1830–1890: Forging Two Nations

Michigan Central Railroad Niagara Falls Route
Michigan Central Railroad Niagara Falls Route
Capture of Louis Riel by the Scouts Armstrong and Howie, May 15, 1885
Capture of Louis Riel by the Scouts Armstrong and Howie, May 15, 1885
War Party Coming Home
War Party Coming Home

>In the mid-nineteenth century, the vast North American inland was the proving ground for new forms of business, government, and social life.  In seeking to control land, timber, minerals, and crops, the region’s new inhabitants reshaped the physical landscape and redefined the limits of economic opportunity.  Millions of dollars and tens of thousands of workers built a network of railroads and canals to move goods in and out of the region. But a less material development laid the financial basis for a massive expansion of agriculture after the American Civil War. The modern system of commodity trading developed at the Chicago Board of Trade in the 1850s redefined bushels of corn and wheat as abstract units of trade, dramatically lowering the cost of trade and distribution across the globe.

The North American continent took on its modern political shape in these years as both Canada and the United States consolidated political control from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans. The railroad and the telegraph served as crucial technologies in this process by linking information, goods, and people at unprecedented speeds. But the consolidation of national power was frequently a violent affair.

In the U.S., conflict over the extension of slavery into the western territories fueled a political crisis that became the continent’s bloodiest war. The states of the Middle West played a crucial role as the seedbed of the antislavery Republican Party, and the source of soldiers, arms, and food during the war. In the West, the armed resistance of Native Americans to the occupation of their lands came to a bloody close in the Wounded Knee Massacre in South Dakota.

For most of the 19th century, Britain’s North American colonies lacked a unified identity as “Canada.” The most populous colonies gained limited self-government under British rule, while a corporation, the Hudson’s Bay Company, governed vast sections of the Canadian west. Mindful of American expansion in the west, Canadian political leaders sought to draw this loose collection of societies together as a nation. Their efforts helped to create modern Canada, in the process sparking a rebellion against national authority by the Métis people living in what would become the province of Manitoba.