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Over the Borderline: The Little Bit of Minnesota That Could Have Gone Canadian

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If you look at a map of North America, you’ll notice that the Canada–United States border is strikingly straight from the Pacific Ocean to about a third of the way across Minnesota, where it hiccups and then squiggles the rest of the way to the Atlantic Ocean. The border first started to get worked out between the U.S. and Great Britain (Canada wasn't an independent country until after most of the border was laid down) not long after the American Revolution, and was updated and amended in a series of treaties over the next few decades.

Some parts were easy to work out: that straight line just runs along the 49th parallel. In other parts, the American and British negotiators got a little fancy. Around Minnesota, they established the border as extending from the northwesternmost point of the Lake of the Woods due west to the head of the Mississippi River.

All well and good, except that the source of the Mississippi River, Lake Itasca, was farther south than where they'd expected it to be, and couldn’t be intersected by a line running west from the Lake of the Woods. (Misplacing the Mississippi was a blunder, yes, but the map they were working with, drawn by doctor and botanist John Mitchell in 1750, was the most comprehensive map of eastern North America from that era. With a lesser map, things might have been even worse, and the Mitchell map was used for settling US-Canadian border disputes well into the 20th century.)

A survey team was sent to the area to correct the error and finish establishing the border by connecting the northwesternmost point of the lake directly to the 49th parallel. When the team located the northwest point, the direct north-south line they drew to the 49th intersected a little chunk of land belonging to the U.S. and a bay belonging to Canada, cutting the American land off from the rest of the country and leaving it dangling in the breeze.

Life in the Angle

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This is the Northwest Angle and Islands, a small Minnesota exclave hanging off of Manitoba on the Lake of the Woods. Most of Angle Township’s 596.3 square miles is made up of water. The remaining 123 square miles of land (mostly uninhabited and held in trust by the Red Lake Indian Reservation) are home to 152 Minnesotans who have the honor of living at the northernmost point of the contiguous U.S.

If you want to visit the Angle now, you’ll need to drive up through Minnesota to the Canadian border and then, ignoring the little part of your brain that logically demands you stay in the United States to visit a Minnesota town, cross into Manitoba and go through Canadian customs. You’ll pass a few border towns, hang a right after Moose Lake, and continue along several kilometers of unpaved road before crossing another border back into the United States. Here, you’ll need to go through customs again, though it's a little different from the first time. At the intersection of two gravel roads a few miles past the border crossing is a place called Jim’s Corner, where you’ll stop, go into the shack on the side of the road, and call a U.S. Customs agent via videophone to make your declarations. If you don’t want to make the road trip through Canada, you can also reach the Angle from the rest of Minnesota by crossing the Lake of the Woods by plane, boat, or, when the lake is frozen over, car.

A little ways past Jim’s Corner, you’ll find the Angle Inlet School, the last one-room schoolhouse in the state. Since 1985, the school’s class has been taught by Linda Kastl and has fluctuated in size between five and 16 students. For a few years in the 1990s, the school closed because the enrollment was too low. Farther down the road, you’ll find the police station and Bob Nunn, the township’s lone cop.

At the edge of the Angle is the Lake of the Woods—and some of the best walleye fishing spots in North America. Fishing is what sustains tourism, the local economy, and the livelihood of most everyone living in the Angle, and a problem with fishing is what kicked into motion a half-serious attempt at secession during late 1990s.

The Walleye Problem

It started like this: Ontario, which shares a border with Minnesota that runs through the Lake of the Woods, was happy to let people staying at Angle resorts fish in Canadian waters, but imposed high fees, catch-and-release regulations, and loads of paperwork on them. Fishermen who stayed at Canadian resorts on the lake, on the other hand, had a much easier time getting licensed, getting out on the water, and keeping more of their catch. Resort occupancy in the Angle dropped off, restaurants were empty night after night, and fishing guides sat at the dock all day.

Angle residents and business owners cried foul to the federal government, calling Ontario’s fishing regulations discriminatory. Their complaints went largely ignored until 1997, when U.S. Representative Collin Peterson, of Minnesota’s Seventh District, proposed a constitutional amendment that would allow the residents of the Angle to vote on seceding from the United States and joining Canada.

For the next few days after that, the little town was a media circus. Finally, people were paying attention. It became clear from the sound bites provided by the locals on the evening news that they didn’t really want to secede, but they knew that throwing that word around would finally get someone to do something about their walleye problem. That someone turned out to be Jim Southwick, a Minneapolis-based attorney who had worked as the U.S. Trade Representative lawyer on NAFTA issues. Southwick saw the Canadian fishing regulations as a clear NAFTA violation and, with the help of the Minnesota Commissioner of Trade and Economic Development, the Chief of Fisheries, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and others in Governor Jesse Ventura’s administration, quickly got the Canadians to revoke their regulations.

Sport fishermen began to return to the Angle, filling the lodges and restaurants and rental boats and keeping their whole catch, no matter which side of the lake they were on. The locals, flush with cash from renewed business and still a little high from their moment in the spotlight, had just one loose end to finally tie up: Apologizing profusely to local Red Lake chief Bobby Whitefeather, whose tribe owns the lion’s share of the Angle’s land, but who was not consulted about whether or not he and the tribe wanted to go Canuck.

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10 Facts About the Battle of Bunker Hill
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The battles of Lexington and Concord—which kicked off the clash between Great Britain and the colonies—were historically and politically important, but relatively small in scale. The battle of Bunker Hill, however, was another story: Fought on June 17, 1775, it had a sky-high body count. Though the colonies were defeated, American forces performed so impressively and inflicted so many casualties on their powerful opponent that most rebels took it as a moral victory. Here’s your guide to the Bay State’s most storied battle.

1. ITS NAME IS A MISNOMER.

Massachusetts's Charlestown Peninsula, located just north of Boston, was a strip of land with great strategic value. In June 1775—less than two months after the bloodshed at Lexington and Concord—word was circulating that the British aimed to seize the peninsula, a move that would strengthen their naval presence in the area. To prevent this, the Massachusetts Committee of Safety (a patriot-run shadow government organization) ordered Colonel William Prescott to build a fort on Bunker Hill, near the peninsula’s northern shore.

On the night of June 16, Prescott marched 1000 men south of Charlestown Peninsula. Whether because he was intentionally disobeying orders or simply couldn’t find the right hill in the dark, he had his men fortify Breed's Hill rather than Bunker Hill. Toiling through the night, the militia men dug a wide trench surrounded by 6-foot dirt walls. In retaliation, the Brits attacked the next day. Following a barrage of cannonballs launched by His Majesty’s ships, hundreds of Redcoats landed on the peninsula and repeatedly charged the makeshift fortress.

The vast majority of this action took place on or around Breed’s Hill, but the name “Battle of Bunker Hill” remains in use. In the 1800s, Richard Frothingham theorized that the 110-foot Bunker Hill was a “well-known public place,” while the smaller Breed’s Hill was a less recognizable landmark, which might be the reason for the confrontation’s misleading moniker.

2. ONE PARTICIPANT WAS THE FATHER OF A FUTURE U.S. PRESIDENT.

America’s fourteenth Commander-in-Chief, Franklin Pierce, is primarily remembered for signing the controversial Kansas-Nebraska Act during his one-term White House stint. Pierce’s father, Benjamin, fought on the rebellion’s side at Bunker Hill and later became Governor of New Hampshire. Another noteworthy veteran of that battle was Daniel Shays, after whom Shays’ Rebellion is named.

3. THAT FAMOUS ORDER “DON’T FIRE UNTIL YOU SEE THE WHITES OF THEIR EYES!” MIGHT NOT HAVE BEEN SAID.

According to legend, this iconic order was either given by Prescott or Major General Israel Putnam when the British regulars first charged Breed’s Hill in the early afternoon. Because the rebels had a gunpowder shortage, their commanders instructed them to conserve their ammunition until the enemy troops were close enough to be easy targets.

But as author Nathaniel Philbrick pointed out in this interview, there’s no proof that anybody actually hollered “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes,” which has been quoted in countless history textbooks and was even riffed in one of Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoons. “We know that someone said ‘Hold your fire until you see the whites of their half-gaiters,' which [were] the splash guards on the regulars’ feet,” Philbrick said. “That doesn’t have the same ring to it.”

4. OVER 100 BLACK SOLDIERS TOOK PART.

An estimated 150 African-Americans, including both slaves and freemen, fought the British at Bunker Hill. Among them was Salem Poor, an ex-slave who bought his freedom in 1769 at the price of 27 pounds. During the battle, he fought so valiantly that many of his white peers later petitioned the Massachusetts General Court to reward Poor for his heroism [PDF]. Another black combatant, Peter Salem, is sometimes credited with shooting Major John Pitcairn, a British marine whose commanding role at Lexington had earned him notoriety in the colonies—though other sources cite Poor as the infamous redcoat’s killer. Salem himself had fought at Concord and would later see action in Saratoga and Stony Point.

5. WHEN THE PATRIOTS RAN OUT OF AMMUNITION, MANY RESORTED TO CHUCKING ROCKS.

The British's first march on Breed’s Hill quickly devolved into a bloody mess. Rather than spreading themselves out, the advancing infantry arrived in a tightly-packed cluster, making it easy for rebel gunmen to mow them down. The redcoats were also hindered by the rough terrain, which was riddled with rocks, holes, and fences. These factors forced the British into an inglorious retreat. After regrouping, the infantrymen marched on the hill once again—and, just as before, they were driven back.

The first two assaults had thoroughly depleted the colonists’ supply of ammunition, leaving them vulnerable. When the redcoats made their third ascent that day, the rebels had nearly run out of bullets. Struggling to arm themselves, some colonists improvised by loading their muskets with nails, scrap metal, and broken glass. As a last-ditch effort, several dropped their firearms and hurled rocks at the invaders. Such weapons proved insufficient and the Americans were finally made to abandon the hill.

6. THE REDCOATS SET FIRE TO NEARBY CHARLESTOWN.

Charlestown, now one of Boston’s most historic neighborhoods, was originally a separate village seated at the base of Breed’s Hill. Once a thriving community with 2000 to 3000 residents, the locals—afraid for their safety—started abandoning the area after that infamous “shot heard round the world” rang out at Lexington. By June 17, Charlestown had become a virtual ghost town. During the Battle of Bunker Hill, American snipers took to stationing themselves inside the empty village. So, to protect his own men, British General William Howe ordered that Charlestown be burned. The troops used superheated cannonballs and baskets filled with gunpowder to lay the town low.

The inferno didn’t spread to Breed’s Hill, but its effects were most definitely felt there. “A dense column of smoke rose to great height,” wrote an eyewitness, “and there being a gentle breeze from the south-west, it hung like a thunder cloud over the contending armies.”

Some 380 buildings went up in flame. Such destruction was without precedent: Although the British had torched some isolated homes at Lexington, this was the first occasion in which an entire village or town was deliberately set ablaze during the Revolutionary War. Unfortunately, the colonies hadn’t seen the last of these large-scale burnings.

7. BRITAIN SUFFERED A DISPROPORTIONATE NUMBER OF CASUALTIES.

Though the redcoats prevailed, their victory was a Pyrrhic one. Nearly half of the estimated 2400 British troops who fought at Bunker Hill were killed or wounded. How many men did the Americans lose? Four hundred and fifty—out of an overall force of 1200. The rebels may have been bested, but they’d also put on an impressive showing against some of the most feared and well-trained troops on Earth. Bunker Hill thus became a morale boost for the patriots—and a cause for concern back in England.

One day after the showdown, a British officer lamented “We have indeed learned one melancholy truth, which is that the Americans, if they were equally well commanded, are full as good soldiers as ours, and as it is are very little inferior to us, even in discipline and steadiness of countenance.”

8. PAUL REVERE LATER CONDUCTED SOME FORENSIC DENTISTRY AT THE BATTLEGROUND.

Fun fact: On top of being a silversmith and perhaps the most famous messenger in American history, Paul Revere was a part-time dentist. He learned the trade under an Englishman named John Baker in the 1760s. Revere’s mentor taught him the art of forging replacement teeth out of ivory and other materials, and the future rebel eventually established himself as an in-demand Boston dentist. One of his clients was Dr. Joseph Warren, the man who would dispatch Revere—and fellow rider William Dawes—to warn some Massachusetts statesmen that British troops were headed towards Lexington and Concord on a fateful, much-mythologized night in April 1775.

During the Battle of Bunker Hill, Warren, a Major General, decided to fight right on the front line with patriot volunteers despite his rank and was killed. When the battle was over, Warren's body was dumped into a shallow grave with another slain American..

When the British pulled out of the area in 1776, Warren’s kin finally had the chance to give him a dignified burial. But there was a big problem: Several months had elapsed and the corpses were now rotted to the point of being indistinguishable from each other.

Enter Revere. The silversmith joined a party of Warren’s family and friends in searching for the General’s remains. They knew they'd found the right body when Revere identified a dental prosthetic that he had made for Warren years earlier.

9. THE MARQUIS DE LAFAYETTE LAID DOWN THE CORNERSTONE OF THE BUNKER HILL MONUMENT.

The Bunker Hill Monument Association wanted to create a grand memorial honoring those who’d given their lives in the Revolution’s first major battle—and on June 17, 1825, 50 years after Putnam and Warren’s men squared off against the British, the monument’s cornerstone was laid at Breed’s Hill. Putting the rock into place was the visiting Marquis de Lafayette, a hero of the Revolution who was, as the musical Hamilton put it, “America’s favorite fighting Frenchman.” (For the record, though, he personally didn’t fight at the battle site he was commemorating that day.) Due to funding issues, this granite structure—a 221-foot obelisk—wasn’t finished until 1842. As for Lafayette, he was later buried in Paris beneath soil that had been taken from that most historic of battle sites, Bunker Hill.

10. “BUNKER HILL DAY” IS NOW A MAJOR HOLIDAY IN BOSTON.

In 1786, Bean Town began the tradition of throwing an annual parade in honor of the patriots who saw action on the Charlestown Peninsula. It takes place the Sunday on or before June 17—which itself is celebrated throughout Boston and its home county as “Bunker Hill Day.”

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