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Border Bullies



Workers pose for a photo while clearing trees on the 49th parallel in 1861. British officers meet on San Juan Island in the 1800s.

Canada is a border nation. Over 75 per cent of us live within 160 kilometres of the United States. By comparison, only 12 per cent of Americans live within 160 kilometres of the boundary. For almost every Canadian, the border is a reality of daily life. It defines us as citizens and is a factor in what we think and how we act. The present boundary did not simply materialize, but developed over a period of years, the result of peaceful negotiations as well as several disputes, some that almost led to war.

Before 1931, Canada did not have treaty-making powers, so Anglo-American tribunals or independent arbitrators decided every boundary issue. And in each of these disagreements, they ended up awarding the U.S. the lion’s share of territory. Few in the British government thought defending Canadian territorial claims was worth a war with the rising power of the U.S., so Canadian interests were frequently sacrificed on the altar of improved American-British relations.

The first major changes to the boundary resulted from the Treaty of Paris in 1763, which ended the Seven Years’ War (1756-63) and gave New France to Britain. For the next 20 years, all of eastern North America–except for two tiny islands off the coast of Newfoundland–was a British possession. The American Revolution, which began in 1775, soon changed that, creating an international boundary between the U.S. and British North America. The British entrusted negotiations to Richard Oswald, a naive individual who was described by a fellow countryman as being “unfit both by character and habits for engaging in a diplomatic intrigue.” He faced three American negotiators, the great statesmen Benjamin Franklin, John Jay and John Adams.

In their first capitulation to American interests, the British surrendered the vast–and valuable–wedge of territory between the Ohio and Mississippi rivers; formerly part of New France, and at the time the site of several English forts and fur-trading posts. It was a decision beyond the Americans’ wildest dreams: their countrymen had never set foot in parts of the region. The deal also detailed sections of the border in impossible geographical terms, leading to disputes that were not resolved until the 20th century.

In the east, the Americans initially wanted the Saint John River as the boundary, but finally agreed to the St. Croix River. From that river’s headwaters, the border was to follow a line drawn due north to the Highlands, a point defined as the “northwest angle of Nova Scotia (present day New Brunswick),” then along the height of land between the St. Lawrence River and the Atlantic watershed to the northwest head of the Connecticut River. It followed that river to 45° north latitude, and then along this parallel to the St. Lawrence River.

First, the two sides had to agree on which river was actually the St. Croix discovered by Samuel de Champlain, as its location had been “lost” for almost 200 years. The British claimed the present river (then called the Schoodic), while the Americans claimed the Magaguadavic, further to the east. Jay’s Treaty of 1794 tried to resolve the issue by identifying the real St. Croix. As British and American agents argued their cases, a copy of Champlain’s map arrived from Paris, allowing the river to be pinpointed. In 1798, the commissioners unanimously accepted the Schoodic as Champlain’s St. Croix and the international boundary.

However, in the substantial forests north of the St. Croix’s headwaters, the border had still not been decided. The highlands mentioned in the treaty did not exist, only “a morass of millions of acres.” The American solution was simple: a straight line due north from the St. Croix’s source to the St. Lawrence River. Unfortunately, this line cut off the residents of Madawaska in northwestern New Brunswick and intersected the line of communication with Quebec.

When Maine became a state in 1820, she immediately granted lands in the timber-rich Aroostook Valley along the Saint John River. Maine attempted to stop British subjects from lumbering there, and American settlers poured in. However, others were already there, the descendants of Acadians who had escaped the expulsion of 1755 by fleeing into the northern woods. These people regarded themselves as New Brunswickers.

The two governments submitted their disagreement to the King of the Netherlands for resolution. His 1831 compromise cut the line above Grand Falls, giving the north bank of the Saint John River to New Brunswick. Although the American government was prepared to accept this solution, Maine rejected it and sent a census-taker to Madawaska. When he was carted off to jail, tempers flared and Maine threatened retaliation. Then, Lieutenant-Governor Sir John Harvey of New Brunswick sent in two companies of British soldiers. The so-called Aroostook or Lumberman’s War had begun.

Both sides took prisoners. Maine’s land agent languished in Fredericton’s jail while a British warden was confined to the finest hotel in Bangor, Maine. Then things got serious when Maine’s governor called out 10,000 militiamen. Fortunately, American army regulars at Houlton, Maine, stayed put while the Maine militia practiced musketry skills on effigies of Queen Victoria. For three years, the two sides faced each other on the upper Saint John, neither party making the first move. The only fight of note occurred in a Houlton tavern where soldiers from both countries were drinking together when someone shouted, “Success to Maine!” In the bare-knuckled brawl that followed, there were several bloody noses and a broken arm.

A truce allowed Maine to establish civil patrols of the Aroostook and British jurisdiction over the Madawaska settlements was confirmed until another commission could decide the border. The only fatality occurred when British and American troops withdrew. A bullet fired into the air at Fort Fairfield, Maine, to celebrate the peace ricocheted from a rock, killing a farmer.

Maine’s “civil” patrols quickly became a paramilitary force, exerting rigid control over the area. The British government sent Lord Ashburton to settle the issue with Daniel Webster, the American Secretary of State. This was the cruelest cut of all for New Brunswick, as Ashburton owned a million acres of Maine timberland through his American wife, the value of which would decline with any decision favouring New Brunswick.

The result was the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842, which selected the Saint John River west from the point where the line running north from the head of the St. Croix intersected it as the boundary. Britain kept the north side of the river. The Acadian settlements south of the river, long under New Brunswick’s jurisdiction, were sacrificed for Anglo-American harmony. Opponents of the treaty called it Ashburton’s Surrender.

Further west, the boundary continued up the St. Lawrence, through the Great Lakes and on to Lake of the Woods. From the “northwest angle” of that lake, the border was to run “due west” to the Mississippi River, a decision based on an inaccurate 1755 map. Such a line does not cross the Mississippi, which rises farther south. The Convention of 1818 resolved this issue by agreeing that the boundary from the northwest point would run approximately 40 kilometres due south to the 49th parallel, then follow that parallel west to the summit of the Rocky Mountains.

The term northwest angle also caused much confusion as its exact location was difficult to find in nearly impenetrable woods and swamps. When the point was finally accurately surveyed, it intersected numerous bays and cut off a portion of U.S. territory from the rest of the country. Now known as The Angle by its 150 inhabitants, it is the sole part of the contiguous 48 states north of the 49th parallel and can only be reached from the rest of the country by going through Canada or by crossing Lake of the Woods. This inconvenience has led its residents to occasionally propose annexation by Canada.

The negotiators of the Convention of 1818 could not agree on the boundary beyond the Rockies, a vast region of over one million square kilometres. The British claimed the area by virtue of discovery by Cook and Vancouver, as well as occupation by the Hudson’s Bay Co. The American claim was based mainly on the Louisiana Purchase from France in 1803, as well as the American discovery of the Columbia River and a post established there in 1811 by an American fur company. However, the post was later sold to the North West Company and became a British possession.

The British offered to accept the 49th parallel to the Columbia River, then down that river to the Pacific coast. When U.S. negotiators refused this, both sides agreed the region could be shared for the next 10 years. In 1827, this was extended indefinitely, although initially the only European inhabitants were Hudson’s Bay Co. employees. Then, American settlers began to arrive in large numbers–over 7,000 by the mid-1840s–and demanded exclusive U.S. jurisdiction as far north as 54°40´ latitude, which was then the southern limit of Russian territory in Alaska.

The Americans, now caught up in the theory of Manifest Destiny, which envisioned the entire continent as one American nation, were also involved in the presidential election of 1844. Although “Fifty-four Forty or Fight” was the campaign slogan of winner James Polk, saner heads soon prevailed. The British gave up their claims as far south as the Columbia. Instead, they proposed extending the 49th parallel to the West Coast, and then to the middle of Georgia Strait, separating the mainland from Vancouver Island. From there, the border would go south through the middle of Georgia Strait and Strait of Juan de Fuca to the Pacific Ocean.

The Americans accepted this proposal and it was incorporated into the Oregon Treaty of 1846. Unfortunately, the treaty did not adequately define the water boundary, leaving in limbo the ownership of San Juan Island, located between Rosario and Haro straits, the two recognized channels that connected Georgia Strait with the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The Hudson’s Bay Co. had occupied the island in 1843, and raised livestock there. In 1852, Oregon Territory claimed the island and attempted to collect customs dues from the HBC. Two years later, an Oregon sheriff seized 34 company sheep and sold them at auction, supposedly for back taxes. When the HBC presented a $15,000 bill for compensation to the U.S. government, the American Secretary of State advised Oregon’s governor to “pipe down.”

By 1859, there were 19 HBC employees on the island and 29 Americans. Then, in June, a company pig strayed into a potato patch owned by American settler Lyman Cutler, who promptly shot it, claiming the pig was on American territory. Cutler offered to pay $10 for the pig, but its owner, HBC agent Charles Griffin, claimed the porker was a prize breeder worth $100. When the American refused to pay such an outrageous price, the British promptly demanded his arrest and transfer to Victoria for trial, but he declined to surrender. The War of Griffin’s Pig had started.

Brigadier General William Harney, commander of the Department of Oregon, sent a 66-man company under Captain George Pickett to occupy the island (Pickett was to become a major general in the Confederate Army and lead the famous–and disastrous–charge at Gettysburg in 1863). In retaliation, Governor Sir James Douglas dispatched a British frigate to San Juan. By mid-August, over 450 U.S. troops and 14 cannons had landed. When two Royal Navy warships followed, the British forces totalled 70 guns and over 2,100 men. Although Douglas pressured the navy to land the troops, Rear Admiral Robert Baynes, the commander of the British Pacific fleet advised him he would “not involve two great nations in a war over a squabble about a pig.”

President James Buchanan, shocked at Harney’s unilateral action, sent Lieutenant-General Winfield Scott to calm things down. Buchanan’s instructions to Scott noted, “It would be a shocking event if…two nations should be precipitated into a war respecting the possession of a small island.” Scott negotiated a reduction in forces, leaving 100 armed soldiers from each side. For the next 12 years, the two sides tolerated each other in an uneasy truce until 1872, when the question of ownership was referred to German Kaiser Wilhelm I. Despite first occupancy by the HBC and the fact that Rosario Strait was the normal channel, the Kaiser ruled in favour of U.S. claims and made the boundary through Haro Strait. The British did not object and withdrew their troops from San Juan Island, sawing up their flagpole into sections rather than let the Stars and Stripes fly from it. Although the “war” had lasted almost 13 years, its sole casualty was Griffin’s pig.

The Alaska Boundary Dispute was the last major border disagreement between Canada and the United States. The Americans claimed a large portion of British Columbia’s coast, so the Alaska Panhandle could stretch south to latitude 54°40´, almost to Prince Rupert. The U.S. demanded a continuous stretch of coastline, unbroken by the region’s many deep fiords, while Canada wanted control of the heads of certain fiords, which provided access to the Yukon. Alaska, it should be noted, was purchased in 1867 for the U.S. by Secretary of State William H. Seward. The price: $7.2 million or about two cents an acre.

The Klondike Gold Rush of 1897 brought the long-simmering boundary dispute to a head, as thousands of prospectors crossed American territory to reach the goldfields. When negotiations conducted in 1898-99 proved fruitless, the matter was referred in 1903 to an international tribunal of “impartial jurists.” Its three American and two Canadian members were obviously partisan, so everything hinged on the sixth member, the Lord Chief Justice of England. President Teddy Roosevelt compared the Canadian position to some Scandinavian country trying to claim the Orkney Islands. His motto for the conduct of foreign affairs was “Speak softly and carry a big stick, you will go far.” Roosevelt declared he would send troops to Alaska if the tribunal didn’t find in U.S. favour.

The U.S. refused to make any territorial concessions, while Britain was anxious to improve her relations with the Americans to secure U.S. steel and sympathy in her arms race with Germany. The British member, Lord Alverstone, sided with the American claim for a boundary running behind the heads of the inlets. Canada, whose troops had fought for Britain in the Boer War, was shocked at the mother country’s lack of support. In disgust, the Canadian members refused to sign the award and violent anti-British protests erupted in Canada.

Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier complained that Canada’s lack of treaty-making power made it difficult for the country to uphold its rights internationally, but took no immediate action. Eventually, Canadian anger subsided. Paradoxically, the sacrifice of Canadian claims in the interests of Anglo-American relations helped pave the way for U.S. support of Britain during WW I.

It was not until the 1931 Statute of Westminster that Canada was finally given complete legislative independence and gained treaty-making rights as a sovereign nation. No longer would Britain be responsible for any future territorial disputes between Canada and the United States.


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