The hoof prints have long since gone. The imprinted sand and clays quickly re-shaped by time, returned to a landscape dominated by natural grasses and sagebrush. But in cluttered archives and journal scrawlings their imprint remains. The impressions, ideas, hopes, and simple need for survival of the people of Canada’s West are newly amalgamated in Garrett Wilson’s Frontier Farewell, The 1870s and the End of the Old West.
In this heavily researched volume, Wilson suggests that this period was pivotal to the shaping of the prairies and Canada as a nation. The Dominion of Canada, fearful of annexation by U.S. expansionismwas incensed in the marking of its territory, particularly along the seemingly arbitrary line of the 49th parallel: a line that didn’t follow any topographical relief or structure, a line determined in a country across an ocean.
Despite what was decided in the mother land thousands of kilometers away or in the nation’s eastern capital, which seemed like another world in and of itself, the reality of determining the right course of action had dramatic and more often than not traumatic effects to the land, to the exploratory venturers, and of course to the aboriginal peoples. Wilson’s attention to detail of the period is intense and striking. Wilson details, for instance, the military tactic of setting prairie fires along the international boundary to separate herds of buffalo or the aboriginals, which is just one of the inglorious examples of the steps toward the inclusion of the west under the umbrella of this nation.
The events leading up to the acquisition of the Canadian west and the Hudson Bay Company’s interest in furthering their needs at the peril of the aboriginal communities are stark reminders of the costs incurred in the building of this nation.
Frontier Farewell is a broad examination of the politics, culture, achievements, and characters of survival on the bleak Canadian plains leading up to the turn of the century. There may be a perception that nothing has changed on the grasslands during the centuries of Western knowledge. Wilson’s book, however, belies a different story: a story of courage, deceit, greed, and glory,all the features that make Canada what it is today.
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