Oregon boundary dispute

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The Oregon Country/Columbia District
stretched from 42N to 54 40'N. The most heavily disputed portion is highlighted

The Oregon boundary dispute or the Oregon Question, occurred in the first half of the 19th century, between the conflicting territorial and commercial aspirations of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and the United States of America, in the Pacific Northwest of North America. Following long European precedent, both nations recognized only limited sovereign rights of the local indigenous nations. The region was often referred to as the Columbia District by the British and the Oregon Country by the Americans, with both governments having residual claims from treaties with the Russian and Spanish Empires.[1] The broadest definition of the disputed region was defined by the following: west of the Continental Divide of the Americas, north of the 42nd parallel north (the northern border of Alta California established in 1818), and south of the parallel 54°40′ north (the southern limit of Russian America after 1825).

The Oregon Dispute became important in geopolitical diplomacy between the British Empire and the new American Republic. In 1844 the U.S. Democratic Party, appealing to expansionist sentiment and the popular theme of manifest destiny, asserted that the U.S. had a valid claim to the entire Oregon Country up to Russian America at parallel 54°40′ north. Democratic presidential candidate James K. Polk won the 1844 election, but then sought a compromise boundary along the 49th parallel, the same boundary proposed by previous U.S. administrations. Negotiations between the U.S. and the British broke down, however, and tensions grew as American expansionists like U.S. Senator Edward A. Hannegan of Indiana, and Congressman Leonard Henly Sims of Missouri, urged Polk to annex the entire Oregon Country north to the parallel 54°40′ north, as the Democrats had called for in the election. The turmoil gave rise to slogans such as "Fifty-four Forty or Fight!", and is an example of the concept known as "Manifest Destiny".

The expansionist agenda of Polk and the Democratic Party created the possibility of two different, simultaneous wars, because relations between the United States and Mexico were deteriorating following the annexation of Texas. Just before the outbreak of the war with Mexico, Polk returned to his earlier position on the Oregon boundary and accepted a compromise along the 49th parallel as far as the Strait of Georgia. This agreement was made official in the 1846 Oregon Treaty, and the 49th parallel remains the boundary between the United States and Canada west of Lake of the Woods, other than the marine boundary which curves south through the Haro Strait (settled over the Rosario Strait in 1872) to the Strait of Juan de Fuca and so excludes from the United States Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands. As a result, Point Roberts (the southern half of a small peninsula extending south into the Strait of Georgia from the south side of the Fraser River's estuary) is an exclave of the United States.


Main article: Oregon Country

Early European or American exploration of the Oregon Country was done by such naval captains as the Spanish Juan José Pérez Hernández, British George Vancouver and American Robert Gray. Defining regional water formations like the Columbia River and Puget Sound were given their modern names and charted by these men in the 1790s. Overland explorations were commenced by the British Alexander Mackenzie in 1792 and later followed by the American Lewis and Clark expedition, which reached the mouth of the Columbia River in 1805. While individuals acting in the name of their respective governments often claimed sovereignty over the Northwest Coast, the knowledge they gained was used primarily to expand the Maritime Fur Trade by enterprising fur traders. Beginning in the early 1800s, two land based fur trading companies headquartered in Lower Canada (the North West Company) and the United States (the Pacific Fur Company) expanded into the Pacific Northwest.

Map of the Columbia River and its tributaries, showing modern political boundaries and cities.

Joint occupation[edit]

Treaty of 1818[edit]

Main article: Treaty of 1818

In 1818, diplomats of the two countries attempted to negotiate a boundary between the rival claims. The Americans suggested dividing the Oregon Country along the 49th parallel, which was the border between the United States and British North America east of the Rocky Mountains. The lack of accurate cartographic knowledge led American diplomats to declare the Louisiana Purchase gave them an incontestable claim to the region.[2] British diplomats wanted a border further south along the Columbia River, so as to maintain the North West Company's (later the Hudson's Bay Company's) control of the lucrative fur trade along that river.[2] The diplomatic teams couldn't agree upon mutually satisfactory terms and remained in deadlock by October. Albert Gallatin, the main American negotiator, had previously instructed to have a tentative agreement by the convening of the 3rd session of the 15th United States Congress, set for 16 November.

A final proposition was made to the British plenipotentiary, Frederick John Robinson, for the continuation of the 49th parallel west while leaving the United Kingdom, as Gallatin stated, "all the waters emptying in the sound called the Gulf of Georgia."[2] This would have awarded "all the territory draining west from the Cascade divide and north from the Columbia River divide into the gulf" and the entirety of the Puget Sound along with the Straits of Georgia and Juan de Fuca to the United Kingdom.[2] Robinson demurred from the proposal however, the Anglo-American Convention of 1818, which settled most other disputes from the War of 1812, called for the joint occupation of the region for ten years.


As the expiration of the Joint Occupation treaty approached, a second round of negotiations commenced in 1824. American Minister Richard Rush offered for the extension of agreement with an additional clause on 2 April. The 51° parallel would be a provisional border within the Oregon Country, with no British additional settlements to be established south of the line, nor any American settlements north of it.[3] Despite Rush offering to modify the temporary border to the 49° parallel, the British negotiators rejected his offer. His proposal was seen as the likely basis for the eventual division of the Pacific Northwest. The British plenipotentiaries William Huskisson and Stratford Canning on 29 June pressed instead for a permanent line along the 49° parallel west until the main branch of the Columbia River. With the British formally abandoning claims south or east of the Columbia River, the Oregon Question from then on became focused what later became Western Washington and the southern portion of Vancouver Island.[3] Rush reacted to the British proposal as unfavorably as they had to his own offer, leaving the talks at a stalemate.

Throughout 1825 Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs George Canning held discussions with Governor Pelly of the HBC as to a potential settlement with the United States. Pelly felt a border along the Snake and Columbia Rivers was advantageous for the United Kingdom and his company.[4] Contacting American minister Rufus King in April 1826, Canning requested that a settlement be reached over the Oregon dispute. Gallatin was appointed Ambassador to the United Kingdom and given instructions by Secretary of State Henry Clay in July 1826 to offer a division of the Pacific Northwest along the 49th parallel to the British.[5]

Huskisson was appointed along with Henry Addington to negotiate with Gallatin. Unlike his superior Canning, Huskisson held a negative view of the HBC monopoly and found the region held in dispute with the Americans "of little consequence to the British."[4] At time the HBC's staff was the only continuous white occupants in the region, though their economic activities weren't utilized by Huskinisson in exchanges with Gallatin.[4] The division suggested by Pelly and Canning's 1824 offer of a Columbia River boundary were both rejected. The argument used to counter these offers was the same as in 1824, that a boundary along the Columbia would deny the U.S. an easily accessible deep water port on the Pacific Ocean. The British negotiators to allay this attack offered a detached Olympic Peninsula as American territory, giving access to both the Straits of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound.[4] This was seen as unsatisfactory by the Americans however. The diplomatic talks were continued but failed to divide the region in a satisfactory way for both nations. The Treaty of 1818 was renewed on 7 August 1827,[6] with a clause added by Gallatin that a one-year notice had to be given when either party intended to abrogate the agreement.[5]

Significance in America[edit]

Regional activities[edit]

The American Pacific Fur Company (PFC) began operations in 1811 at Fort Astoria, constructed at the entrance of the Columbia River. The eruption of the War of 1812 didn't create a violent confrontation in the Pacific Northwest between the competing companies. Led by Donald Mackenzie, PFC officers agreed to liquid its assets to their NWC competitors, with an agreement signed on 23 November 1813.[7]

After the collapse of the PFC, American fur traders often operated in small groups in the Oregon Country, based east of the Rocky Mountains. Nathaniel Wyeth attempted challenging the HBC for a portion of the regional fur trade starting in 1832, eventually establishing Fort William on Wapato Island and Fort Hall in modern Idaho. However, he was unable to effectively compete against the British, and sold his two stations to them in 1837. The principal American commercial ventures until the rise of pioneer colonists in the 1840s were focused on the ongoing Maritime Fur Trade vessels.

American missionaries began to arrive in the 1830s and established the Methodist Mission in the Willamette Valley and the Whitman Mission east of the Cascades.[8] Ewing Young created a saw mill[9] and a grist mill in the Willamette Valley early in the 30s.[10] He and several other American colonists formed the Willamette Cattle Company in 1837 to bring over 600 head of cattle to the Willamette Valley, with about half of its shares purchased by McLoughlin. Over 700 U.S settlers arrived via the Oregon Trail in the "Great Migration of 1843". The Provisional Government of Oregon was established in the Willamette Valley during 1843 as well. Its rule was limited to those interested Americans and former French-Canadian HBC employees in the valley.



The first attempts by the American Government for proactive action in colonising the Pacific Northwest began in 1820 during the 2nd session of the 16th Congress. John Floyd, a Representative from Virginia spearheaded a report that would "authorize the occupation of the Columbia River, and to regulated trade and intercourse with the Indian tribes thereon."[11] Additionally the bill called for cultivating commerical relations with the Qing Empire and the Tokugawa shogunate. His interest in the distant region likely began after meeting former PFC employee Russell Farnham. Floyd had the support of fellow Virginian Representative Thomas Van Swearingen and Representative Thomas Metcalfe of Kentucky. The bill was presented to both the House and to President Monroe. In the House, Floyd's bill was defended by one member who stated that it didn't "attempt a colonial settlement. The territory proposed to be occupied is already a part of the United States."[12] Monroe inquired the opinion of Secretary of State John Quincy Adams for potential revisions. Adams retorted that "The paper was a tissue of errors in fact and abortive reasoning, of invidious reflections and rude invectives. There was nothing could purify it but the fire."[13] Read twice before the legislature, "most of the members not considering it a serious proceeding", it didn't pass.[11]

Representative John Floyd was the most prominent early Congressional member in favor of extensive American claims in the Pacific Northwest.

Floyd continued to authorise legislation calling for an American colony on the Pacific. His career as a Representative ended in 1829, with the matter of the Oregon Country not discussed at Congress until 1837. The northern border proposed by Floyd was at first the 53°, and later 54°40′.[14] These bills were still met with the apathy or opposition of other Congressional members, one in particular not being tabled for consideration by a vote of 100 to 61.[14] Missouri Senator Thomas H. Benton became a vocal supporter of Floyd's efforts, and thought that they would "plant the germ of a powerful and independent Power beyond the Rockies."[14] John C. Calhoun, then Secretary of War, while somewhat interested in Floyd's considered bills, gave his opinion to that the HBC was an economic threat to American commercial interests in the west.

"....so long as the traders of the British Fur Company have free access to the region of the Rocky Mountains from the various posts... they will in great measure monopolize the Fur Trade West of the Mississippi, to the almost entire exclusion in the next few years of our trade."[14]


Senator Lewis Linn of Missouri tabled legislation in 1842, inspired in part by Floyd's previous efforts. Linn's bill called for government land grants to men interested in settling the Pacific Northwest. The arrival of Baron Ashburton and the subsequent Webster-Ashburton Treaty however delayed the proposed articles. At the final session of the 27th Congress on 19 December, Linn presented a similar bill to colonize the Oregon Country as he put it, "by the Anglo-American race, which will extend our limits from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean."[12] Arguments over the bill lasted over a month, and eventually was passed in the Senate 24-22.[12] In opposition to Linn's bill, Calhoun famously declared that the U.S. government should pursue a policy of "wise and masterly inactivity"[15] in Oregon, letting settlement determine the eventual boundary.[12] Many of Calhoun's fellow Democrats, however, soon began to advocate a more direct approach.[16]

Polk Presidency[edit]

At the 1844 Democratic National Convention, the party platform called for the annexation of Texas and asserted that the United States had a "clear and unquestionable" claim to "the whole" of Oregon and "that no portion of the same ought to be ceded to England or any other power." By informally tying the Oregon dispute to the more controversial Texas debate, the Democrats appealed to both Northern expansionists, who were more adamant about the Oregon boundary, and Southern expansionists, who focused on annexing Texas. The Oregon Question according to Edward Miles wasn't "a significant campaign issue" as "the Whigs would have been forced to discuss it." Their silence "indicated that Oregon had failed to arouse widespread interest."[17]

President James K. Polk was elected in 1844 in part from his support for substantial claims against the British. Much of this rhetoric was to make the United Kingdom accept the long tabled proposed division along the 49th parallel.

"Fifty-four Forty or Fight!" was not yet coined during this election as appeared by January 1846, driven in part by the Democratic press. The phrase is frequently misidentified as a campaign slogan from the election of 1844, even in many textbooks.[17][18][19][20] Bartlett's Familiar Quotations attributes the slogan to William Allen. 54°40′ was the southern boundary of Russian America, and considered the northernmost limit of the Oregon Country. One actual Democratic campaign slogan from this election (used in Pennsylvania) was the more mundane "Polk, Dallas, and the Tariff of '42".[18] Democratic candidate James K. Polk went on to win a narrow victory over Whig candidate Henry Clay, in part because Clay had taken a stand against expansion.

In his March 1845 inaugural address, President Polk quoted from the party platform, saying that the U.S. title to Oregon was "clear and unquestionable".[21] Tensions grew, with both sides moving to strengthen border fortifications in anticipation of war. Despite Polk's bold language, he was actually prepared to compromise, and had no real desire to go to war over Oregon. He believed that a firm stance would compel the British to accept a resolution agreeable to the United States. While meeting with Representative James A. Black on 4 January 1846, Polk stated that "the only way to treat John Bull was to look him straight in the eye... if Congress faultered [sic]... John Bull would immediately become arrogant and more grasping in his demands..."[22] But Polk's position on Oregon was not mere posturing: he genuinely believed that the U.S. had a legitimate claim to the entire region.[23] He rejected British offers to settle the dispute through arbitration, fearing that no impartial third party could be found.[24]

Many newspaper editors in the United States clamored for Polk to claim the entire region as the Democrats had proposed in the 1844 campaign. Headlines like "The Whole of Oregon or None" by The Union editor Thomas Ritchie appeared on 6 November 1845.[17] In a column in the New York Morning News on December 27, 1845, editor John L. O'Sullivan argued that the United States should claim all of Oregon "by the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us..."[25] Soon afterwards, the term "Manifest Destiny" became a standard phrase for expansionists, and a permanent part of the American lexicon. O'Sullivan's version of "Manifest Destiny" was not a call for war, but such calls were soon forthcoming.

British interest[edit]

Fur trade[edit]

Main article: Columbia Department
George Simpson, manager of HBC operations in North America, reported in 1837 that the Pacific Northwest "may become an object of very great importance, and we are strengthening that claim to it... by forming the nucleus of a colony through the establishment of farms, and the settlement of some of our retiring officers and servants as agriculturalists."[26]

Compared to other foreign policy matters, the Pacific Northwest was of minimal interest to British politicians. The maritime fur trade drew British subjects to the region after its exploration by Captains Cook and Vancouver. Merchants exchanged goods for fur pelts along the coast with indigenous like the Chinookan people and the Nuu-chah-nulth. These oceanic traders played an active role in promoting the territorial claims of the United Kingdom. Starting with a party of the Montreal based North West Company (NWC) employees led by David Thompson in 1807, the British began land based operations and opened trading posts throughout the region. Thompson extensively explored the Columbia River watershed. While at the junction of Columbia and Snake Rivers, he erected a pole on July 9, 1811 with a notice stating "Know hereby that this country is claimed by Great Britain as part of its territories..." and additionally stated the intention of the NWC to build a trading post there.[27] Fort Nez Percés was later established at the location in 1818.

The Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) merged with the North West Company in 1821 and assumed its various fur trading stations. The HBC held a license among British subjects to trade with the populous aboriginal peoples of the region, and its network of trading posts and routes extended southward from New Caledonia, another HBC fur-trade district, into the Columbia basin (most of New Caledonia lay south of 54-40). The HBC's headquarters for the entire region became established at Fort Vancouver (modern Vancouver, Washington) in 1824. During that year George Simpson while discussing the company's "uncertain tenure of the Columbia" with Governor Colville, discussed the possibility of closing operations along the river.[28] "If the Americans settle on the mouth of the Columbia it would in my opinion be necessary to abandon the Coast [south of the river]..." Simpson stated, with the company posts to "move to the Northward..."[28] At its pinnacle in the late 1830s and early 1840s, Fort Vancouver watched over 34 outposts, 24 ports, six ships, and 600 employees.


In a letter to Prime Minister Lord Liverpool, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs George Canning presented the possibilities of trade with the Qing Empire if such a division were to be made with the Americans. He felt the recognition of American rights to ownership of Astoria, despite its continued use by the NWC and later HBC, was "absolutely unjustifiable."[29] This diplomatic courtesy Canning felt weakened the territorial claims of the United Kingdom. A border along the Columbia River would give "an immense direct intercourse between China and what may be, if we resolve not yield them up, her boundless establishments on the N. W. Coast of America."[29] With his death and the failure of negotiations with the Americans in the 1820s, "Oregon had been almost forgotten by the politicians..."[4]

George Canning has been appraised the most active Secretary of Foreign Affairs in maintaining the British claims of a division along the Columbia River.[4]

American diplomat Edward Everett contacted the Whig leader John Russell on 28 December 1845, supporting a revision of the American offer so as to allow the British to keep the entirety of Vancouver Island. He warned Russell that influence among the Whigs could stifle the negotiations. "If you choose to rally the public opinion of England against this basis of compromise, it will not be easy for Sir. R. Peel and Lord Aberdeen to agree to it."[28] While still considering the Columbia River important for British interests, Russell assured Aberdeen of his support in settling the Oregon Question. While Everett's was influential in this political move, Russell felt it was, as Frederick Merk stated, "prudent Whig policy" to support Aberdeen in this case.[26]

The Edinburgh Review declared the Pacific Northwest "the last corner of the earth left free for the occupation of a civilized race. When Oregon shall be colonised, the map of the world may be considered as filled up."[30]

Naval presence[edit]

Royal Navy ships were dispatched to the Pacific Northwest through out the decades, to both expand cartographical knowledge and protect fur trading stations. During the War of 1812, HMS Racoon was ordered to capture Fort Astoria, though by the time it arrived the post was already under NWC management. The British established the Pacific Station in 1826 at Valparaíso, Chile, increasing the strategic capabilities of their navy. A squadron was moved there and later vessels sent to the Pacific Northwest were based out of the port. HMS Blossom was in the region during 1818. The next surveying expedition was commenced by HMS Sulphur and HMS Starling in 1837, with operations lasting until 1839. Dispatched from the Pacific Station to gather intelligence on the HBC posts, HMS Modeste arrived at the Columbia River in July 1844. Chief Factor James Douglas complained that the naval officers "had more taste for a lark than a 'musty' lecture on politics or the greater national interests in question."[31] The Modeste visited the HBC trading posts of Forts George, Vancouver, Victoria and Simpson.[32]

During the height of tensions with the United States in 1845 and 1846, there were at least five Royal Naval vessels operating in the Pacific Northwest.[33] The 80-gun ship-of-the-line HMS Collingwood was deployed to Valparaíso under the CinC Rear Admiral Sir George Seymour in 1845, with orders to report on the situation in the region.[32] HMS America, under the command of Captain John Gordon (younger brother Foreign Secretary Aberdeen), was therefore sent north that year.[32] Roderick Finlayson gave a tour of Vancouver Island to the visiting naval officers, where Gordan aired his negative appraisal of the Northwest region. During a deer hunt on the island, Gordon informed Finlayson that he "would not give one of the barren hills of Scotland for all he saw around him."[34] The America departed from the Straits of Juan de Fuca on 1 October. The Modeste entered the Columbia River and arriving at Fort Vancouver on 30 November 1845,[32] where it remained until 4 May 1847.[33] The Modeste was not favorably viewed by American colonists in the Willamette Valley, threatened by the large warship. Relations were improved when the officers organised a ball at Vancouver on 3 February 1846,[35] later theatrical performances by the ship's crew, including Love in a Village and The Mock Doctor, along with picnics.[36]

HMS Fisgard was first reinforcement, ordered from the Pacific Station by Rear Admirial Seymour in January 1846. Captain Duntze was to "afford Protection to Her Majesty's Subjects in Oregon and the North West Coast..." and avoid any potential confrontations with American settlers.[33] On 5 May the Fisgard reached Fort Victoria, later moving to Fort Nisqually on the 18th, where it remained until October. Sent to aid other British vessels navigate difficult channels and rivers, HMS Cormorant, a Paddle steamer, arrived at the Strait of Juan de Fuca in June.[33] Two survey ships were dispatched from Plymouth in June 1845, HMS Herald and HMS Pandora, for charting the coast of the Americas.[33] The vessels reached Cape Flattery on 24 June 1846. The Cormorant towed the Herald to Fort Victoria three days later.[37] The Herald and the Pandora spent several months charting the Puget Sound and Vancouver Island until 2 September, when the vessels sailed for Alta California.[38] The Fisgard and Cormorant both departed for Valparaíso in October.[33] As the Modeste was the only British ship in the region during 1847, the Oregon Treaty "seemed to have taken the edge off of the Royal Navy's interest in the Northwest Coast."[33]

War plan[edit]

Due his extensive travels throughout the western stations of the HBC, Governor Pelly instructed George Simpson to draft a plan for the British Government if hostilities were to arise with the Americans.[39] Finalizing the proposal on 29 March 1845, Simpson called for two areas to launch offensives. The Red River Colony would be the base of operations for forays into the Great Plains, an expansive region then only light colonized by Americans.[39] A militia composed of Métis riflemen and neighboring First Nations like the Ojibwe would be created, along with a garrison of Regular Army infantry. To secure the Pacific Northwest and the Columbia River, Simpson felt Cape Disappointment was of critical importance. A naval force of two steamboats and two ships of the line would bring a detachment of Royal Marines to create a coastal battery there.[39] Recruitment was hoped by Simpson to gain a force led by Regular Army officers of 2,000 Métis and indigenous peoples in the region. His proposal quickly earned the interest of the British Government as on 2 April he met with Prime Minister Peel and Foreign Secretary Aberdeen. £1,000 were awarded to lay the ground work for defensive operations in the Pacific Northwest.[39] Secretary of State for War and the Colonies Lord Stanley was favorable of the plan, declaring the HBC had to maintain military operations west of Sault Ste. Marie.[40]

Negotiations in 1840s[edit]

Tyler Presidency[edit]

Baron Ashburton arrived in the United States in April 1842 to resolve several territorial disputes with the United States. Initially focusing on the Pacific Northwest, he once again presented the 1824 offer of Canning to Secretary of State Daniel Webster, that of a division along the Columbia River.[6] Webster rejected the offer for the same reasons it was previously repudiated, the division would leave the United States with no suitable locations for a large Pacific port. Webster suggested that the United States could be compensated with the Mexican owned San Francisco Bay, Ashburton's proposal may be found acceptable by the Americans.[6] Ashburton passed on the offer to his superiors, but no further action was taken. Both diplomats became focused on settling the Aroostook War and formulated the Webster-Ashburton Treaty.

By early 1843 Webster returned to the Oregon Question, formalising a plan that included the 1826 British offer of the Olympic Peninsula enclave and the purchase of Alta California from Mexico.[6] The increasing hostility President Tyler had with the Whig Party lead to Webster's disinterest in continuing to act as the Secretary of State and his plan was shelved. The American minister to the UK, Edward Everett, was given authority to negotiate with British officials to settle the Oregon Question in October 1843. Meeting with Prime Minister Robert Peel's Foreign Secretary, Earl of Aberdeen on 29 November, Everett presented the terms considered by the President John Tyler. The old offer of the 49th parallel was once more presented, along with a guarantee to free access to the Columbia River.[41] However during President Tyler's State of the Union address that year on 6 December, he claimed "the entire region of country lying on the Pacific and embraced within 42° and 54°40′ of north latitude."[42] After receiving this declaration, Aberdeen began to consult with the committee and Governor Pelly, previously left out of the most recent diplomatic exchanges.[43]


British diplomats began to receive instructions influenced from HBC officials like Simpson, whose suggestions were transmitted through Pelly and then Aberdeen to the British Ambassador Richard Pakenham. In a letter written to Calhoun in August 1844, Pakenham pressed for a border along the Columbia River. He made an offer that likely originated from Simpson, Americans could select naval bases on the portion of Vancouver Island south of the 49th parallel or along the Strait of Juan de Fuca in return.[43] Diplomatic channels continued negotiations through out 1844, by early 1845 Everett reported the willingness of Aberdeen to accept the 49th parallel, provided the southern portion of Vancouver Island would become British territory.[41]

In the summer of 1845, the Polk administration renewed the proposal to divide Oregon along the 49th parallel to the Pacific Ocean. U.S. Secretary of State James Buchanan on 12 July[40] offered the British any desired ports on the portion of Vancouver Island south of this line,[12] though navigation rights of the Columbia River weren't included. Because this proposal fell short of the Tyler administration's earlier offer, Pakenham rejected the offer without first contacting London.[40] Offended, Polk officially withdrew the proposal on August 30, 1845 and broke off negotiations. Aberdeen censured Pakenham for this diplomatic blunder, and attempted to renew the dialogue. By then, however, Polk was suspicious of British intentions, and under increasing political pressure not to compromise. He declined to reopen negotiations.[23][44]

War crisis[edit]

Important figures in the Oregon question
United StatesUnited Kingdom
James K. Polk
Robert Peel
Prime Minister
James Buchanan
Secretary of State
Earl of Aberdeen
Foreign Secretary
Louis McLane
Minister to the UK
Richard Pakenham
Minister in Washington

Congressional pressure[edit]

Senator Lewis Cass was a leading advocate of 54°40′, but backed away from the claim when it became untenable. Like James Buchanan, Cass had presidential ambitions and did not want to alienate Americans on either side of the Oregon question.

In his annual address to Congress on December 2, 1845, Polk recommended giving the British the required one-year notice of the termination of the joint occupation agreement. Democratic expansionists in Congress from the Midwest, led by Senators Lewis Cass of Michigan, Edward A. Hannegan of Indiana, and William Allen of Ohio, called for war with the United Kingdom rather than accepting anything short of all of Oregon up to Parallel 54°40′ north. These pronouncements were fueled by a number of factors, including traditional distrust of the British and a belief that the U.S. had the better claim and would make better use of the land.

The debate was not strictly divided along party or sectional lines, with many who clamored for the 54°40′ border were Northerners upset at Polk's willingness to comprise on the Pacific Northwest border. Polk's uncompromising pursuit of Texas, an acquisition seen favorable for Southern slave owners, angered many advocates of 54°40′ as the President was a Southerner and a slave owner. As historian David M. Pletcher noted, "Fifty-Four Forty or Fight" seemed to be directed at the southern aristocracy in the U.S. as much as at the United Kingdom.[45]

Moderates like Webster warned that the U.S. could not win a war against the British Empire, and that negotiation could still achieve U.S. territorial goals. Webster confided to Viscount Ossington, a personal friend, in 26 February 1846 that it would be a "stupendous folly and enormous crime" for the two nations to declare war over the Pacific Northwest.[46]

British reaction[edit]

Foreign Secretary Lord Aberdeen was committed to maintaining peaceable relations with the Americans, evaluating the disputed territory in the Oregon Question as unimportant.

Aberdeen had no intention of going to war over a region that was of diminishing economic value to the United Kingdom. Furthermore the United States was an important trading partner, especially with the need of American wheat in the onset of famine in Ireland. Aberdeen and Pakenham were negotiating from a position of strength. The key was the overwhelming naval power which Britain could have brought to bear against the United States, combined with a diplomatic and political landscape that ultimately favored the British government's aim of protecting her interests robustly but without resort to armed conflict. Ultimately British politicians and naval officers recognized that any conflict over the Oregon boundary, however undesirable, would be decided, like the War of 1812, on the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S. and the Great Lakes. The Royal Navy’s presence on the Atlantic seaboard wasn't as numerically prominent as the American forces, yet its overall superiority to the U.S. Navy was decisive upon American decision-making during the crisis, especially their decision to compromise.[47] Louis McLane, the American minister in the United Kingdom, reported to Buchanan on 2 February that the British were prepared "to commission immediately some thirty ships-of-the-line in addition to steamers and other vessels held in reserve..."[48] Polk’s bluff had been called.


Although Polk had called on Congress in December 1845 to pass a resolution notifying the British of the termination of joint occupancy agreement, it was not until April 23, 1846 that both houses complied. The passage was delayed (especially in the Senate) by contentious debate, and ultimately a mild resolution was approved, the text of which called on both governments to settle the matter amicably. By a large margin, moderation had won out over calls for war. Unlike Western Democrats, most Congressmen—like Polk—did not want to fight for 54° 40′. [49] The Polk administration then made it known that the British government should offer terms to settle the dispute. Despite the cooling diplomatic relations, a repeat of the War of 1812 was not popular with either nation's government. Time was of the essence, because it was well known that the Peel government would fall with the impending repeal of the corn laws in the United Kingdom, and then negotiations would have to begin again with a new ministry. At a time when the European continental balance was a far more pressing problem, a costly war with a major trading partner was not popular with the British government. Aberdeen and McLane quickly worked out a compromise and sent it to the United States.

Oregon Treaty[edit]

Main article: Oregon Treaty
The Oregon Territory, as established after the Oregon Treaty, superimposed over the current state boundaries.

Pakenham and Buchanan drew up a formal treaty, known as the Oregon Treaty, which was ratified by the Senate on June 18, 1846 by a vote of 41–14. The border was set at the 49th parallel, the original U.S. proposal, with navigation rights on the Columbia River granted to British subjects living in the area. Senator William Allen, one of the most outspoken advocates of the 54° 40' claim, felt betrayed by Polk and resigned his chairmanship of the Foreign Relations Committee.

Henry Commager appraised the factors leading to the settlement as "a combination of temporary, fortuitous, and circumstantial phenomena, extraneous to the local situation, largely outside of American control, and foreign to American influence."[50] Canadian Hugh LL. Keenlyside and American Gerald S. Brown wrote a century after the treaty that

under the existing conditions, [it] was just and equitable. Neither nation had a clear legal title to any of the territory, and the result was practically an equal division. Great Britain was given the better harbors, and greater resources in minerals, timber, and fish; the United States received much more agricultural land, and a district that has, on the whole, a better climate. This decision, moreover, is almost unique among the solutions of American boundary troubles, in that it has been accepted with reasonable satisfaction by both nations. A better proof of its justice could hardly be demanded.[51]

The terms of the Oregon Treaty were essentially the same ones that had been offered earlier by the Tyler administration, and thus represented a diplomatic victory for Polk.[52] However, Polk has often been criticized for his handling of the Oregon question. Historian Sam W. Haynes characterizes Polk's policy as "brinkmanship" which "brought the United States perilously close to a needless and potentially disastrous conflict".[53] David M. Pletcher notes that while Polk's bellicose stance was the by-product of internal American politics, the war crisis was "largely of his own creation" and might have been avoided "with more sophisticated diplomacy".[54] According to Jesse Reeves "Had Palmerston been in Aberdeen's position at the time of Polk's 'firm' pronouncement, Polk might have lost Oregon."[55] Aberdeen's desire for peace and good relations with the United States "are responsible for the settlement that Polk thought to gain by a firm policy. That Aberdeen was "bluffed" by Polk is absurd."[55]

The treaty was ambiguously phrased about the route of the boundary, which was to follow "the deepest channel" out to the Strait of Juan de Fuca leaving the fate of the San Juan Islands in question. After the Pig War, arbitration by Kaiser William I of the German Empire led to Treaty of Washington (1871), which awarded America all of the islands.

Upper Canada politicians and public, already angry with the Oregon Treaty, were once again upset that Britain had not looked after their interests and sought greater autonomy in international affairs.

Historical maps[edit]

The boundary between British and American territory was shown differently in maps at the time:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Mackie, Richard Somerset (1997). Trading Beyond the Mountains: The British Fur Trade on the Pacific 1793-1843. Vancouver: University of British Columbia (UBC) Press. pp. 29, 124–126, 140. ISBN 0-7748-0613-3.  online at Google Books
  2. ^ a b c d Merk, Frederick. The Ghost River Caledonia in the Oregon Negotiation of 1818. The American Historical Review 50, No. 3 (1950), pp. 530-551.
  3. ^ a b Marshall, William I. Acquisition of Oregon and the Long Suppressed Evidence about Marcus Whitman. Vol. 1. Seattle: Lowman & Hanford Co. 1911, p. 166.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Galbraith, John S. The Hudson's Bay Company as an Imperial Factor, 1821 - 1869. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 1957, pp. 184-188.
  5. ^ a b Meany, Edmond S. Three Diplomats Prominent in the Oregon Question. The Washington Historical Quarterly 5, No. 3 (1914), pp. 207-214.
  6. ^ a b c d Shewmaker, Kenneth E. Daniel Webster and the Oregon Question. Pacific Historical Review 51, No. 2 (1982), pp. 195-201.
  7. ^ Chittenden, Hiram M. The American Fur Trade in the Far West. Vol. 1. New York City: Francis P. Harper. 1902, pp. 222-223.
  8. ^ Oregon History: Land-based Fur Trade and Exploration
  9. ^ Ewing Young Route. compiled by Karen Bassett, Jim Renner, and Joyce White.
  10. ^ Salem Online History: Salem's Historic Figures
  11. ^ a b Benton, Thomas H. Thirty years' view. Vol 1. New York City: D. Appleton and Co. 1854, pp. 13-14
  12. ^ a b c d e Wilson, Joseph R. The Oregon Question. II. The Quarterly of the Oregon Historical Society 1, No. 3 (1900), pp. 213-252.
  13. ^ Adams, John Quincy. Memoirs of John Quincy Adams. Vol. 5 ed. Charles F. Adams. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott and Co. 1875, p. 238.
  14. ^ a b c d Shippee, Lester B. The Federal Relations of Oregon. The Quarterly of the Oregon Historical Society 19, No. 2 (1918), pp. 89-133.
  15. ^ The phrase "wise and masterly inactivity", which Calhoun used more than once, originated with Sir James Mackintosh. (source)
  16. ^ Pletcher, David M. The Diplomacy of Annexation: Texas, Oregon, and the Mexican War. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press. 1973, pp. 109–110.
  17. ^ a b c Miles, E.A. "Fifty-Four Forty or Fight"—an American Political Legend. Mississippi Valley Historical Review 44, No. 2 (1957), pp. 291–309.
  18. ^ a b Rosenboom, Eugene H. A History of Presidential Elections: From George Washington to Richard M. Nixon. 3rd ed. New York: Macmillan. 1970, p. 132.
  19. ^ Pletcher (1973), p. 223.
  20. ^ Hans Sperber, "Fifty-four Forty or Fight": Facts and Fictions, American Speech 32(1), February 1957, pp. 5–11.
  21. ^ Polk, James. "Inaugural Address of James Knox Polk". The Avalon Project. Yale Law School. Retrieved 18 November 2014. 
  22. ^ Polk, James K. The Diary of James K. Polk during his Presidency, 1845 to 1849. Vol. 1. ed. Milo M. Quaife. Chicago: A. C. McClurg & Co. 1910, pp. 153-155.
  23. ^ a b Haynes, Sam W. James K. Polk and the Expansionist Impulse. Arlington: University of Texas. 1997, pp. 118–120.
  24. ^ Pletcher (1973), p. 322.
  25. ^ Horsman, Reginald. Race and Manifest Destiny: The Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 1981, p. .
  26. ^ a b Merk, Frederick. Fur Trade and Empire; George Simpson's Journal 1824-25. Cambrigde, MA: Belknap. 1968, p. 339.
  27. ^ Elliott, T. C. David Thompson, Pathfinder and the Columbia River. The Quarterly of the Oregon Historical Society 12, No. 3 (1911), pp. 195-205.
  28. ^ a b c Merk (1968), p. 244.
  29. ^ a b Canning, George. Some Official Correspondence of George Canning. Vol. II. Editor Edward J. Stapleton. London: Longmans, Green and Co. 1887, pp. 71-74.
  30. ^ The Edinburgh Review or Critical Journal: For July, 1843.... October, 1843. Vol. LXXVIII. Edinburgh: Ballantyne and Hughes. 1843, p. 185.
  31. ^ McLoughlin, John. The Letters of John McLoughlin from Fort Vancouver to the Governor and Committee, Third Series, 1844-1846. editor E. E. Rich. London: 1944, p. 180.
  32. ^ a b c d Longstaff, F. V. and W. K. Lamb. The Royal Navy on the Northwest Coast, 1813-1850. Part 1. The British Columbia Historical Quarterly 9, No. 1 (1945), pp. 1-24.
  33. ^ a b c d e f g Longstaff, F. V. and W. K. Lamb. The Royal Navy on the Northwest Coast, 1813-1850. Part 2. The British Columbia Historical Quarterly 9, No. 2 (1945), pp. 113-128.
  34. ^ Finlayson, Roderick. Biography of Roderick Finlayson. Victoria, B.C.: 1891, p. 15.
  35. ^ The Oregon Spectator (Oregon City, OR), Ball at Vancouver. 19 February 1846, p. 2.
  36. ^ Oregon Spectator (Oregon City, OR), Theatre at Vancouver. 14 May 1846, p. 2.
  37. ^ Seemann, Berthold. Narrative of the Voyage of the H.M.S. Herald during the years 1845-51. London: Reeve & Co. 1853, p. 100.
  38. ^ Seemann (1853), p. 112.
  39. ^ a b c d Galbraith (1957), pp. 236-237.
  40. ^ a b c Galbraith (1957), p. 240.
  41. ^ a b Papers relating to the Treaty of Washington. Vol. V. Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office. 1872, pp. 6-11.
  42. ^ 1843 State of the Union Address. Accessed 6 November 2014.
  43. ^ a b Galbraith (1957), p. 231.
  44. ^ Pletcher (1973), pp. 237–249, 296–300
  45. ^ Pletcher (1973), pp. 335–37.
  46. ^ Wiltse, Charles M. Daniel Webster and the British Experience. Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society 85 (1973), pp. 58-77.
  47. ^ Gough, Barry M.. The Royal Navy and the Northwest Coast of North America, 1810-1914. Vancouver, B.C.: University of British Columbia Press. 1971, pp. 70-83.
  48. ^ editor Miller, Hunter. Treaties and other International Acts of the United States of America. Vol. 5. Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office. 1937, p. 58.
  49. ^ Pletcher (1973), p. 351.
  50. ^ Commager, Henry. England and Oregon Treaty of 1846. Oregon Historical Quarterly 28, No. 1 (1927), pp. 18-38.
  51. ^ Keenlyside, Hugh LL.; Brown, Gerald S. (1952). Canada and the United States: Some Aspects of Their Historical Relations. Alfred A. Knopf. p. 171. 
  52. ^ Haynes (1997), p. 136.
  53. ^ Haynes (1997), p. 194.
  54. ^ Pletcher (1973), p. 592.
  55. ^ a b Reeves, Jesse S. American Diplomacy under Tyler and Polk. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press. 1907, p. 263.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Party platform and speeches

Political cartoons from Harper's Weekly, 1846