The Shape We’re in

Where most of us see lines and borders on a map of the United States, Bill Lass sees stories.

“Every line has a background story,” he says. “Probably the best way of starting out with any boundary is to keep in mind that every boundary, by its very nature, has two sides.”

For more than four decades, Lass has researched every side of the lines that form Minnesota. The result is the book “Shaping the North Star State: A History of Minnesota’s Boundaries,” which was published last spring by North Star Press of St. Cloud.shapingTheNorthstarStateNEWCOVER[1]

Lass’ interest in Minnesota’s iconic shape began when he took a job teaching Minnesota history at Minnesota State Mankato in 1960. He became curious about the little nub of Minnesota’s upper Northwest point, the point that juts into Canada at Lake of the Woods. He encountered conflicting reports, and his research on behalf of the class soon became more intense and more involved.

“I tried to answer that question and found there was no easy answer,” he remembers. “It’s sort of a classic case of finding an answer and along with that answer you find another question, so you have to keep going.”

Lass kept going around the entire state in a quest for answers that has spanned four decades. His new book is an updated version of two works he completed previously—a book on how the northern border with Canada was shaped, and a scholarly article on how the state’s eastern border came to be. The new book includes updates gleaned from new sources and from visits to many of the sites.

“I’ve been twice to the actual point that is the northwestern tip of Minnesota,” Lass says. “I may be the only person on Earth who’s been there twice. But if you go out through this shallow water, you literally have to muck your way out. Then you get a better sense of what the surveyors experienced when they were there.”

Some of the history, such as the establishment of the northern border, doesn’t involve Minnesota or its citizens. The northern border was established over time by treaties between the U.S. and Great Britain in a process that began after the Revolutionary War.

William LassBut the desire of soon-to-be Minnesotans did make for interesting history. Prior to Wisconsin’s statehood in 1848, the hope was that the Mississippi River would provide the state’s northwest boundary, which would have put St. Paul, St. Anthony and Stillwater in Wisconsin. The resistance by representatives of those cities—who had been invited to participate in Wisconsin’s constitutional conventions—was effective.

“The reason is rather simple. It all comes down to greed,” Lass says. “The political prizes had already been awarded. Madison had gotten the capital, the university and the state penitentiary. So none of those ripe plums would have been available to anyone living on the western trench of Wisconsin. These people living in that area had their own political aspirations, and the first one was to be left outside.”

As they moved toward their own statehood, Minnesotans debated two vastly different ideas of how the state should be shaped. The plan that prevailed—a “north-south” shape with the state stretching up to the Canadian border—offered the promise of involvement in three key economies: agriculture, lumber and mining. Lass chuckles that mining was more or less a hunch. In 1857, those making claims to future mine sites knew nothing of iron ore and were instead making assumptions about copper, he says.

“They anticipated there was copper there,” he says. “So in a back-handed way they were ahead of their time. They had absolutely no reason to believe there was copper there other than that copper had been discovered in upper Michigan and northern Wisconsin.”

The argument for a horizontal, “east-west” shape was made mostly by proponents in St. Peter and Winona and didn’t enjoy statewide support.

“It was all tied in with the idea that if you had an east-west state, St. Peter would be the logical capital and furthermore, St. Peter and Winona would be connected to a railroad that ultimately would run to the Pacific.”

Before Lass retired from teaching in 2002, he made his mark on one student who went on to write critically acclaimed historical fiction based in Minnesota. Two of Nicole Helget’s novels, “The Turtle Catcher” and “Stillwater,” are lush with detailed Minnesota history. Helget had Lass for a professor in the mid-’90s.

“I think one of the best things a person can do in this life is simply be quiet in a room where a smart person is talking. I developed that theory in Bill Lass’ Minnesota History class, which continues to inspire my writing and my life all these years later,” Helget says. “He’s a storyteller, knowing full well that the way to impress important historical events and people upon students is to use the narrative structure.”

As a teacher and writer, Lass says, he has always aimed to push past the idea that history is simply studying facts and lives from the past.

“People study history and say we’re studying people who lived in the past,” Lass says. “There’s no one who at the time they lived, lived in the past. They’re living in their present. And if you think of it as them living in their present, then the complexity of history comes home much better.”