Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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NORTHWEST BOUNDARY (IN U. S. HISTORY). I. CLAIMS. The territory bounded north by latitude 50° 40', east by the Rocky mountains, south by latitude 42° (the northern boundary of California), and west by the Pacific ocean, has been claimed at various times, and to varying extents, by Russia, Spain, Great Britain, and the United States. As the claims overlapped and interfered with one another, they may be first stated. (For the northeast boundary, see MAINE.)


—1. The claim of Russia rested mainly on occupation by fur traders, and its southern boundary was at first undefined. April 5-17, 1824, a treaty was arranged between the United States and Russia, which was ratified by the former Jan. 11. 1825 By its third article no settlements were to be made under the authority of the United States north of latitude 54° 40', nor any Russian settlements south of that line. Feb 28, 1825, by a treaty between Russia and Great Britain, the same parallel was made a part of the boundary between their respective settlements. By these two treaties Russia at once secured her southern boundary, and withdrew from the imbroglio.


—2. The claim of Spain, in some respects the best of all, rested in discovery, backed by occupation. The discovery rested in the voyages of Cabrillo and Ferrelo in 1543, to latitude 43°; of Juan de Fuca in 1592 to parallel 49°, and the strait which bears his name; of Vizcaino in 1603, to latitude 43°; of Perez in 1774, to latitude 54° of Heceta in 1775, to latitude 48°, discovering, but not entering, the river St. Roque (now the Columbia); and of a few minor voyages as far north as latitude 59°. Occupation had been begun as early as 1535, by a land expedition under Fernando Cortez, and Jesuit settlements were gradually pushed further north, though they never passed latitude 42°. Nevertheless, Spain asserted exclusive control of the coast beyond latitude 42°. In May and June, 1789, Spanish armed vessels seized several British vessels in Nootka sound, and war was only averted by the Nootka sound convention, or treaty of the Escurial, Oct. 28, 1790, by which British trading buildings in Nootka sound were to be restored, the right of trade was to be secured to both parties, but neither was to land on coasts already occupied by the other. In 1803, by the treaty ceding Louisiana (see ANNEXATIONS, I.), the claim of France, which was really the claim of Spain, to an indefinite territory on the Pacific, was transferred to the United States; and by the Florida treaty of 1819-22 (see ANNEXATIONS, II.), Spain fixed latitude 42° as the Pacific portion of the boundary line between her American territory and the United States. Spain thus retired from the field, leaving but two contestants for the disputed territory, Great Britain and the United States.


—3. Great Britain had little or no claim by discovery. Drake had seen the coast in 1580; Cook had examined it slightly in 1778; and Vancouver much more thoroughly in 1793; but all these were rather rediscoverers than discoverers. Occupation was actually begun in 1788 by Meares, an English lieutenant; but he was under the Portuguese flag at the time, with letter of marque against British vessels who should molest him, so that his occupation could hardly weigh heavily for Great Britain. In 1798, 1806 and 1811 enterprising fur traders, in private employ, pushed into the Oregon country, and established trading posts there; but there was no attempt at permanent settlement south of latitude 49°.


—4. The claim of the United States deduced from Spain is at least doubtful. The claim by discovery rests on two grounds, the voyage of Gray, and the expedition of Lewis and Clarke. In 1792 Capt. Gray, of Boston, entered the river St. Roque, at which Heceta had only guessed, and changed its name to the Columbia river, after the name of his vessel. In 1805-6 Lewis and Clarke, under orders from President Jefferson, crossed the Rocky mountains, struck the southern head waters of the Columbia, floated down that river to its mouth, and explored very much of the Oregon country. On the strength of Gray's discovery the United States claimed all of the country drained by the Columbia; but so extensive a claim is hardly tenable in international law. Lewis and Clarke's expedition was more important: it was made under government authority, and it covered most of the territory south of latitude 49°; while the British fur traders were not in public employ, and their explorations were north of latitude 49°. On the whole, if discovery alone were in question, latitude 49°, as finally fixed, would seem to be equitable: south of it the United States had officially explored the territory; and north of it Great Britain had done so, though not officially. In 1811 John Jacob Astor, of New York, established a trading post at the mouth of the Columbia, and named it Astoria; but during the war of 1812 it was captured by the British, and named Fort George. In 1818 it was restored to the United States government, but its private owner abandoned it. Attempts in 1822 and 1827 to organize American fur companies for operating in the Oregon country were unsuccessful, owing to the powerful rivalry of well-established British companies; but they led the way to a more legitimate occupation, by immigration, in which Great Britain could not compete. This began in 1832, and after 1838 no autumn passed without an increasing supply of permanent settlers across the Rocky mountains. In 1845 the American population was nearly 3,000, and there was no probability of any decrease in the increase for the future. Here, after all, lay the true ground of the American claim—in legitimate and permanent settlements; and, as these filled the space covered by Lewis and Clarke's explorations, the two together make a valid claim up to latitude 49°.


—II. SETTLEMENT. The definitive treaty of peace of Sept. 8, 1783, after defining the northeastern boundary to the St. Lawrence river (see MAINE), continued the northern boundary between the United States and British America up through the middle of the St. Lawrence river and the great lakes to Long lake, on the northern coast of Lake Superior; thence northwesterly by the water communications through Rainy lake to the lake of the Woods; and thence to the river Mississippi, which was then the boundary between the United States and Spanish America. The cession of Louisiana to the United States in 1803 made necessary a definition of the northern boundary between the new cession and British America; and this was settled by the second article of the convention of Oct. 20, 1818, which fixed latitude 49° as the boundary from its intersection with the lake of the Woods to the Stony [Rocky] mountains. West of the Rocky mountains the whole territory was to be open, for ten years, to the vessels, citizens and subjects of both powers, without prejudice to the claims of either. By the convention of Aug. 6, 1827 (ratified by the United States, April 2, 1828), the joint occupation of the Oregon country by Great Britain and the United States was continued indefinitely, with the provision that either party might annul and abrogate it, on giving twelve months' notice to the other. In both these negotiations the American negotiators laid formal claim to the whole territory drained by the Columbia, included generally between parallels 42° and 52° of latitude; but they showed a willingness to compromise on latitude 49° to the Pacific. The British negotiators, on the other hand, seem to have been willing to accept latitude 49° to its intersection with the Columbia; but thence to the Pacific they insisted on the Columbia itself as a boundary, thus adding to British America nearly the whole of the present territory of Washington. In such a conflict of claims, the only possible line of action was to continue the joint occupation until one party should be able to assert an exclusive right to some part of it.


—As American immigration increased, the certain perils of a joint occupation increased with it. The magistrates of neither country could have or exercise jurisdiction over the citizens of the other; and difficulties between parties of different nationalities could therefore have no forum for settlement. In 1838 propositions to organize some system of justice in the Oregon country began to be offered in congress. At first these were only to imitate the British system of erecting forts and providing magistrates for the trial of offenses, without any design to terminate the joint occupation; but the settlement of the northeastern boundary question in 1842 had an unfortunate effect on the discussion of the true northwestern boundary. There was considerable dissatisfaction in both countries over the result of the treaty of 1842, and a determination to insist on their respective claims in Oregon. In the United States this feeling took two distinct forms. 1. The treaty by which Russia had agreed to settle no farther south than latitude 54° 40' seems to have produced a belief that this line was the proper boundary. Forgetting that the treaty could bind only the parties to it, and that Great Britain could appeal to a precisely similar contemporary treaty with Russia, there were many in the United States who were willing to insist on the Russian boundary even at the price of a war with Great Britain. This feeling was popularly summed up as "fifty-four-forty-or-fight." 2. The "Monroe doctrine" was strongly appealed to. in order to sustain the view that to yield any part of the Pacific coast to Great Britain would be to consent to the formation of a European colony on this continent, and that too, as our nearest neighbor. Of this feeling Douglas was the ablest exponent.


—In this state of public feeling, the democratic national convention of 1844 declared for the "reoccupation of Oregon," on the ground that our title to the whole of it was clear and unquestionable. It was, to be sure, coupled with a demand for the "reannexation of Texas" (see ANNEXATIONS, III.); but it met a popular feeling in the north and west which it was difficult to resist. Democratic success in 1844, and the decided tone of President Polk's inaugural in 1845, made the Oregon question prominent from the beginning of his administration. Under the preceding (Tyler's) administration, the secretary of state, Calhoun, had been conducting a negotiation on the Oregon question with the British minister, Pakenham, from July, 1844, until January, 1845. Calhoun had offered to take latitude 49° as the boundary; Pakenham had offered, in return, the Columbia river from latitude 49° to the Pacific, and when this was declined had proposed an arbitration, which Calhoun refused. This refusal, and the declaration of the inaugural that our title to "the whole of Oregon" was indisputable, and that our settlers there must be protected, raised the war feeling high in Great Britain. This seems to have had an influence on the president. In July, 1845, his secretary of state, Buchanan, again proposed latitude 49° as a boundary, which was again refused; but the rumor of the offer evoked such a storm that the secretary withdrew the offer.


—The meeting of congress in December, 1845, was the signal for a renewal of the question. Resolutions were introduced in both houses that the "whole of Oregon" belonged to the United States, and that there was no power in the president and senate to alienate by treaty any part of the soil of the United States. Senators Allen, of Ohio, and Hannegan, of Indiana, were the most persistent champions of these measures. On the contrary, the opposition, Calhoun being its ablest speaker, held that, since immigration to Oregon could only come from the United States, it was wiser to maintain the joint occupation until the natural process of crowding out should compel Great Britain to withdraw. The former then began to press a resolution directing the president to give Great Britain the twelve months' notice to terminate the joint occupation. The latter united in holding, 1, that as the notice was part of a treaty, the treaty power alone could give it; 2, that the notice was in the direct line of war with Great Britain, for which the country was not ready; and 3, that in any event the resolution should only authorize the president to give the notice when in his judgment the proper time had come; that is, when the United States should be ready for war. This the other side answered by pressing bills for the increase of the navy.


—To strengthen the hands of the anti war democrats and whigs, the president sent to congress, Feb. 7, 1846, the correspondence between the two governments since December. From this it appeared that Great Britain was arming; that the United States had asked for the reasons of her preparations; and that she had frankly acknowledged that she was incidentally preparing for an American war.


—In March, after the house had passed the directory resolution for notice, a friend of the president in the senate advised a compromise on latitude 49° as the boundary. He declined to calm the resulting excitement by acknowledging the president as his authority. April 16 the senate passed a discretionary resolution for notice; and two days later the house amended it by "authorizing and requesting" the president to give notice. April 23 both houses agreed to a new resolution, which, while varying the form of the senate resolution, retained its essence, that the president be "authorized" to give the twelve months' notice, and that negotiations should continue.


—June 6, 1846, the British ambassador offered to accept latitude 49° as the boundary to the channel between Vancouver's island and the mainland, thence down the middle of the channel and the strait of Fuca to the Pacific, with free navigation, to both parties, of the channel and the Columbia. Even this did not wholly relieve the president, for he had no mind to array himself against the "fifty-four-forty" idea. He therefore endeavored to throw the responsibility upon the whig senate by requesting its advice on the acceptance of the convention—a process unused since Washington's time. It must be recorded to the credit of the whigs, who were not ignorant of his purpose, that they advised the ratification of the convention, June 12 Ratifications were exchanged at London, July 17, 1846, and the Oregon question, in its main features, was settled finally—There was still, however, one minor point, which was not settled until 1872. The commissioners appointed to run the boundary could not agree on the true water channel through the middle of which it was to run. The British insisted on the Rosario straits; the Americans on the canal de Haro. By the thirty-fourth article of the treaty of Washington, in 1871, it was agreed to submit the question finally to the emperor of Germany as arbitrator. In the following year the arbitrator decided in favor of the canal de Haro.


—See 8 Stat at Large, 80, 248, 360, 9 ib., 869, and 17 ib., 863 (for treaties of Sept. 3, 1783, Oct. 20, 1818, Aug 6, 1827, June 15, 1846, and May 8, 1871, respectively); authorities under OREGON, 3 von Holst's United States, 161, 216, 273; 15, 16 Benton's Debates of Congress (see index); Statesman's Manual (Polk's Messages); Greenhow's Northwest Coast, 1840, and History of Oregon and California, 1845 (the authorities cited in the foot notes form a bibliography up to date); Irving's Astoria, and Bonneville's Expedition; Reports of Lewis and Clarke, and Fremont; Rush's Residence at the Court of London (London ed. of 1872), 372, 1 Dix's Speeches and Addresses, 1 (the best statement of the American claims); Edinburgh Review, July, 1845 (probably the fairest summary); 2 N. W. Senior's Essays; Dunn's Oregon Territory; Falconer's Oregon Question; Robertson's Oregon: Our Right and Title; T. Twiss' Oregon Question Examined; Wallace's Oregon Question Determined; 2 Benton's Thirty Years' View, 660; 4 Calhoun's Works, 260; 2 Webster's Works, 322; 5 ib., 60; 2 Webster's Private Correspondence, 215, 230; 1 Coleman's Life of Crittenden, 236; Cutts' Constitutional and Party Questions, 61.


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