J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, May 16, 2021

“A conception that rivers were boundaries”?

In the Aacimotaatiiyankwi discussion of Little Turtle’s speech at the 1795 Treaty of Greenville, the scholars noted how that Myaamia (Miami) leader referred to the territory at stake.
Hunter Lockwood: …one of the things I noticed about that boundary definition is that it’s basically all using the rivers and watersheds. So one of the things I’ve been thinking about also is: what sorts of things are hard to translate, and what sorts of things are relatively easier to translate in general? . . .

David Costa: One thing Rich Rhodes talked about long ago, when I was a grad student, he said that one of the big salient differences between how territory was conceived of back then versus how white people conceived of it is white people came with a conception that rivers were boundaries. Whereas in North America, at least in the Great Lakes and Midwest, rivers were, that was the heart of territory, so conceiving of those as boundaries as Europeans were wont to do was a drastic change. Because, as you know, that was how people got around. People would take huge detours to get from A to B by following rivers when, if you look at it, as the crow flies a direct line will be much shorter but also next to impossible to do. . . .

Daryl Baldwin: The boundaries are probably heavily influenced because treaty negotiations are not about tribal epistemologies, but about American ideas of land ownership and boundaries. Little Turtle and the other leaders are having to figure out how to talk in those terms, and this might have been a good example of an early attempt for Little Turtle to speak in those terms.

David Costa: Yeah, even though I think he did not speak English, it is actually an interesting big adaptation to European ways of thinking. It’s already evident.
That got me thinking about whether making rivers into borders was a European way of thinking or whether it was an eighteenth-century American way of thinking.

When British settlers first came to New England in the 1600s, they built their settlements at harbors, the outlets of rivers. The colonies spread out from both sides of those bays, so when they met and had to define boundaries, the rivers ended up at the center of the territory, not the edges.

Massachusetts thus grew from Salem and Boston harbor and took over Plymouth harbor. Rhode Island got both sides of Narragansett Bay. Connecticut spread from New Haven, New London, and smaller ports. A minor river defined the southernmost part of the border between Connecticut and Rhode Island, but otherwise those colonies’ lines are straight, not natural.

The easternmost border between Massachusetts and New Hampshire is still defined by the Merrimack River, but it is not the Merrimack River. Rather, William and Mary’s grant stated:
That a line shall run Paralell with the sd. river at the Distance of Three English miles north from the mouth of the sd. river beginning at the southerly side of the Black Rocks so called at low water mark… 
That kept the mouth of the Merrimack River in Massachusetts.

Of course, there was another border between the New Hampshire and Massachusetts colonies, now between New Hampshire and Maine. The Crown finally defined that border with a decree in 1742: “the Divideing Line shall pass up thro the mouth of Piscataqua Harbour & up the midle of the river into the river of Newhichwannick (part of which is now called Salmon Falls) & thro’ the middle of the same to the furthest head thereof…” Legally, New Hampshire owns the river, with Maine starting on the eastern bank.

Finally, the Connecticut River became the dividing line between New Hampshire and Vermont. But of course before the Revolution (as shown in the 1755 map above), New Hampshire claimed everything on both sides.

The New England borders thus show us European settlers at first defining borders without little regard to rivers, then using a river but keeping both of its sides within one domain, and only in the mid-1700s making rivers the actual boundary lines. By the time Americans were divvying up the Northwest Territory, rivers like the Ohio, Wabash, and Mississippi were major lines on the maps.

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