Canada/United States Border: The Line that Divides Us:Diplomacy's Role in Negotiating the U.S. - Canadian BorderBy History Day finalist Hali Han

  • By Hali Han
  • Posted 5/09/2011
  • Essay 9965
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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

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.


Primary Sources

"Avalon Project - British-American Diplomacy: Treaty with Great Britain, in Regard to Limits Westward of the Rocky Mountains." Avalon Project - Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy. Lillian Goldman Law Library, 2008. Web. 4 Oct. 2010. .

This webpage includes all of the words of the original document (treaty). Providing necessary information as a primary source, it is signed by two important characters in this event: James Buchanan and Richard Pakenham. 

Greenhow, Robert. The History of Oregon and California, and the Other Territories on the North-West Coast of North America. Boston: Little and Brown, 1844.

The second book that Greenhow wrote relating to the Oregon Territory, this primary source provided useful information for my paper. Although, seeing that it was written in the 19th century, the language and formatting style was, at times, harder for me to understand, I gained several important pieces of information that I could therefore incorporate into my paper.

Greenhow, Robert. Memoir, Historical and Political; on the Northwest Coast of North America. New York: Wiley and Putnam, 1840.

Another primary source, this is one of the two books that I have written at the time about the Oregon Boundary dispute. Greenhow suggests, within this book, what the government should and shouldn’t do during the treatment and debate on this issue. However, Oregon is not the only topic covered within this book. Because this is a memoir, there are quite a few events covered that include the Pacific Northwest. The book lists dates and then explains all the important

Polk, James Knox. "The Diary of James K. Polk during ..." Chicago: Published for the Chicago Historical Society by A. C. McClurg and Company, 1910.

An amazing primary source, James K. Polk's personal diary provided immense amounts of information that allowed me to be able to analyze Polk's actions. Several confusing decisions and events became clearer through the writing of Polk. By reading this diary, I was also able to see just how important the impending war with Mexico affected the president. The relationship between Polk and his secretaries such as Buchanan were clearly evident. Not only did he record many details of their correspondence, he also writes his opinions and thoughts on the person. Without the aid of this source, many of the key events would have been left misunderstood or not thoroughly analyzed. 

"Message from the President of the United States to Both Houses of Congress at the Commencement of the Twenty-Eighth Congress [Digital Version]." Message from the President of the United States to Both Houses of Congress at the Commencement of the Twenty-Eighth Congress. Rice University. Web. 29 Nov. 2010. .

This whole webpage is a digitalized version of what President Tyler said to both Houses of Congress on the issues of Mexico, Oregon, and Texas. An extremely valuable primary source, this website provides me with a lot of political insight on what the government debated on doing about Oregon before Polk entered the picture. Therefore, it provides information on how valuable Polk was to the solution of the Oregon Question.

Secondary Sources

Bergeron, Paul H. The Presidency of James K. Polk. Lawrence: University of Kansas, 1987. Print. American Presidency Ser.

Though it was published twenty-three years ago, this book provides extensive information about the political life of James K. Polk. Written by a college professor, it discusses all of the major events that the president dealt with and further relates it to other previous ones. For example. Throughout his term, Polk was opposed by the Whigs. Right in the beginning, Bergeron states that because Polk was not like the presidents before him, all that he did would receive opposition from other parties; mainly Whig. I found this book in a small library on vacation. As I mentioned before, it's not as recent as several other sources. However, I did not find any copies of this book on the West Coast and many ideas presented are different from those that I had encountered before.

Borneman, Walter R. Polk: the Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America. New York: Random House, 2008. Print.

This book is a biography and record of Polk's life in politics. Including various details about the Oregon Dispute, the book provided information, if not direct citations. Details on other characters in this event, such as James Buchanan, Lord Aberdeen, and Richard Pakenham, are also in here.

"Establishing Borders: The Expansion of the United States, 1846-48." Smithsonian Education - Welcome. Smithsonian Center for Education and Museum Studies. Web. 23 Sept. 2010. .

A textbook transferred online, the section that was used provided background information rather than details about the specific correspondence between the key players in this dispute.

Fisher, Ronald M. National Geographic Historical Atlas of the United States. Washington, D. C.: National Geographic Soc., 2004. Print. Although this book is an atlas and does not give any in depth information about my topic, this was still a useful source. Information about events that occurred during that time period, such as the events preceding the Texas Revolution, were easiest to located in a source such as this one. Also, this atlas addresses the Oregon Territory not as a diplomatic event in history, but as a citizens' approach to their new lives that could be found there. 

Graebner, Norman A. "The Northwest Coast in World Diplomacy, 1790-1846." American Studies @ The University of Virginia. Washington State University Press. Web. 10 Oct. 2010. .

This website article addresses all of the diplomatic events in the Pacific Northwest up to the Oregon Boundary Treaty. Information about Lord Aberdeen and his views were mostly from this source.

Heidler, David Stephen, and Jeanne T. Heidler. Manifest Destiny. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2003. Print.

The "Manifest Destiny" defined an idea that was widely recognized in history.

This book links many events to the "Manifest Destiny." Not only did it provide information about the attitudes of the people and government, it also gave a good map that I scanned and used in my appendix.

Howe, Daniel Walker. What Hath God Wrought: the Transformation of America, 1815-1848. New York: Oxford UP, 2007. Print.

Within this one book are records of all the changes that occurred within America over the course of thirty-three years. A reliable source indicated by the author and publisher, not only does it provide good information on my topic, there is insightful analysis that explains some of the events that took place. Also, Howe looks upon certain events with different perspectives (British, American, Democratic, Whig, etc.), giving me a mostly unbiased analysis of all that took place.

"James K. Polk." The White House. Web. 11 Oct. 2010. .

A website specifically about the White House and all of the presidents, this particular page provided good background information about all of Polk's political involvements prior and during his presidency. Though there isn't much information specifically about Oregon, there was some provided about the sequence of events and issues that Polk was facing during that time.

Kaza, Roger. "No. 2411: Hudson's Bay Company." University of Houston. Engines of Our Ingenuity. Web. 5 Nov. 2010. .

This webpage consists of an article specifically on the Hudson's Bay Company vs. the American fur trappers. There is a decent amount of information related to the Oregon Boundary Treaty mainly because one, the Bay Company is such a large character in the issues of Oregon, and two, the tension between the company and the American settlers was what intensified the importance of creating a treaty.

Merry, Robert W. A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War, and the Conquest of the American Continent. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009. Print.

The source that I cited most often, this is another biography of Polk that has more than one chapter specifically about Oregon. Besides the original text, I found snippets of primary sources on my topic as well. Also, this book was one of the only sources that provided specific details of correspondence and what occurred within the government as well as between the US and Britain.

Peterson, Norma Lois. The Presidencies of William Henry Harrison & John Tyler. Lawrence, Kan.: University of Kansas, 1989. Print. American Presidency Ser.

The other book that I found in the library on vacation, this book doesn't focus on the actual treaty itself, but rather the events preceding it. John Tyler was president before Polk, and several efforts and negotiations were being made about Oregon at that time. Tyler's secretary of state, Edward Everett, would be the first man to propose the resulting terms of the boundary. What he created became the Everett formula. Also, this biography shows the sources and beginnings of all the party attitudes that later would be shown in the mini dispute between the Whigs and the Democrats.

Reimer, Chad. Parallel Destinies: Canadian-American Relations West of the Rockies. Ed. John M. Findlay and Kenneth S. Coates. Seattle: Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest in Association with University of Washington, 2002. Print.

A compilation of essays on the interactions between Canada and America in the Northwest, there was one essay that was on the same topic but narrowed to an even more specific area, the attitudes of American writers about this event. There was important information on background, but the perspectives portrayed in this article were the most useful.

Seigenthaler, John. James K Polk. New York: Times, 2003. Print.  

This book is the shortest biography I have about James K. Polk. However, the language is clear and concise and talks about the personal attitudes and ambitions of the eleventh president rather than the extreme details about all that occurred during the Oregon Dispute. Of course, Seigenthaler does give plenty of background on the topic, but he then relates it to Polk.  

Swagerty, William R. "William R. Swagerty | 'The Leviathan of the North': American Perceptions of the Hudson's Bay Company, 1816–1846 | Oregon Historical Quarterly, 104.4." The History Cooperative. Oregon History Quarterly. Web. 11 Nov. 2010. .

In this article, the main topic addressed is the Hudson's Bay Company and the attitudes of the United States towards it. Because the Hudson's Bay Company played a relatively large role in the Oregon Dispute, I was able to use these attitudes of the people towards the company and relate them to the attitudes of the American's towards the British and vice versa. Also, within this paper, there are several good primary sources and an extensive bibliography, indicating that this is a reliable source.

Thomas C. McClintock | British Newspapers and the Oregon Treaty of 1846 | Oregon Historical Quarterly, 104.1." The History Cooperative. Oregon History Quarterly. Web. 23 Oct. 2010. .

A website that was extremely useful to my research, this is a complete article about the Oregon Boundary dispute, specifically concentrating on the British attitudes of this event. It also has details on all of the people involved, including correspondence between Aberdeen and newspaper editors.

Woodworth, Steven E. Manifest Destinies: America's Westward Expansion and the Road to the Civil War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010. Print.  

Different from most of the other books I have, this one focuses on the actions of the people rather than the government. Although some key events are still there, most of it concentrates on how the pioneers affected the result of the Oregon Boundary Dispute. Also, the fact that this book relates all of the expansionism to the incoming civil war gives a good understanding of the consequences of the treaty in 1848. Since many were unwilling to fight for Oregon because there would be an absence of slaves, the country became divided, and abolitionism would become a greater issue. 

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