Monday, June 22, 2009

Review: West On The 49th Parallel

Early in most American's education, we learn that the 49th parallel of latitude divides the United States from Canada, the longest undefended international border in the world. On a globe or map, it isn't difficult to draw the line and say, "there you go," that's U.S., that's Canada. On the ground, however, it is a difficult prospect. A latitudinal line is a cartographic construct: the border isn't the middle of a river, or the edge of an ocean, or the peaks of a mountain. Those markers can be seen from the ground, while the 49th parallel can not. John E Parson's book, West on the 49th Parallel: Red River to the Rockies, 1873-1876 documents the first successful and somewhat accurate attempt to mark the line along the borders of Minnesota, North Dakota, and Montana. There had been previous attempts to mark the border, with great inaccuracies, but the 1873 product was a joint venture between the British (who held Canada at the time) and U.S. governments. The main method of measuring latitude at the time was by star observations, which at the time had an accuracy within a few dozen feet (amazing, on par with GPS and definitely better than Google Maps' markers), but required a staff of astronomers and mathematicians to correctly interpret. Toss in security to help against the Indian threat, generals and majors to be in charge, the short seasons in which to do the work, and general weirdness involved in being in so remote an area all make for a less than boring adventure.

The book itself, unfortunately, is very dry; it does, however, include quite a bit of dry humor along with the boring parts. The actual process of figuring out the position of the 49th parallel is minor, compared to the pages of anecdotes about life for the crews in charge of the project. You hear of the guy who managed to shoot himself—twice—while on the job, the parties held at remote forts for various holidays, the wild dog conscripted to help pull sleds, the Fenian cook who insisted his innocence but ended up in jail for violent crime before he could even set out with the crew…it's like Best of the West hooked up with Deadwood for a little political cartography. I like Red River history, so the places and situations are familiar to me, but the book won't be for everyone. As a historial reference, it does well with facts and accuracy, but the dryness makes it a less-than-ideal piece of historic entertainment. What somebody needs to do is adapt it to a screenplay; the goofiness of the characters definitely entertains.

West on the 49th Parallel: Red River to the Rockies, 1873-1876
by John E Parsons
Originally published 1963

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