Immigration: The More Common North American Experience

September 6, 2013 § 4 Comments

The scenery as we drove across the United States and back was amazing.  So were many of the place names.  There is a town in Colorado named Rifle.  Another town in Colorado is called Cahones.  I kid you not.  But perhaps my favourite highway road sign in all of the United States was this one we saw on the side of I-84 in Eastern Oregon.

photo The sign pretty much says it all.  Canadian and American culture is full of stories of the successful immigrant, the ones who came to these shores with nothing and made lives for themselves, who made fortunes and found fame.  And while certainly there were a few who experienced this good fortune on North American shores, the majority did not.  Most settled somewhere in between fame and fortune and poverty and despair.

Certainly, pop culture contains references to the downside of emigration.  In Canada, university students in Canadian history and literature are tortured with perhaps one of the worst books in Christendom, Susanna Moodie’s interminable Roughing It In the Bush, Or, Life in Canada, about the trials and tribulations of Moodie and her husband, John Weddiburn Dunbar Moodie, a down-at-the-heels member of the British gentry, in the wilds of Upper Canada in the 1830s and 40s.  While Moodie was a horrible writer and her husband an even worse poet, the book is a key text on the struggles of even wealthy emigrants in the British colonies in the mid-nineteenth century (it worked out ok for the Moodies, they ended up moderately wealthy and living in the thriving town of Belleville, Ontario).

One of my favourite Pogues songs is “Thousands Are Sailing,” which is the story of downtrodden Irish emigrants in New York City in the 19th century.  The song is actually kind of heartbreaking.

So this sign for an exit on I-70 in Eastern Oregon struck me as a remarkable site.  Old Emigrant Hill Road is on the northern side of I-70, and it runs into Poverty Flat Road on the southern side of the highway.  Obviously, these two roads have been there for a lot longer than the Interstate.  And, as you can see from the terrain surrounding the sign for the exit on the highway, the landscape around Poverty Flat Road isn’t exactly all that welcoming.  This was also a common experience for emigrants to the “New World” in the 19th and 20th centuries: they ended up farming lands that were not conducive to growing much of anything.  Generations struggled to make a living on these farms until someone, whether out of optimism or desperation, decided to clear off the land and make his or her fortunes elsewhere.

Perhaps this is the more common story of the immigrant in North America than the one of fame and fortune.


New Project: NCPH’s Off the Wall

July 14, 2010 § Leave a comment

My friend, Cathy Stanton, has begun a new blog, sponsored by the National Council on Public History in the US, called Off the Wall.  The aim of the blog is to offer up “critical reviews of history exhibit practice in an age of ubiquitous display.”  Cathy has assembled an impressive set of contributors and commentators to facilitate discussion.  Since the blog was launched last week, there have been a handful of posts, reviewing events, exhibits, and displays, my favourite being this one on Flick’s “Looking into the Past” project.

I am one of the contributors, though, so far, all I’ve added to the discussion is a single comment.  But the discussions that are arising over there are rather central to the study of history in the digital age.  History is all around us, and is a central component of pop culture.  At Off the Wall, we’re interested in examining how history interacts with pop culture and the public, to examine how history is used (and abused), how usable pasts are created.  Or not created, as the case may be.


Climate of Conflict in the Arctic

March 29, 2010 § Leave a comment

A couple of weeks ago, I was emailed interviewed by the ISN Security Watch for an article on the Arctic and the growing interest being shown in it by the Arctic nations and their neighbours, which is back in the news today.  Read the ISN article here.

From Monkwire to Kikobor

December 7, 2009 § Leave a comment

My partners-in-crime over at the Complex Terrain Laboratory, Mike Innes and Eric Randolph, both have new(ish) blogs up, offering the world their own particular take on things.  Mike’s is called Monkwire, and offers up his take on issues pertaining to security and sanctuary.  Eric, formerly our London dude at the Lab, has since relocated to India, attempting to channel his ancestors in their movements from the UK to the subcontinent.  Eric’s blog is called Kikobor, and there he “concentrates on issues of security, international relations and general goings-0n in the subcontinent and beyond.”

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