Rainy Lake House is one of those marvelous histories that capture a small moment in time and examine it through different lenses to reveal broader truths about the times and the culture. In 1823, a man sought help rescuing his daughters who, he believed, had been taken by fur traders and were in danger. His name was John Tanner, who was stolen from his White family when he was nine and raised for the last thirty-three years among the Ojibwe. He sought help from Major Stephen Long, the leader of an Army Corp of Topographers expedition exploring the fur trading areas of the Red River of the North and the Rainy River and from the Hudson Bay Company’s factor John McLoughlin. What makes this historically interesting is that all three recounted the event – all from different perspectives that give insight into their worldview and their understanding of the changing frontier.
Theodore Catton, though the lives and explorations of John Tanner, John McLoughlin, and Stephen Long gives us a broad view of the changing frontier, the relations between Whites and Indians, and the US – British border conflict. Tanner is the most fascinating, of course, because his story is one of the few first-person narratives of traditional Ojibwe life. Of course, he was not Ojibwe and his story was told after he returned to White society, but he was raised in their oral tradition, so his story is meticulous and full of details – except for the messy family relationships which had to be really messy because the reason he was so ill and wounded in 1823 is his ex-wife conspired to have him murdered.
Long is much more typical of his time. He is completely binary in his thinking. White society is good, Indian society is degenerate. Expansion is good, manifest destiny is good. Biracial families are bad. He’s brave, ambitious, and bold, but his mind and character can never escape his time. John McLoughlin, for whom Portland’s McLoughlin Drive is named, is more complex. His wife Marguerite was either Cree or Ojibwe and Swiss, the daughter of a marriage à la façon du pays. Fur traders generally married an Indian woman and many retired in the wilderness rather than abandon their country families to go back to White society. McLoughlin turned down promotion and better positions in order to keep his family intact, to stay with her. He was the Factor at Rainy Lake and then at Ft. Vancouver, his home in what is now Oregon City. He envisioned a more multi-ethnic society and that is what developed at first here in Oregon before the state’s founders wrote Oregon’s perniciously racist Constitution and drove most of the Hawaiians, Métis, and Native Americans out.
From Tanner we get more of the Ojibwe though filtered through their mutual abandonment. As Whites encroached on their land, as smallpox and yellow fever spread, and the over-harvesting to sell fur and bison to the traders made hunting harder, his tribal friends and family turned against him, believing a prophet who said he was bad magic. He was also curious about his family. He had thought they were dead and when he learned that was false, he wanted to see them again, so there was a push and a pull drawing him back to White society, though it never made him happy. From Long, we get the official viewpoint of manifest destiny and from McLoughlin, the conflicted company man with humanitarian impulses. Perhaps only through many lenses can the real story come into focus.
As a history major who grew up in northern Minnesota, how could I resist Rainy Lake House, a fascinating history of towns and places familiar from summer drives through the Quetico Wilderness Area in Ontario, recalling the taste of pemmican and bannock made by “living history” re-enactors at Upper Fort Garry, stopping in Pembina, ND, for a Dairy Queen on the way to visit dad’s Canadian relatives, and visiting my uncle who lived twenty miles south of Rainy Lake. This story is full of familiar places and people.
This is fascinating history even without the familiarity of place names and people. Giacomo Beltrami even has an appearance, hitching a ride along with Stephen Long as far as Pembina on his way to finding Lake Julia over by Puposky which he mistook for the Headwaters of the Mississippi. Oh well, he missed, but they were kind enough to name the county after him. I think for a Minnesota, this book is irresistible. For a history lover, it’s candy. If you’re both like I am, it’s just about as good as it gets.
Rainy Lake House was released in August. I was provided an e-galley by the publisher through Edelweiss.