?
Does it not speak to the many futures that could evolve from this point,
depending on how we understand this past and the choices it can help us
to see and empower us to make in the present?
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