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Britain cedes its claims to the Pacific Northwest by signing the Treaty of Oregon on June 15, 1846.
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On June 15, 1846, after 28 years of peaceful "joint occupancy" with the United States, Britain surrenders its claims to the "Oregon Country" south of the 49th parallel by signing the Treaty of Oregon.
Joint American-British occupation of the region had been established by treaty in 1818 and renewed in 1827, although the British-owned Hudson's Bay Company effectively governed the area. The rapid influx of American settlers starting in 1842 quickly tipped the balance against the British, and Oregonians established their own independent "provisional government" in 1843.
The British reacted with fatalistic restraint while American politicians cried "Fifty-Four Forty or Fight!" referring to the southern boundary of Alaska, then controlled by Russia. President James K. Polk (1795-1849) took a more reasonable approach and authorized his Secretary of State (and future president) James Buchanan (1791-1868) to negotiate a graceful retreat for Great Britain. On August 14, 1848, Congress formally established Oregon Territory, which embraced the present-day states of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.
San Juan's Pig War
The new treaty left one unresolved issue: sovereignty over the San Juan Islands. Since Vancouver Island, which the treaty allocated to Britain, extends south of the 49th Parallel, the treaty stated that the boundary ran along the 49th Parallel to the middle of the channel between Vancouver Island and the mainland, then south through the channel to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. In fact, there are at least two channels between Vancouver Island and the mainland, with the San Juans located between them. Unsurprisingly, both countries assumed the islands belonged to them.
During the 1850s, American settlers feuded with the British Hudson's Bay Company, which had established a large outpost on San Juan Island. The two sides nearly came to blows on June 15, 1859, when an American killed a Hudson's Bay Company pig that he found rooting in his potato patch, and both governments sent troops to the island. Cooler heads averted a war, but for 13 years British and American garrisons remained at opposite ends of San Juan Island. The British departed on November 25, 1872, following the decision by an international arbiter, Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm I, that finally set the modern boundary separating British Columbia from the American portion of the San Juan Archipelago.
Edmond S. Meany, History of the State of Washington (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1909), C. T. Morgan, The San Juan Story (Friday Harbor, WA: San Juan Industries, 1966); National Park Service, San Juan Island National Historical Park Official Map and Guide (Government Printing Office, 1997).
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