This paper on the United States/British boundary dispute in the Pacific Northwest was written by Hali Han, an eighth grade student at the International Community School located in Kirkland, in the Lake Washington School District. Her teacher is Mark Bach. Thirteen-year-old Hali's paper was the highest ranking paper on a Washington state topic in the final round of judging in the Junior (grades 6-8) division of the North Puget Sound Regional History Day competition (2011). We are proud to present it on HistoryLink.org.
The Line That Divides Us
Boundaries are created for different reasons. In the case of the Oregon Question, a boundary was created to separate two nations’ claims from each other, an action that would ensure peace between Great Britain and the United States. In the Pacific Northwest of today’s U.S., the modern states of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho and the Canadian province of British Columbia made up a section of land known as the Oregon Territory. Decades of disagreement over the division location, growing public demands of a solution to the Oregon Question, and underlying personal ambitions spurred the political figures of the time to resolve this issue. In a period where both countries were faced with prospects of war pitted against other nations, diplomacy provided an alternative to dual war. As a consequence of the final Oregon Boundary Treaty of 1846, the United States and Great Britain created a division peacefully accepted years later.
In 1845, John L. O’Sullivan, a newspaper editor, introduced the phrase “Manifest Destiny” to America. According to many, “he summarized as well as defined a national mood” (Heidler, xv). However, not the whole nation agreed with this expansionist sentiment. While the Democratic Party supported the “Manifest Destiny” and believed that their path should lie in occupying the whole continent, the Whigs, the opposing political party, believed that it was “much more important that [the government] unite, harmonize, and improve what we have than attempt to acquire more” (Howe, 706). But despite the disagreement within the government, the people, after the Louisiana Purchase, turned their eyes to the places west of the Rockies.
Known by both the United States and Great Britain as the Oregon Country, this section of land spanned from the 42nd parallel to the 54°40’ line. During the periods of negotiation prior to the meetings in 1818 and 1827, Great Britain originally wished for a division to follow the 49th parallel until the Columbia River. Then, it would follow that river all the way out to the Pacific, drawing the border between the U.S. and Canada at what is currently the border between Oregon and Washington. “American diplomats, meanwhile, would settle for no border further south than the forty-ninth parallel all the way to the Pacific” (Reid, 222). The Puget Sound was the only adequate harbor in the whole region, and therefore the land north and west of the Columbia was the only area disputed over; an area that presently is Washington State. No decision was made and, for the time being, the two countries agreed upon joint occupation of the territory.
Great Britain dreamed of economical greatness and power. In order to achieve it, the nation must conduct business and trade worldwide. Keeping this in mind, Oregon could not be an issue addressed lightly. The British Foreign Secretary in the 1840s Lord Aberdeen, during the Oregon Question, faced the decision between fulfilling this ambition and leaving “the office shortly with a major diplomatic problem still pending” (Bergeron, 131). A key player in the decision of the Oregon Treaty, he was previously engaged in the Webster-Ashburton Treaty that settled the political boundary over several areas, namely Maine. Aberdeen and Edward Everett, President Tyler’s minister to Great Britain, had, during that time, “agreed that the two countries should seek an early settlement of the Oregon Boundary” (Graebner, 1). Everett proposed continuing the 49th parallel until the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and then out to the Pacific. “This would give Britain full possession of that large and strategically placed island [(Vancouver)] while preserving the Puget Sound for the United States” (Merry, 170).” Everett and Aberdeen met to discuss this formula prior to 1846.
“Both [the] American and English… recognized that the Hudson’s Bay Company represented the strongest British presence in Oregon” (Reimer, 233). Early on, the presence of the company was the main source of information for the British Foreign Office on the Northwest. A fur-trading business amongst other things, it was important economically for the British to maintain peace for as long as possible. But as the Americans flooded into the territory, the
“Bay policy took a new and darkly cynical turn. The Bay trappers were ordered to scour the land bare, to kill and skin every beaver they could find. The rationale: if there are no beaver, there will be no reason for the Yanks to come. Or, if the US finally ended up winning the Oregon territory, at least the Hudson’s Bay would have the last of the prized furs” (Kaza, 1).
Such hostile attitudes in both the minds of the British and the Americans began to increase the tension between these two nations.
In 1840, the U.S. Senate, to better understand the physical conditions of Oregon, demanded the publication of twenty-five hundred copies of Robert Greenhow’s first book, Memoir, Historical and Political, on the North-West Coast of North America. A second book that expanded on this first one was then printed four years later by command of the Senate. “Greenhow’s work played a direct part in congressional debates on Oregon throughout that decade” (Reimer, 224). His job was to provide extensive information about the geography of the Pacific Northwest so that the government could better understand the region and therefore make a decision. However, in both of his books, Greenhow argues that there was an instinctive boundary along the terms of Everett’s formula. According to him, the region north of the 49th parallel “is a sterile land of snow-clad mountains, tortuous rivers, and lakes frozen over more than two-thirds of the year” (Greenhow, 29). Fighting for the whole of Oregon would be a waste of energy and effort.
James K. Polk became the 11th president in 1845. Though his political opponents exceeded him in wit and charm, Polk had the ability to see what the people were truly interested in, claiming the Oregon Country for their own. “Many exponents of the Oregon crusade also shared a common hatred or hostility toward Great Britain; they looked for opportunities to cause trouble for the British and to acquire economic advantages over them” (Bergeron, 113). Polk and the Democrats gained popularity against Henry Clay and the Whigs with the promise to expand the United States so that it would include the Texas region, the Oregon Country, and the lands of California. This “appealed to the expansionist sentiments of both Northern and Southern voters” (Smithsonian Education website, 1). After his election in 1844, Polk turned his attention first to Texas then to Oregon.
In Washington, two rival political newspapers known as the Globe and the Intelligencer presented opposite perspectives upon Polk’s actions in the Oregon Dispute.
“We are beginning sensibly to interfere with [Great Britain’s] pursuit of wealth… that the bare prospect of the supplanting of their trade draws with it their capital and population… so that, to keep pace with [the United States] in commerce and the arts, they must keep pace with [America] in the march of freedom, which imparts the energy, ingenuity, and activity to our pursuits” (Merry, 161-162).
The Globe questions the reason behind Britain’s acute interest in America’s plans for expansion and declares that the United States has interfered with Great Britain’s pursuit of power and wealth. It further states that America should take advantage of this peace between these two nations to turn her efforts onto issues such as Oregon, an evident supporting of the “Manifest Destiny.” The Intelligencer, run by the Whigs, argues that the thinking of the Globe is dangerous, and that such rash actions could lead to war. The Intelligencer pointed out that in Oregon, there were nine or ten Americans to one Britain, so how was there any chance of American claims being invalid when their immigrants far outnumbered those of the British? To them, all that America needed to do at the moment was wait.
In Polk’s inauguration speech, he declared America’s title to Oregon as “clear and unquestionable,” and through the steady stream of immigrants along the Oregon Trail, the people are already carrying through this claim by occupying it (Howe, 702). More extreme expansionists rallied for the whole of Oregon. These men, known as the “All Oregon Men,” supported a movement that became known as the “54°40’ or Fight!” Though Polk had no role in creating this and was only repeating the ideas of the Democratic Party, this statement provoked much protest amongst the Whigs and in Great Britain. Shortly after, the Prime Minister of Great Britain Sir Robert Peel replied declaring that “it was Britain that held ‘clear and unquestionable’ rights to Oregon” and that he wished for a peaceful settlement of the issue, but “having exhausted every effort to obtain it, if our rights are invaded, we are resolved and prepared to maintain them” (Merry, 171). The Democrats believed that the British had underestimated the United States and that this was an empty threat. However, the Intelligencer criticized Polk’s carelessly put words while the New York Tribune openly called Polk’s declaration “palpable knavery and babbling folly” (Merry, 171). Seeing that his own position was not one of advantage, Polk directed James Buchanan, Secretary of State, to try and negotiate a compromise with Richard Pakenham, the British Minister to the United States, at the 49th parallel using what Edward Everett had found previously successful.
While dealing with Pakenham, Buchanan found the other man to be manipulative and hard to work with. Pakenham knew that Aberdeen was interested in what Everett had to offer, but he did not wish to make the first move, always testing whether or not Buchanan had something else to offer. Because of this, Buchanan sent a letter to Pakenham, one considered “diplomatically inelegant” and of extreme significance in this event (Merry, 173). Within it, he declared America to rightfully possess the whole of Oregon, ignored any previous claims and agreements, and used earlier compromises and treaties with other nations to skirt around British defenses. Then, Buchanan pushed his offer in place. He pointed out that all diplomats before Polk had tried for a settlement somewhere along the 49th parallel. Therefore, “the president was willing to pursue a similar compromise” (Merry, 173). Besides the above, Buchanan wrote that Britain would be able to freely access the harbors on Vancouver Island. This letter, written under Polk’s supervision, was worded in a way that was supposed to extend an offer to the British to submit a counterproposal that would follow the Everett formula.
Pakenham, shortly after receiving the letter, rejected all that was said and refused to submit a counterproposal in return. However, the Buchanan letter was never sent to London, but Polk had believed that Pakenham had acted upon the wishes of his government. Though Polk was furious, he acted carefully. He withdrew his compromise and, by refusing to submit another, alerted the British that, unless they extended one of their own, he would not change his attitudes towards the situation. Buchanan protested. “Mr. Buchanan thought we ought not to precipitate a crisis between the two countries, and that by delay we might secure the Oregon territory” (Polk, 64). With this, he turned his attentions to all that was occurring in Mexico, an issue he faced at the same time as he was dealing with Oregon.
A meeting was held to discuss what would happen next. Buchanan, under Polk’s direction, was to write a reply. But during this congregation, Buchanan suggested asking Britain if they had a counterproposal. Polk rejected this, answering that this would mean haggling over a border too far south. Buchanan then suggested that they hold off the reply until the tension in Mexico was settled. And again, Polk refused, stating that this would show the United States hesitating over the event.
On one hand, Polk’s actions were strategically placed; by refusing to ask for a counterproposal or giving them another, he had put the British in a tight spot, removing any chances of creating the boundary below the 49th parallel. As he had told Buchanan, “in the present state of the negotiation the [British] Government must move first” (Polk, 67). However, this approach was indeed an aggressive one, and the United States was by no means prepared for war, especially not when the prospect of a dual war with Mexico seemed to be around the corner. But as some say, “Buchanan strove to keep the negotiating door open, while Polk and the cabinet periodically closed it” (Bergeron, 123). Meanwhile, “British leaders worried about having to fight the United States and France at the same time” (Howe, 719-720). Therefore Britain was forced into a position where, in order to avoid dual war, accepting Polk was practically mandatory.
On June 3, 1846, Louis McLane, Polk’s ambassador to London, sent a dispatch from England. “It communicated the substance of the proposition which he had learned from Lord Aberdeen would be made by the [British] Government through their minister at Washington for the settlement of the Oregon Question” (Polk, 444). Polk held a cabinet meeting to discuss the terms of which Pakenham was likely to present. “It seemed the British would accept a boundary line at the 49th parallel from the Rocky Mountains to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, then through the strait so Vancouver Island would remain entirely British” (Merry, 264). These terms were about those presented by Edward Everett before. Two days later, Pakenham’s own words confirmed what McLane had previously reported. All of the members of the cabinet had found this proposition to be satisfactory. The Senate received the proposal on June 10, and two days later, agreed with the terms with a vote of 38 to 12. It was then ratified three days later, 41 to 14. On June 15, 1846, James Buchanan, Secretary of State, and Richard Pakenham, the British Prime Minister to the United States, signed the Oregon Treaty, drawing the line between British claims and American Territory at the 49th parallel. Only a few days later, Britain received word that Mexico had declared war on America.
The 49th parallel dividing the United States from Canada stands today as one of the most successful and long-lasting boundaries. It marks the “first major territorial settlement under the newly minted designation of the Manifest Destiny” (Heidler, 137). Diplomacy created a compromise that ensured the prevention of another war between mother and daughter country; it created a space for a growing country to expand. Today, when we cross the border, the peace arch stands as an emblem of peace between two great nations. If we had not come to an understanding with Great Britain, the consequences of a dual war on both sides may have greatly changed the way our world appears today. But the truth is, we did. And the United States of America, with the signing of the Oregon Treaty on June 15, 1846 in Washington D.C., finally reached from sea to shining sea.