The Oregon Treaty: Finis to Joint Occupation

Robert E. Cail
B.C. Historical Quarterly, July 1946,

 Fur-traders, explorers, missionaries, propagandists, pioneer farmers, international diplomacy—all the influences that might stimulate occupation and possession are to be found in the story of Old Oregon. While settlement was being extended to the new frontier of the Great Lakes area in Canada, and to the Mississippi River in the United States, the frontier itself, by jumping the central plains, was receding to the Pacific Coast. The Oregon country and California became the new frontier in the 1840’s.

For twenty-five years the joint occupation initiated by Great Britain and the United States in 1818 had worked successfully in Oregon. The arrangement was satisfactory so long as the actual occupants of the area were neither numerous nor permanent, but only transient fur-traders of either nationality. Almost the only permanent residents were the officials of the Hudson’s Bay Company, whose superintendent, Dr. John McLoughlin, had his head 

Dr John McLouglin               ca 1850

quarters at Fort Vancouver, on the Columbia River. From that vantage point he dispensed high, low, and middle justice to Indian and fur-trader alike from Alaska to California. His easy-going existence had been interrupted in the mid-thirties by the arrival from the Eastern United States of Catholic and Protestant missionaries bent on converting the Indians. Their spiritual message made scant impression on the unregenerate natives, but their letters home describing the country stirred in the restless citizenry of the Atlantic and trans-Appalachian states a desire to enter in and to possess such a goodly land. There were, it is true, millions of unsettled acres in the Louisiana Purchase nearer home; but this the prospective settlers disdained as a desert country because of its treeless nature. There was presented to the world then, in the early forties, the strange spectacle of thousands of people travelling painfully 2,000 miles across a fair and fertile plain to make their homes in the wilder ness beyond.[1]

But the long road to Oregon was known many years before the settlers began to march. The fur-traders had found it in the early twenties and had used it year after year in their journeys to and fro between Oregon and St. Louis, their base of supply. In 1842 the United States Government had sent out John C. Frémont to survey and map the route. His map furnished the migrating farmers with such guidance as they needed over the well-known trail up the Platte River, through South Pass, and down the Snake and Columbia rivers to the Promised Land beyond.

With the advent of settlers, and as the forest gave way to the farm and the market town, boundary-lines became necessary. Joint occupation became impracticable. When the rivalries of trading companies pushing into the wilderness are followed by settlement there ensues a life-and-death struggle between fur traders and settlers. Canadian and United States development has been characterized by such struggles. The fur trade must give way to law and order, and to a conventionalized society with its rules and recognized magistrates; and with the emergence of these, people begin to think in terms of government. Politics enters upon the scene, bringing to the fore a new set of interests, not least of which are sentiment, prestige, and nationalism. The incoming American settlers in Oregon wanted the form of government to which they had been accustomed in the Eastern United States. With characteristic frontier disdain of inter national agreements, they took possession of the Willamette Valley, established a provisional government in 1843, and called on their country for support. Such was the situation in Oregon in 1846, the year destined to be so fateful in the history of the Pacific Coast from Alaska to Mexico.

No other phase of the history of the Pacific Northwest has been investigated more thoroughly by historians than the Oregon boundary dispute. Weighty tomes, scholarly articles, and appealing stories in seemingly unlimited quantity, have been written on the subject, some amusing and many authoritative, some pro-British and many pro-American. The claims of each protagonist have been investigated and interpreted by sincere and painstaking scholars who have presented their evidence as impartially as is humanly possible. In particular, to Dr. Frederick Merk must go credit for much intensive research, which he has presented in a series of admirable articles written over the course of three decades. From the weight of evidence that has been compiled, it would appear that a discussion of claims, with intent to justify one or the other side, is not only difficult but also useless. It would be an academic investigation, the conclusions of which could not but be influenced by personal opinion. So numerous and conflicting were the claims, and so inextricably bound were they to 19th century Imperialism and sectional politics, that all that may be attempted profitably by the student of the problem is a presentation of claims to the disputed area in the light of the Treaty concluding the controversy, and in relation to the effect upon subsequent history of the Pacific North west. Whose claims were the more valid is a matter of small moment now. Speculations as to the “if’s” of history are entertaining and diverting but neither profitable nor constructive. The paramount questions then, are rather why the decision formulated in 1846 was favourable to one country and not to the other, what cast the decision in that country’s favour, and what the effect has been upon the subsequent social, political, and economic development of the area.

When the fate of Old Oregon became a matter of international importance, involving the immediate prospect of war, the claims to the disputed territory were investigated in full both by Great Britain and by the United States. Every shred of supporting evidence was advanced by Lord Aberdeen, the British Foreign Secretary, and by James Buchanan, the American Secretary of State. These claims will be briefly summarized; briefly, because they warrant no lengthy consideration. When the Treaty was finally signed on June 15, 1846, its decision was not contingent upon any superiority of claims. Although the Conventions of 1818 and 1826 had left the territory west of the Rocky Mountains open to both nations, the final settlement was not in the least affected by them. Neither prior discovery, superior exploitation, nor more advanced settlement gave the area to the United States practically on her own terms. This was brought about by a combination of national bluff in America and famine in Ireland. By means of the successful campaign slogan of “54° 40’ or fight,” adopted by the belligerent President Polk, he was eminently successful in arousing to fever pitch public interest in the “re-occupation of Oregon.” By so doing, he tipped the scales in favour of conciliation in England. Polk’s superior diplomacy, or bluff, triumphed over Sir Robert Peel’s party politics. Throughout the 19th century, from the Treaty of Ghent in 1814, through the “roaring forties” and the period of Manifest Destiny in the United States, and down to the Spanish-American War that closed the century, Anglo-American relations, though often dangerously strained, remained peaceful. It can scarcely be disputed, however, that this was due more to a conscious effort on the part of England to avoid war, than it was to the desire of the United States to preserve peace. This year of 1846, which Bernard De Voto has termed the Year of Decision,[2] was an obstacle in the path of United States nationalism, which had taken to itself the sobriquet of Manifest Destiny, and which was capitalized upon by the State Department in Washington, ever on the alert to follow economic penetration by political dominion. Such was the policy followed in Oregon.

In the apportionment of North America, the Pacific slope, like the eastern portion of the continent, was a confusion of overlapping claims based on desultory explorations and an indefinite and uncertain occupancy. There is agreement among historians now that the claims of both the United States and Great Britain to all of the area under dispute—the land lying between the Columbia River and the 54th parallel—were “extravagant and unsound.”[3] “Neither nation,” Dr. Keenleyside says, “had a perfect, or even a strong, case.”[4]  Behind the controversy lay a tangle of claims based on the activities of both sides in exploration and occupation. The voyages of Cook and Vancouver, the surveys of the Columbia River made by Captain Gray and Lieutenant Broughton, the expeditions of Mackenzie and Lewis and Clark, the activities of the Pacific Fur and the North West companies, were all advanced as justifying title to the whole area. The situation was further complicated by Russian and Spanish claims. These were soon defined when the treaty of 1819 between Spain and the United States placed the northern limit of Spanish claims at the 42nd parallel, and when Russia, by treaties with the United States in 1824 and with Great Britain the following year, agreed to stay north of 54° 40’. But even these agreements, which reduced the number of potential rivals, added new complexities to the claims of the two who remained.

A further complication was created by the question of Astoria. This post, which Astor had established at the mouth of the Columbia River in 1811, had fallen victim to the vicissitudes of the War of 1812. Rather than see it captured without recompense, Astor’s local representative had prudently sold out to the North West Company. Nonetheless, a British naval commander had taken formal occupation after the post had changed hands, and this action, according to the American view, brought it within scope of the clause of the Treaty of Ghent which provided for a mutual return of conquests. An expedition was sent to effect a symbolic reoccupation in 1817, and Castlereagh, the British Foreign Secretary, while protesting against the mode of procedure, acknowledged the validity of the American contention. In 1826 Canning was to regret the action of his predecessor[5] because the event added strength to American claims in the Oregon region.

So the stage was set for one of the greatest dramas in the history of America, a determined contest between Great Britain, which agreed with Sir Alexander Mackenzie, who in 1801 was moved to declare that wherever the northwestern boundary-line should strike the Mississippi, “it . . . must be continued West, till it terminates in the Pacific Ocean, to the South of the Columbia;“[6] and the United States, whose most fiery citizens shouted “54° 40’ or fight,” while others declared that the line of 49° would be a satisfactory boundary. At a number of times during the long-drawn-out controversy Great Britain might have had all the territory above 49°, but her statesmen were unwilling to yield what they thought was the better part of the territory, a part which they claimed tenaciously.

A proper analysis of the subject necessitates a survey of the area at stake. It was not such an extensive territory as at first sight it would seem. It appeared as though the whole of the Oregon country was at issue, the vast domain extending from the Rocky Mountains to the sea and from California to Alaska. But the area about which the dispute really centred was the comparatively limited area lying between the Columbia River and the 49th parallel, the area now constituting the central and western thirds of the State of Washington.

The British looked upon the Columbia River as an essential artery of the fur trade and a vital outlet for the whole trans montane region. The Americans were determined to secure possession of the Straits of Juan de Fuca, not so much because of the value of the intervening territory as because the area of Puget Sound offered the only good harbours north of San Francisco. In fact, had San Francisco been in American possession at the time, it is possible that the furore over Oregon might not have been so great. Britain rejected the suggestion that the 49th parallel be extended to the Pacific, and the United States refused to concede the Columbia River as the boundary. As a result, the final settlement was left in abeyance, and the Convention of 1818 provided for joint occupation for a period of ten years.[7]  Negotiations were renewed in 1826, following the elimination of Russia and Spain. But neither side would recede from its territorial claims, and the offer of the United States to concede free navigation of the Columbia was no more acceptable than the offer by Great Britain of a harbour on the Straits. In 1827 the arrangements for joint occupation were in consequence extended, this time without limit, but with the provision that they could be abrogated by either side on twelve months’ notice. This may have been a play for time on the part of the American Government in order to populate the country. The provisional arrangements did in the end work to the advantage of the United States, as they had hoped. Although at this period it was the British alone who were in effective occupation of the disputed area, that occupation was represented only by the Hudson’s Bay Company. There was little immediate prospect of a more substantial settlement from British territory farther east. The Hudson’s Bay Company favoured agricultural establishments near the posts for the sake of supplies, and when the problem of more extensive occupation became pressing some efforts were made to promote a pioneer movement from the Red River settlement. But there was no such population surplus available as that which was pushing the American frontier of settlement steadily westward, and which was by that time flowing over the Rockies to claim the Pacific Coast. This advance was powerfully assisted by the attitude of the Chief Factor of the Hudson’s Bay Company in the Columbia District. Of all the Scotsmen who lifted the fur trade to its days of greatness none was more remarkable that Dr. John McLoughlin, the “White Eagle” to the Indian and the “King of Old Oregon” to the settler. For twenty years he ruled his vast domain, managing the widespread activities of the fur trade, which included raising stock and growing grain as well as trapping. His remarkable personality made him the unquestioned authority around which life in Old Oregon revolved. But his virtual sovereignty, accepted by the community over which he had charge, could not long survive an influx of settlement. He himself recognized the fertility of Oregon and the inevitability of eventual occupation of the land. Before long, his fears were confirmed. The American settler with his plough was following the footsteps of the profit-seeking trader who had first exploited the wilderness. In this phase the missionaries played the leading role as pioneers.

The first arrivals were the Methodists in 1834, intent on bringing spiritual enlightenment to the Indians. They were followed within a year by the Presbyterians. Their religious activities were not spectacular; their plaints were those of all missionaries. Braves who were converted during the tedious winter tended to backslide when spring came. Indian children adopted by the missionaries tended to die, with Christian resignation, no doubt, but with unhappy frequency. But in more mundane activities the talents of the newcomers found more successful employment. The Methodists were soon impressed with the prospects of the Willamette Valley, directed there on the excellent advice of Dr. McLoughlin. They abandoned active preaching and devoted themselves to land promotion. Their glowing descriptions found an audience when the depression of 1837 moved some of the restless and discontented on the old frontier to try their fortunes farther west. In 1839 a shipload of settlers came out by way of Cape Horn. An overland party in 1840 heralded the beginning of a new migration. Three years later the first large company made the overland journey from Missouri; a short while later other pilgrims combined a land and sea trip through the Panama. “The Plains over, the Isthmus across, or the Horn around?” became the query asked of each new arrival. By the end of 1843 some 400 settlers had established themselves, chiefly along the Willamette. In that year a definite movement got under way which brought an increasing flood of immigrants, whose total was over 10,000 by 1848.

No sooner had a compact settlement developed on the Willamette than the settlers began thinking in terms of self-government and self-protection. As their dependence on the Hudson’s Bay Company decreased their aggressiveness grew. The result was the provisional government, formed at Champoeg in 1843, by which the Americans formed a compact for mutual protection and to secure peace and prosperity among themselves. For the sake of safety McLoughlin thought he must co-operate with that body. His action was interpreted in a false light by his Company, but he felt that to maintain peace and to secure order such action was best until the two governments could settle the question of the boundary. He tried to avoid compromising British claims to the Columbia River boundary by keeping the settlers south of the river. Any settlement meant danger, and recognition of the provisional government seriously weakened the British position. McLoughlin argued that any other course would precipitate a storm to which the British must yield or be prepared to resist by force. But the Hudson’s Bay Company was only too well aware that the territory in any case was about to slip from its grasp. The American settlers were now making vigorous representations to Washington, and sentiment through out the country had been aroused to the point where the possession of Oregon had become a national issue.

It was now clear that affairs in Oregon were approaching a crisis. The British, seeing the trend toward agricultural economy, realized that the fur trade was doomed and that they could only hold the Columbia Valley by following the American example. Dr. McLoughlin, though he had been cordial in his treatment of the American settlers, quickly grasped the inexorable, and urged upon the British Government the adoption of a colonizing policy, but the aid he sought was refused. Owing partly to this disappointment, partly to a division of his authority in the Columbia Department, and partly to personal animosity to George Simpson, his superior in the Company, he resigned the leadership he had so honourably held, letting the drift of Western life pursue its own course.

Sensing battle in the air, both Americans and British opened the fray with skirmishes. Since there was no established authority to make land grants and to keep order, they engaged in bitter contests over titles and breaches of the peace, each side accusing the other of making fraudulent entries, of selling fire arms and whisky to the Indians, and undercutting in the fur market. Desirous of bringing the whole region under their control and chafing under the monopoly enjoyed by the Hudson’s Bay Company, Englishmen on the ground requested their home government in London to unite the Oregon country with Canada. With equal force the pioneer Americans in Oregon urged Washington to settle the issue by giving them self-government and assuring them of protection.

Up to this point the issue was of a purely local nature. The settlers on the American side of the river and the Hudson’s Bay men on the northern shore bandied words and brandished clubs, and each group examined its own claims, forwarding as many as could be substantiated, and a few that could not, to their respective governments. But with the presidential election of 1844 the controversy assumed international importance, involving threats of war. The Democratic Party’s platform, drawn up at the party convention in Baltimore, and on which James K. Polk was elected President, ended with this resolution:

“That our title to the whole of the territory of Oregon is clear and unquestionable; that no portion of the same ought to be surrendered to England or any other power, and that the re-occupation of Oregon and the re-annexation of Texas at the earliest practicable period are great American measures which this convention recommends to the cordial support of the Democracy of the Union.”[8]  

James K. Polk, President of the United States

The Oregon debates in Congress, brief though they were, were full of language uncomplimentary to the British, which John Bull found wounding to his pride. In the person of the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, John Bull swelled with hardly suppressed anger and professed to believe the situation serious.[9]  Clearly his government was faced by an American democracy recently victorious at the polls, a democracy which was inaugurating its return to office with a vigorous twist of the British lion’s tail. Then came the new President’s assertion, in his inaugural address of March 4, 1845, that:

“Nor will it become in a less degree my duty to assert and maintain by all constitutional means the right of the United States to that portion of our territory which lies beyond the Rocky Mountains. Our title to the country of Oregon is “clear and unquestionable,” and already are our people preparing to perfect that title by occupying it with their wives and children.  . . To us belongs the duty of protecting them. . . “[10]

From this point on the issue becomes clouded in a maze of proposals and rejections, diplomatic messages, and vituperation.

Had Great Britain not had what her Government under Sir Robert Peel considering more pressing problems to settle; had the Government not had to rely upon Whig support; or had there not been an advocate of conciliation, in the person of Lord Aberdeen, in the Foreign Office, war would probably have been the outcome.

The thread of British party politics, discernible in the fabric of American history at many points, has woven discord more frequently than harmony. Twice it has produced war. It came near to doing so in the Oregon controversy. It was the dread of party clamour that induced the British Government to postpone a settlement until passions in the United States had been aroused almost to the point of explosion. Because of a distorted Opposition charge of “capitulation,” as applied to the Webster Ashburton award of 1842, the British Government was restrained from agreeing to a capitulation that was not only real but also necessary in Oregon.

For more than twenty-five years, and through five negotiations, British Governments had resisted American pretensions to the triangle on the ground of the superiority of the British title to it. To descend from this height was not easy. Since the earlier negotiations the triangle had been occupied by British subjects in considerable numbers—servants of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Practically no Americans were settled there—none so far as Lord Aberdeen knew. If, in diplomacy, possession was nine points of the law, the triangle was already British. To give it up, to retreat from the Columbia River boundary, was to abandon British vested interests and to expatriate British subjects. It was to retreat from the boundary of British prestige.

Lord Aberdeen, the Secretary of Foreign Affairs in the Conservative Government of Peel, was eager for a pacific adjustment of all outstanding differences with the United States. Conciliatory and peace-loving, he saw nothing within the triangle that was worth the risk of war. Of the territory itself he had a low opinion; he was well aware that the Columbia River could never be an outlet for Western Canada to the sea, and he recognized the essential reasonableness of the American demand for a share in the harbours about the 49th parallel. Personally, he was willing as early as March 1844, to settle the dispute on the basis of that parallel to the sea.

By December of 1845 it had been proven to the British Government that failure to compromise in external matters was unprofitable, with the result that by spring party politics were set aside pro tem in order that the dispute be settled. Polk, with his campaign cry of” 54° 40’ or fight,” was not to be intimidated. Not even the Southern senators, who had no interest in the extension of free soil into Oregon, could have stopped Polk. The situation in England was such that conciliation and concession could not but triumph. In the autumn of 1845 three major crises faced the British Government, the least of which was the Oregon question. There was a harvest shortage of seemingly famine proportions. There was a Corn Law conflict of revolutionary intensity. Some writer[11] have seen in these domestic problems the reason for Britain’s conciliatory attitude, but Dr. Merk has disproved adequately such a solution.[12]  Merk’s concluding remark is:

“The thesis of the beneficent intervention of the bill [i.e., the Anti-Corn Law bill, which removed the tariff restrictions on grain imported, designed to appease the Middle Westerner on the Oregon question by opening British markets to their wheat] in the American crisis . . . is, in truth, the serving up of contemporary propaganda as History.

The free-trade movement in England may not have influenced directly the settlement of the problem in Oregon, but it did contribute its share. It did so by removing political obstacles to a policy of concession. In earlier negotiations British Governments had rejected again and again the proposal made by the American Government to divide Oregon by a line drawn along the 49th parallel to the sea. Lord Aberdeen regarded this line as a reasonable basis of partition. As early as March 1844, he had been willing to accept it, stopping it short Only at the coast so as not to sever Vancouver Island. The cabinet, however, was less pliant. The territory between the 49th parallel and the Columbia River, for which British Governments had held out, had become steadily more British since the first negotiations, as a result of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s occupation. A government surrendering it to the United States under such circumstances exposed itself to the Opposition charge of having abandoned British pride and honour. As Merk says, the chief obstacle to an amicable adjustment of the Oregon controversy during the critical years of 1845—46 was this political hazard.

The Anti-Corn Law crusade served to lessen this hazard. It did so by releasing in England a spirit of international conciliation. The free-trade doctrine was a gospel of peace. Its postulates were international good-will and the dependence of nations upon each other. The leaders of the Anti-Corn Law League, powerful in England, were conspicuous internationalists, friendly in particular toward the United States. Their contention was that the repeal of the Corn Laws would result in a permanent bond of friendship between the United States and England by means of trade. America would feed England, England would clothe America. In the Oregon crisis these leaders turned the militant fervour of a triumphant crusade into channels of Anglo-American conciliation.

A more direct contribution of the Anti-Corn Law crusade to the peaceful adjustment of the Oregon question was the realignment of British political parties it produced in the winter of 1845—46. The Conservatives, under Peel, managed to consolidate their ranks sufficiently to abolish the Corn Laws in face of embittered opposition from the Conservative party. In the cabinet crisis the Whigs had been won over to a policy of conciliation in Oregon. Free trade was the means by which belligerence over the Oregon question was turned into a policy of concession.

President Polk suspected that England had little desire to fight for Oregon; and, fortified by that conviction, he played his cards skilfully and successfully. His Government renewed the American offer of the 49th parallel as the boundary to the Pacific, with the concession of a free port on the tip of Vancouver Island. When this was rejected as “inconsistent with fairness and equity and with the expectations of the British government” the proposition was specifically withdrawn; notice was given of the termination of the agreement on joint occupation; a British suggestion of mediation was refused, and the United States embarked on preparations which seemed convincing proof of a readiness for war.

Britain, too, was taking military measures, but purely for purposes of defence. War with the United States would endanger not only Oregon, but also Canada, which would inevitably become the main object of attack, and the stakes were not worth such a major risk. The British Government decided on yet another surrender, modified only by certain limited concessions on the part of the United States. One was the acceptance of the Straits of Juan de Fuca as the final stretch of the boundary, thus leaving the whole of Vancouver Island to the British. Another was the concession of the navigation of the Columbia to the Hudson’s Bay Company, together with a clause which preserved the proprietary rights of the Company and of other British subjects south of the new boundary. Although the actual definition of the channel through the Straits was to remain a matter of dispute until 1872, the signing of the Treaty on June 15, 1846, marked finis to joint occupation.[13]

The most amazing aspect of the entire settlement is that, audacious as Polk’s policies seemed, and fearful as the American people were of the consequences, there was in reality so little that stood in the way of the President’s accomplishing his purpose. The great fear of the Americans in Oregon, as well as the country generally, was that England would not be willing to give up any of the territory north of the Columbia River on which she had insisted for three decades. Joseph Schafer says that it is certain that Canning’s attitude of 1824, which was the policy of the Government from that time on, “would infallibly have brought on a war with the United States had not such a calamity been averted by the more temperate statesmanship of Sir Robert Peel and Lord Aberdeen.”[14]  Edward Everett, American Minister in Lon don when Peel’s administration began, and who remained there until the summer of 1845, expressed in a series of dispatches during that time his conviction that the British Government was disposed to a friendly settlement of the Oregon question on reasonable terms. Everett’s idea of what would be reasonable is almost exactly expressed by the treaty as finally concluded. It is now known that the British Government did send a secret military expedition to Oregon under Lieutenants Warre and Vavasour, in 1845—46,

“…to examine and report on all existing British posts, to ascertain and report if they be of a nature to resist any sudden attack, or whether they could be made so in a short space of time.[15]  

The reports of these men were such as to make the defence of the country look exceedingly difficult. The interest of both countries in their new policy of free trade, which, if persisted in, would cement their destinies, stimulated the friendly feeling of Aberdeen and Peel for the United States. It was further the well-known attitude of England at this period to be averse to colonial enterprise. It must also be remembered that between 1834 and 1846 Great Britain had trouble elsewhere, especially in Canada, which during 1837—38 was in a state of open rebellion. Doubtless this factor contributed no small share to Britain’s apathy regarding further acquisitions of territory in North America. The fact that there were many more Americans in the Oregon country south of the Columbia than there were British, giving to the former a great advantage in the event of a conflagration, doubtless hastened a settlement on the basis of mutual concessions.

The Treaty is of more than passing interest. It marked the finale of a struggle which had opened in colonial times; it determined the fate of the Pacific Coast of North America; it determined the nature of the future development in the disputed region; and for Canada as a whole it had very important and lasting consequences.

From the beginning of British interest in North America in the 17th century, English merchants had relied upon the fur trade as an unfailing source of profits, and in the protection of that interest they had again and again brought pressure to bear on the policy of their government. They it was who had been instrumental in securing the momentous decree of 1763 which shut the gates of the hinterland upon American squatters. Defeated by the Revolution, they moved the seat of their Empire westward, and in the War of 1812, made the fur trade once more an issue. On one thing both the English and the Indians agreed —the fur-bearing animals of the wilderness must be protected from the soil-tilling pioneers of the United States. But they were banded together in a fight against fate. Though the second war for American independence culminated in a peace that promised a respite, it merely transferred to diplomacy the old battle between. resolute farmers and the British fur-traders supported by Indian allies, and as the American frontier advanced, exterminating the fur-bearing animals, the clash of these contending forces was pushed onwards until it reached the Pacific North west. There, at the water’s edge, in the Valley of the Columbia River where the British Hudson’s Bay Company had its outpost, the long struggle ended. T. C. Elliott summarizes the situation when he says:

“Thus, we find that it was the prime beaver skin of the Columbia river basin in its abundance which attracted the attention of both England and America to Oregon; the symbol of the pound sterling and American dollar preceded both the flag and the cross in both discovery, and exploitation. And the purely commercial interests involved also undoubtedly occasioned the delay in the final determination of the dispute by means of the treaties of joint policy.[16]

Although in 1846 there were only eight Americans actually residing in the disputed area, and no commercial activities, the thousands of American settlers in the area immediately to the south made a positive contribution to the boundary settlement. Owing to their presence, George Simpson was led to order the removal of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s main depot from Fort Vancouver to Victoria in 1843. Simpson, who profoundly distrusted all American settlers, entertained fears for the safety of the valuable stores concentrated at Fort Vancouver. Lord Aberdeen recognized this decision as being a tacit admission of defeat in Oregon. Such a surrender of the Columbia River was the key to peaceful settlement, and Aberdeen translated the retreat into a treaty of peace.

The Treaty which was of such importance to the Pacific Northwest was accepted with equanimity by officials of the Hudson’s Bay Company, but the cry of “54° 40’ or fight” had aroused such a great surge of nationalism in the United States that Polk was roundly berated for having accepted its terms. Although he won a state thereby, his bluff had been called. Senator Benton, referring to “54° 40’ or fight,” said:

“And this is the end of the great Line! All gone—vanished—evaporated into thin air—and the peace when it was not to be found. Oh mountain that was delivered of a mouse, thy name henceforth shall be 54:4O.”[17]

The significance of the settlement as far as the United States was concerned was that America had now acquired a domain imperial in extent, which stretched from sea to sea. She had secured a firm foothold on the shores of the Pacific Ocean. Of even greater importance was the fact that it ushered in an era of Anglo-American peace, good-will, and free trade, which during the next fifteen years (with slight exception) operated greatly to strengthen the North and the West in the United States against the day of Southern secession and a war for the division of the Union. A third result to America that was to be of great importance in the future was Polk’s restatement of the Monroe doctrine of 1823, by which Polk warned all European nations not to interfere with the coast, as well as any other part of the American continent. The results for Canada were no less important. The judgement of those in the area was that Britain had actually conceded too much, but that the area in dispute was not worth a war. The reaction of James Douglas was typical:

“The British government has surrendered more than strict justice required; but John Bull is generous and was bound to be something more than just to his son Jonathan, who will no doubt make good use of the gift. At all events, I am glad to see the vexing event settled so quietly. The Hudson’s Bay Company is fully protected in all of its interests.”[18]

The significance of the Treaty to Canada was that British sovereignty was definitely established over the western territory which the Dominion was later to inherit. The Oregon crisis provided an example and a warning. The dangers that might arise from the infiltration of American settlement were clearly evident, and the need for measures to prevent a similar outcome in the adjoining area was henceforth constantly before the eyes of the British and Canadian governments. The organization of Vancouver Island as a Crown Colony in 1849; the subsequent steps to extend effective authority over the mainland, the title to which the British had secured by thru Treaty; and the concern over the possible fate of the Red River settlement, which played its part in the movement for Confederation, could all be traced to the lesson of Oregon.  The loss of the disputed triangle between the Columbia River and the Straits was possibly offset by the resulting vigilance which made certain the retention of what now remained in British hands north of the 49th parallel.


[1] E. 0. S. Scholefield, British Columbia from the earliest times to the present, Vancouver, 1914, I., p. 446.

[2] Bernard A. De Voto, Year of Decision, 1846, New York, 1943, lxtssim

[3] F. H. Soward, “President Polk and the Canadian Frontier,” in Canadian Historical Association, Annual Report, 1980, p. 71.

[4] H. L. Keenleyside, Canada and the United States, New York, 1929, p. 205.

[5] A. S. Morton, A History of the Canadian West to 1871, London, 1939, p. 734. A confidential memorandum prepared by H. U. Addington for Canning said May 2, 1846: “That retrocession was in fact merely a matter of form: the fort was delivered up on paper, but retained possession of by the British, in whose hands it has remained ever since.”

[6] Alexander Mackenzie, Voyages . . . to the Frozen and Pacific Oceans, London, 1801, p. 399.

[7] Canada, Department of External Affairs, Treaties and Agreements affecting Canada in force between His Majesty and the United States of America, 1814—1925, Ottawa, 1927, p. 16. Article III. reads:— “It is agreed that any country that may be claimed by either party on the Northwest coast of America, westward of the Stoney Mountains, shall, together with its Harbours, Bays and Creeks, and the navigation of all rivers within the same, be free and open for the term of ten years from the date of the signature of the Present Convention, to the Vessels, Citizens and Subjects of the two powers: it being well understood, that this agreement is not to be construed to the prejudice of any claim which either of the two High Contracting Powers may have to any part of the said Country, nor shall it be taken to affect the claims of any other Power or State to any part of the said Country, the only object of the High Contracting Parties, in that respect, being to prevent disputes and differences amongst themselves.”

[8] Scholefield, British Columbia, I., p. 448.

[9] T. P. Martin, “Free Trade and the Oregon Question,” in Facts and Factors in Economic History, Cambridge, Mass., 1932, p. 483. Sir Samuel O’Malley proposed, on March 1, to take over a large body of Irish and hold the Oregon country.

[10] James D. Richardson, A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents, 1789—1897, Washington, 1897, IV., p. 381

[11] See St. G. L. Sioussat, “James Buchanan,” in S. F. Bemis (ed.), The American Secretaries of State and their Diplomacy, New York, 1928, V.; and T. P. Martin, op. cit., pp. 470—492.

[12] F. Merk, “The British Corn Crisis and the Oregon Treaty,” in Agricultural History, VIII. (1934), pp. 95—123.

[13] Although virtually completing the definition of the boundary between Canada and the United States, the Treaty unfortunately contained the following ambiguity, largely due to the ignorance of the geography involved on the part of the signatories. The Treaty said the boundary-line was to pass down the channel of the Straits, from the parallel of 49.0 to the south of Vancouver Island, and so to the open Pacific. The exact wording of the agreement was: “. . . to the middle of the channel which separates the continent from Vancouver’s Island, and thence southerly to the middle of the said channel, and of Fuca’s Straits, to the Pacific Ocean.” Here were the seeds of future dissension, as there were two channels that would have answered the letter of the agreement.

[14] Joseph Schafer, “The British Attitude towards the Oregon Question, 1815—46,” in American Historical Review, XVI. (1910—11), p. 278.

[15] Joseph Schafer (ed.), “Documents relative to Warre and Vavasour’s Military Reconnaissance in Oregon, 1845—46,” in Oregon Historical Quarterly, X. (1909), p. 23.

[16] T. C. Elliott, “The Northern Boundary of Oregon,” Oregon Historical Quarterly, XX. (1919), p. 28.

[17] J. W. Foster, A Century of American Diplomacy, New York, 1902, p. 313.

[18] James Douglas to George Abernethy, November 3, 1846, quoted in James Henry Brown, Political History of Oregon, Portland, 1892. Page 291.