The History of Washington State

The History of Washington
Chapter 17

 

By Holice, Pam, and Deb

Extra special thanks to Holice B. Young for transcribing this series of books!

 

 Page 267

CHAPTER XVII.

OUR BOUNDARIES DEFINED AND OUR RIGHTS AS SECURED.

"To harbor now the ship draws nigh,
Our ship of State from adverse tide;
No fairer flag may frigate fly
Than hers in which our hearts confide,
The Western ocean sweeps the shore,
That shore we now may call our own;
What matter how its breakers roar--
They wash the bulwarks of our home."

The reader will now perceive that not only is Congress awakened to the value and importance of our possession In Oregon and the necessity of immediately asserting our claim to their exclusive dominion and settlement in accordance with our rights, but the people at large are beginning to inquire in relation to the advantages and resources of the vast wilderness, American in name, British in reality of occupancy, which divides the Western foot-hills of the rocky Mountains from the billows that beat the shores of Puget Sound and its adjoining coasts.

A mighty mist, as it were, had enveloped and concealed this hitherto unknown land. but the cloud was now about to be lifted, though it required the fuller sunshine of a later day to fully reveal the beauties which it had hidden to the world. Many winds blowing from divers quarters at length dispersed the cloud; shapes of evil seem through its gloom were now found to have been magnified; voices came out of its recesses, echoes from far away; reports no longer distorted by British emissaries in English interests, but truthful tales from the lips of our own pioneers, explorers and adventurers. Dr. Whitman, in his winter ride across the continent, had aroused the land as he speeded through the States on his errand of territorial salvation. As the messengers bearing the war signal of the fiery cross through the Scottish hills shouted their warning as they ran, so did

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Whitman rouse the army of peaceful occupation with the cry, "Meet me on the frontier in June," as he speeded, fur-clothed and frost-bitten, on his way to the Washington of the East from the Washington yet to be of the Western shore. Many witnesses added their testimony, and the people throughout the land, moved by indignation at the threats of British usurpation, and restlessness born of a desire to find homes and recompense for their labor in newer fields, began to turn their eyes toward the Northwest coast, and speculate upon its possibilities. But even then the processes of our evolution were slow, though destined to be finally sure in their results. As the rill broadens and deepens to the river, or the gray dawn brightens to the perfection of day, so the "Oregon question" lingered or seemed to linger by the way. Some still doubted the value of stakes which might involve so large an expenditure of wealth and possibly of blood to win the game. The conservative clung to the existing state of things; the timid dreaded to provoke England, the fabled mistress of the seas, to unloose the dogs of war. Now and them some manly voice spoke out in congress; but the fullness of our time, though near at hand, was not yet fully come.

We have the details and exhaustive narratives of Evans and his fellow-historians, and pass to the time when, in the Presidential election of 1844, the Oregon question became the war-cry of both parties, but especially of the Democratic and successful nominee, Mr. Polk. The declaration of that Democratic National convention had no timid or uncertain sound. It declared:

"Our title to the whole of Oregon is clear and unquestionable. No portion of the same ought to be ceded to England or any other power, and the reoccupation of Oregon at the earliest practicable period is a great American measure."

That of the Whigs, under the banner (destined to be defeated) of Henry Clay, though less arrogant, was equally decided. So it was that the Oregon question came before the great jury of the American people and won its verdict in the universal acceptance of "fifty-four forty or fight" as a watchword and battle cry--a declaration which gave diplomacy to understand that should it fail or even linger by the way, its treaties and protocols must give place to the sterner arbitration of shot and shell. The British Minister now offered arbitration, but it was declined. A

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Bill to organize a territorial government in Oregon was introduced into the House, December 16th, 1844, referred to the Committee of the Whole, and amended on motion of Winthrop, of Massachusetts, which amendment was incorporation into the bill by a vote of one hundred and thirty-one to sixty-nine--That there shall neither be slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory otherwise than in the punishment of crimes, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted." In this connection say Evans:

"That glorious vote, dedicating to freedom the great Northwest, explains why so much of Oregon so soon thereafter was so readily surrounded to Great Britain. Lying north of 36 30', the compromise line on the admission of Missouri, it would necessarily become free territory and ultimately free States. the territorial integrity of Oregon, though so heartily endorsed by the people, had been already sacrificed. The bill was further amended to require the delivery to British authorities of any British subject arrested. Grants of land were made subject to the settlement of title by the two governments"--in short, things were to go no pretty much as they were until the twelve months had expired. The amendment requiring the President to give such notice passed by a vote of one hundred and twenty-one to eighty-two. February 3d, 1845, Atchison, Of Missouri, introduced a bill through the usual stages, but on March 3d, when its friends in the Senate tried to press it to vote, it was refused by a majority of two. Both houses of Congress and the great mass of our people being in favor of some decided action, the President-elect, in his inaugural message, committed his administration to a similar policy. Negotiations are again in order. The United States versus England, represented by such eminent counsel as Buchanan and Packenham, the ball of argument being tossed to and fro from July 16th to August 30th, 1845, when the "run home" is made by Mr. Buchanan in the following farewell dispatch:

"And how has this proposition been received by the British plenipotentiary?" (referring to an offer to draw the line at 49 with free ports on Vancouver's Island to England). "It has been rejected without even a reference to his own Government, Nay, more, to use his own language, he 'trusts that we will pre-

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Pare to offer some further proposal for the settlement of the Oregon question more consisted with fairness and equity, and with the reasonable expectations of the British Government.' Under such circumstances the undersigned is instructed by the President to say that he owes it to this country, and a just appreciation of her title to the Oregon territory, to withdraw the proposition to the British Government which has been made under his direction, and is hereby accordingly withdrawn."

President Polk's first annual message (December 14th, 1845) rehearsed the history of the so far abortive negotiations. He concludes by affirming our title to the whole of Oregon; the impossibility of surrendering any portion of that right to Great Britain; urges the immediate giving of the twelve months; notice to abrogate the Joint Occupation Treaty, and invokes Congress to adopt measures to sustain our rights and extend federal jurisdiction over the territory, with ample protection to American settlers.

On April 28th, after some preliminary legislation, a resolution passed both houses directing the President to give the required notices and abrogate the convention of 1827. The majority in the Senate was thirty-two; in the House, ninety-six. The notice was accordingly given April 28th, 1846. It was acknowledged and accepted by the British foreign Office in London, May 22d, 1846. The abrogation was fixed to take effect May 21st, 1847.

In December, 1845, the British Government again proposed arbitration. This was declined, followed by a modified proposition of a similar nature, that if neither government should be found to possess a title, the disputed territory should be divided between them "according to a just appreciation of their claims." This met the same fate. Then a treaty was proposed by the British Minister, which President Polk submitted to the Senate with a request for their advice in the premises--a procedure unprecedented since the days of Washington. His letter is cautiously worded. He obligates himself in advance to be bound by their decision, yet refers to his own outspoken opinions and expressed policy on the Oregon question. While standing by the "fifty-four-forty" battle-cry of his party, he seems not unwilling to let a Whig Senate take the onus and odium, if need be, of putting themselves on record as retrograding from the stand so publicly taken

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and generally endorsed, of no surrender in the matter of Oregon. Be this as it may, the treaty, of whose provisions we shall speak later, was accepted, and the President relieved from responsibility by the advise (with the necessary constitutional majority of the thirds of those present) of the Senate to entertain its propositions. The vote stood thirty-eight yeas to eleven votes. This treaty, proposed by Great Britain and accepted by the United States, contained four articles.

The first offered the following as our northern boundary. From the point on the forty-ninth parallel of northern latitude, where the boundary between the two countries now existing terminates, the line of separation shall be continued westward along the said parallel to the middle of the channel which separates the mainland from Vancouver's Island, and thence southward through the middle of said channel and of Fuca's Strait of the Pacific Ocean; provided, however, that the navigation of the whole of said channel and strait south of the forty-ninth parallel of north latitude remain free and open to both parties.

The second article provided for their so long agent and Northwestern pet, the Hudson's Bay Company, by demanding for that company, "and all British agents trading with the same," The free navigation with the forty-nine parallel of north latitude to the sea," with free access into or through the said river of rivers," and the usual portages to be kept open. In navigating said rivers, British subjects and their goods were to be treated in the same manner as American citizens with (inestimable) privilege of managing our own river or rivers in our own way, "when not inconsistent with the present treaty."

In regard to this second article, the substance of which we have just quoted, it is proper to add that Mr. Buchanan, in his official letter of transmittal of the treaty to Louis McLane, our Minister in London, makes use of these words:

"I have learned from the best sources that the Senate advised the acceptance of the treaty under the conviction that by the true construction of the second article of the project the right of the Hudson's Bay Company to navigate the Columbia would expire with the termination of their present license to trade with the Indians, etc., on the Northwest coast of American on the 30th day of May, 1850, In a conversation with Mr. Packenham to-

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day I communicated the fact to him, and requested him to state it in his dispatch to Lord Aberdeen."

The third article further provided for the future well-being of the Hudson's Bay Company, as follows:

"In the future appropriation of the territory south of the forty-nine parallel of north latitude, as provided in the first article of this treaty, the possessory rights of the Hudson's Bay Company and of all British subjects who may be already in the occupation of land or other property lawfully acquired within the said territory shall be respected.

Article fourth looked after the "futures" of the Puget Sound Agricultural company, an offshoot of and alias for the Hudson's Bay, by providing that "the farms, lands and other property of every description, belonging to the Puget Sound Agricultural Company on the north side of the Columbia River shall be confirmed to said company. In case, however, the situation of these farms and lands should be considered by the United States to be of public importance, and the United States Government should signify a desire to obtain possession of the whole, or of any part thereof, the property so desired shall be transferred to said government at a proper valuation to be agreed upon between the parties"-- a convention, by the way, which led to a claim of $5,000,000 against the United States as a compensation to them for retiring and giving up their rights in Oregon acquired under the "happy family" arrangement of "joint occupancy." So in the end the United States paid rent to the interloping squatters and avowed enemies who condescended for a term of years to occupy its own territory.

The treaty was signed June 15th, 1846, and ratified by the Senate on the 18th of the same month by a vote of forty-one to fourteen, an increase the vote by which it was accepted of just three ayes and the same number of votes. Evans, in his incisive fashion, tells us that "he herculean Benton was its most zealous champion." He quotes largely from his speech on that occasion, which he rather mildly characterizes as "remarkable." Regarded from the standpoint of the present, Mr. Benton's rounded periods and grace declarations read--well, let us says, with all deference to the gravity of the subject, like a comic alumnae. He certainly took no note of the future or its possibilities when he trusted him-

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self to descriptive geography. His compliments to Vancouver's Island and its surroundings are about as wild and incorrect as his location of the god Terminus in former years upon the divide of the Rocky Mountains. We fancy that our British neighbors will hardly feel flattered by the following extracts from Benton's jubilee of rejoicing. He says, by way of preface, that the boundary offered and accepted is the very one he would have selected had he been left to draw the line. "Forty-nine is the line of right and of mutual convenience. There is not upon the face of the earth so long a line, so straight, sop adapted to the rights of the parties and the features of the country. It is a marvelously proper line," etc. then he adds, " I never talked the nonsense of every inch and acre up to 54 40' or war. I knew the Straits of Fuca, and that those straits formed a natural boundary for us, and also divided the continent from the islands, and the fertile from the desolate regions. I new that the continental coast and the inhabitable terminated on the south shore of those straits, and that the Northwest archipelago, the thousand desolate and volcanic islands, derelict of all nations, commenced on their shore, and I wanted to g no farther then the good land and the continental coast went. I was always in favor of a deflection of the line through the Strait of Fuca, but I said nothing about it." he then refers to "the utter worthlessness of the desolate region about the mouth of Fraser river." He rejoices that it cuts off Vancouver's Island, and says, "It is one of the most worthless of the thousand worthless island which the Northwest archipelago presents, and is the derelict of all nations." Shade of Thomas Benton, counted wise in your day and generation, could you visit the Victoria and Vancouver of to-day or the naval station of Esquimalt, would you not regret your hasty utterance and the conceded territory, even though it were gained at the expense of "the nonsense you never talked of--fifty-four-forty or fight"? Truly "the derelict of all nations" in British hands had been towed into harbor and refitted in so satisfactory a fashion that even they began to realize that "they builded better than they knew."

This treaty left a minor point unsettled--the precise channel between Vancouver and the main--whether the Rosario or the Canal de Haro. It remained in controversy until 1873, when it was settled by arbitration, the Emperor William of

Germany,

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to whom it was mutually referred, deciding in favor of the latter.

So ended the famous and long-contested "Oregon question," a controversy which had exercised the minds and employed the highest talents of two generations of the most prominent statesmen on both sides of the Atlantic, which brought us once and again to the verge of an arbitration by war, and evoked a personal and official enmity and treachery on the part of the British government and its emissaries which no honestly careful student of its operations in the Northwest can pursue without a feeling of shame on the one side and indignation on the other. It is hard to write history without becoming a partisan; yet we have carefully avoided, with much to prove their truth, any incorporation into this narrative of the evidences advanced by Gray and kindred recorders of that darker undercurrent of events which point to English and Jesuitical agencies in stirring up the savages to attack our Protestant missions and slaughter or interfere with American settlers.

The final settlement of the boundary, look at it as we will, was a victory, not a verdict--a concession unfounded upon right to English persistence, and, t our shame be it spoken, a sacrifice to the Moloch of pro-slavery. England was heard for her much asking. She had told the story of her rights so often, that its reiteration impressed her with its truth, and she begun to believe it herself. "All things come to those who wait," and she realized it. The sacrifice of our once just and well-founded claim--a claim which both out legislature and our people declared they would fight for to defend, and which was timely reduced by nearly five degrees of latitude--was, as we have already intimated, due to Southern sentiment and pro-slavery influences. It savored, moreover, of revenge for previous Northern anti-slavery action. The annexation of Texas had been in the interests of the then existing "institution;" it was bitterly combated by the Abolition element. The Missouri Compromise, a concession to Northern sentiment too strong to be entirely overcome, followed. The folding of Oregon into the pale of the federal enclosure was a new menace to slavery, hence the South and Southern legislators were willing, spite of previous pledges and declarations, to reduce its boundaries and curtail the dimensions of the free States soon to be. The treaty, too, came up for final adjudication at a

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moment most opportune for England and her interests. We had the Mexican War on our hands. A war with England at this juncture endangered our success in that quarter and in consequence the great slave-holding territory of Texas. Hence the southern members and those who sympathized with their policy (and in those days they were many) preferred to placate Great Britain by voting away our rights to Oregon and thereby save Texas, and still further reduce the area of free States erelong to be created. It was "peace without honor;" but the fiery southerner yielded even this as a new but, unhappily, not final sacrifice to that which, then regarded as his blessing, was too surely to become his ultimate bane. If this be doubted, listen to the declaration of Robert J. Walker, Mr. Polk's Secretary of the Treasury, who thus explains this readiness to surrender so large a portion of the territory in dispute. He says, writing at a later day:

We own now the whole Western Pacific Coast from lower California to the Arctic Sea except British Columbia, which (against my earnest protest in the Cabinet) was ceded to England in 1848. I say ceded, for our title to the whole of Oregon from the forty-second parallel northward to British America was, in truth, clear and unquestionable. British Columbia was lost to us by the most unfortunate diplomacy extending through along period of time." He adds:

"the opposition to the acquisition of Louisiana was geographical and anti-slavery. In 1821 Texas was relinquished, partly from geographical, but mainly from anti-slavery causes. In 1845 the opposition to the annexation of Texas was based mainly on anti-slavery grounds. In 1846, in connection with the unfortunate action of preceding administrations, Oregon north of the forty ninth parallel was lost to the Union. While the history of annexation in the United States shows various obstacles by which it has been retarded, yet the chief among these was the discordant element of slavery, the slave States opposing the acquisition of free territory. But for these opposing principles our area would be far greater than it is now. On extinguishing slavery we have removed the principal cause which retarded annexation. We see already the good effects of the disappearance of this institution in the almost unanimous vote of the Senate by which the Alaska treaty was ratified. 

 

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