Fifty-four Forty or Fight!: A History of the Oregon Border Dispute

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Podcast Transcript

By the early 19th century, the United States and Great Britain had already fought two wars with each other. 

Those two wars were not enough to resolve all of the territorial and border disputes between them. 

There was one massive open question that remained between the two countries. A large swath of land in the Pacific Northwest that both countries claimed and were ready to go to war over. 

Learn more about the Oregon Boundry Dispute and how it almost led to war on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Before we get into the details of how the United States and Britain almost went to war for a third time, we need to understand the territorial claims of what the Americans called the Oregon Country and the British called the Columbia District. 

When European powers claimed land in the Americas, they often had no clue what they were claiming. 

For example, when the Spanish explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo first traveled up the Pacific Coast of North America, he claimed for Spain pretty much everything. 

They made extensive claims to regions that they never visited and weren’t even aware of. 

Likewise, the Russians had small settlements and fur traders in Alaska as well as down the coast to northern California. Based on these fur trading settlements, they claimed enormous parts of the Pacific Northwest. 

The British came at their claim from the east and laid claim to everything from the Atlantic to the Pacific. 

Finally, the newly independent United States laid claim to everything in the region as well, coming at it from the southeast.

It should be noted that none of these countries had any real presence in the region, and no one had done an extensive survey of the region, especially inland from the coast.

They had inaccurate, crudely drawn maps used by officials thousands of miles away who drew lines on them and said, “This is ours.”

Making a claim is one thing, but enforcing a claim is another. At the end of the day, you have to be able to back up your claim with soldiers, ships, and guns.

The first of these overlapping claims was resolved in the 1790s by a series of three agreements between Britain and Spain known as the Nootka Sound Conventions. 

In the Nootka Sound Conventions, Spain agreed to give up any claims above 42 degrees latitude. Today, forty-two degrees latitude is the northern border of California, Nevada, and Utah.  

The fact was Spain couldn’t reasonably enforce their claims given how much land they had claimed to the South. To try to enforce their claims in the Pacific Northwest it would require diverting resources from their established settlements further to the south. 

The Russian claims to the region were resolved by two treaties. The first was the Russo-American Treaty of 1824, in which Russia ceded all their claims along the coast south of 54 degrees 40 minutes latitude.

The other treaty was the Treaty of Saint Petersburg, signed in 1825 between Russia and Britain. This treaty established the Russian claims to what is today Alaska and set the southern limit of their territory at 54 degrees 40 minutes latitude, which is today the southernmost point of Alaska. 

The Russians were in an even worse position than the Spanish to enforce their claims.  Getting anyone to the Pacific Northwest would require either a very long crossing by land through Siberia or a very long voyage by sea around all of Europe, Africa, and Asia. 

So, by 1825, only two countries made claims to the Pacific Northwest: the United States and Britain. 

The British claims were based on Captain Cook’s voyages and on those of British fur traders who worked for the Hudson Bay Company.

The American claims were based on the American merchant ship captain Robert Gray, who sailed up the Pacific Coast in the 1790s, and the Lewis and Clark expedition from 1803 to 1806. 

Before 1825, the US and Great Britain had signed their own agreements. 

The treaty of 1818 set the border of the United States and Canada as the 49th parallel between Lake of the Woods in what is today Minnesota and the Rocky Mountains. However, it said nothing about the border between the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific.

Also, what is relevant for this episode is that both countries agreed to allow for joint settlement of the Oregon Country. 

This didn’t really solve anything. It left open the question of who actually had control and really just kicked the problem down the road. 

There were attempts to resolve the border issue. In 1825, the head of the Hudson Bay Company proposed that the UK get everything north and west of the Snake and Columbia Rivers, including what is today much of Idaho, Washington, and Oregon.

In 1826, the Americans came back and proposed the extension of the 49th parallel as the border. However, nothing was agreed to.

In 1827, the United States and Britain extended the agreement with the stipulation that either country could end it unilaterally. 

The ambiguous state of the Oregon Country eventually became known in the United States as the Oregon Question. 

After 1827, the Hudson Bay Company became the dominant economic power in the region. They controlled their bases out of Fort Vancouver, which is currently located in Vancouver, Washington.  Fort Vancouver is a National Historic Site, and I highly recommend visiting if you are ever in the area. 

While the Hudson Bay Company became the dominant economic force in the region, more and more American settlers began to migrate to the Oregon Country. 

However, because of the joint settlement agreement with the British, these American settlers didn’t have the protection of the government because it wasn’t officially American territory.

By the early 1840s, the settlers’ demands for American governance found a welcome audience back in Washington. The United States of 1842 was not the United States of 1812 when they last fought the British. 

The economy was bigger, the population had grown significantly larger, and they had developed a confidence that was embodied in the phrase, Manifest Destiny. 

The actual phrase Manifest Destiny wasn’t coined until 1845, but the sentiment behind it had been growing in the United States for years. 

Manifest Destiny was a belief that the United States was ordained by God to expand and eventually control all of North America. 

This meant that the United States should control all of Oregon Country and, what was also a major issue at the time, Texas. 

Nationalists used the Oregon Question as a political issue. Many Americans and even members of Congress believed that the United States should annex the entirety of the Oregon Country, going all the way up to 54 degrees and 40 minutes latitude. 

In the 1844 Presidential election, James Polk, the Democratic candidate, ran against Henry Clay, the Whig Party candidate. 

Polk made the annexation of the Oregon Country one of his primary campaign issues, in addition to the annexation of Texas, which is a story for another episode. 

At the 1844 Democratic Party convention, in their party platform, they put “That our title to the whole of the Territory of Oregon is clear and unquestionable; that no portion of the same ought to be ceded to England or any other power, and that the reoccupation of Oregon and the re-annexation of Texas at the earliest practicable period are great American measures.”

Polk ended up winning the election by a comfortable margin. 

Several historians have claimed that the Oregon Question wasn’t actually a major issue in the election. Rather the real issue was the annexation of Texas, which would have added another slave state.

The annexation of Oregon Country became the basis of one of the most well-known slogans in US history: Fifty-Four Forty, or Fight. It wasn’t used during the campaign. The phrase was first used in January 1845, well after the election was over.

It was coined by John L. O’Sullivan, the editor of the New York Morning News, on December 27, 1845. In an editorial, he said, “By the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us.”

The slogan was meant to show that annexation of the full Oregon Country was worth going to war for. 

When Polk was inaugurated, he referenced the Oregon Country and his commitment to full annexation. He said that the US claim to Oregon was “clear and unquestionable.”

The British began to fear that war was inevitable. They began fortifying their military forts along the border in preparation for an invasion. 

The British offered to settle the matter via arbitration, but Polk said there was no neutral party that could mediate the dispute.

At his State of the Union Address on December 2, 1845, Polk advocated notifying Britain that the US was canceling the 1827 agreement. 

By 1846, Polk was still saber rattling. In a speech on January 4, he said, “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.”

John Bull was the term used at the time to personify Britain. 

By 1846, the British had moved five warships to the Pacific Northwest to protect their interests. 

The British proposed extending the 49th parallel as the border, which the US rejected. 

Despite all of the tough talk, in reality, no one really wanted to go to war. 

The British didn’t want to go to war because the Americans now had a decisive advantage on the continent. To put it in more simple terms, the Americans had the home-field advantage. They didn’t have to transport men and guns across the sea.

By population alone, the Americans had a decisive advantage in the Oregon Country. 

If they went to war, there was a risk that the British could lose everything in North America. Moreover, the region was becoming economically less important to Britain. 

The Americans, despite their tough talk, didn’t want to go either. A war with Britain would be expensive and would set the country back years. 

On June 12, 1846, the US Senate voted 38-12 to recommend to President Polk that he meet with the British and negotiate a compromise. The votes were split, with members of both parties voting for and against it. 

The president agreed, and the US Secretary of State, James Buchanan, met with Richard Pakenham, British envoy to the United States.

They had an agreement just three days after the Senate took their vote. 

The result was the Oregon Treaty of 1846. 

The resulting compromise was the one that had been proposed years before and the logical one based on the Treaty of 1818.

They agreed just to extend the 49th parallel, which is what the border between the United States and Canada is today.  The border would extend to the sea, and Vancouver Island, which dips below the 49th, would remain fully under British control. 

I previously mentioned that there had been no detailed survey of the region which was conducted. After the Americans and British concluded the treaty, a boundary commission was established to set the exact boundary. 

In the process of surveying the border, they found a problem. Just south of Vancouver, there is a small peninsula known as the Tsawwassen Peninsula. No one realized it at the time, but the 49th parallel went right through the peninsula, leaving a small stub of land in the United States that was cut off from the rest of the United States mainland.

That stub of land is known as Point Roberts. 

The British offered an amendment to the treaty to resolve the problem. They would take Point Roberts and provide the US with some other land of equal size in exchange. However, the Americans weren’t interested. 

Today, Point Roberts, Washington, is still a part of the United States, and living there can be a challenge. For example, children who live there have to do four border crossings per day just to go to school.

The Oregon Border Dispute was the last time a serious war threatened to break out between the United States and Britain. There were other issues that arose throughout the 19th century, but nothing as major. 

In 1859, the Pig War was a small skirmish in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, on which I did a previous episode, but there was little need for conflict once the border was established.

The Treaty of 1846 defined what the map of North America looks like today. It was part of the creation of the states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, as well as the Canadian province of British Columbia. 

It is all due to the willingness of both sides of the conflict to step down from the brink of war and hammer out a compromise.

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel. 

The associate producers are Ben Long and Cameron Kieffer. 

Today’s review comes from listener sparksfire over on Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write:

Thank you so much for what you do, Gary. I just became a member of the completionist club—perhaps the first in Wyoming. I’d like the coordinates to our clubhouse. I’m sure I’ll need to listen to your episode regarding the compass to find it. Frankly, I’m bummed that I’ll only have one episode per day, but I am very grateful for the hours of entertainment you’ve given me.

Thanks, sparksfire! I’m glad to see the state, which has the smallest population, represented in the completionist club. Remember, if you are disappointed at only having one episode a day, you can always go back and do it again. 

Remember that if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.