A North American Oceanus (1865)


In the northern part of Minnesota is the greatest elevation of what geologists denominate the eastern water-shed of our continent; lying almost exactly in the centre of North America, here the streams that flow to the north, east, and south, find their source. Lake Superior, that adjoins this section on the east, is the chief of those magnificent lakes that empty from one another into the St. Lawrence, and finally wash the coast of Labrador. The Mississippi, taking its rise in the same region and but a few miles away, flows southward with ever increasing volume to the Gulf of Mexico, and then sweeping around Florida and through the Atlantic, rejoins the waters of Lake Superior off Newfoundland; while the Red River of the North, pursuing a contrary course, empties into Hudson’s Bay and thence into the Northern Ocean. These waters, starting from little rills and springs scarcely more than a few steps apart, after wandering thousands of miles asunder come together and commingle in the Northern Atlantic Ocean.

I keep coming back to this short passage about the eastern watershed in Robert B. Roosevelt‘s Superior Fishing — the perspective it sets out, the way it locates the “source” of the eastern waters at the continent’s “centre,” the divergent flows and courses it maps, and the idea of Northern Atlantic confluence and commingling at which it repeatedly arrives.

Roosevelt starts out pretending to be scientific, dealing with “what geologists denominate,” but soon we have left geology behind. Or, at least, there is something beyond scientific naming, or something unnamed at work here as well, a story that exceeds the scientific bounds of geology, geography and cartography.

The passage describes a North American Oceanus — an ocean stream that encircles the eastern portion of the continent. The eastern stream originates in the elevated northeastern corner of Minnesota, near Grand Portage and in the rills and springs of the Boundary Waters; it divides, separates and flows north, east, and south, until its waters meet again off the Atlantic coast of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Roosevelt returns to his last point — about the confluence of the eastern waters — three times in the course of this single short paragraph, tracing three divergent courses from Lake Superior to the north Atlantic and the coast of Eastern Canada. If Superior is situated at the source and origin of the watershed, Labrador and Newfoundland reliably mark its destination and point of confluence. There, in the north Atlantic, the waters rejoin and are returned to themselves.

It’s hard to say what to make of this recursive pattern, or how much to make of it. Is it anything more than a tic? The territory bounded by the waters is vast, and comprises (in 1865) the defeated Confederacy, the Union, and Eastern Canada — still, at that time, a British colony. As a Tammany Hall politician, Roosevelt would have been privy if not party to the political shenanigans that would eventually result in the Annexation Bill of 1866. The Bill was never intended to be anything more than a sop thrown to the Fenians and their Irish-American supporters. But it claimed much of the territory described by the eastern watershed — Labrador, Newfoundland, and northern Ontario — as a new territory of the United States: Canada East.  What geologists denominate the eastern watershed of our continent also encompassed, at the time, a political geography.


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