The Oregon Territory Dispute Settled in the Polk Administration

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The Columbia River Gorge facing east toward Beacon Rock

Decades of joint occupation of the Oregon Territory by the U.S. and Britain ended in 1845 when President Polk advocated an “All Oregon” campaign.

American possession of the Oregon Territory was a primary issue in the presidential election of 1844. Ultra-expansionist James K. Polk led the “All Oregon” movement with the campaign slogan, “fifty-four forty or fight!” Along with Texas annexation, Oregon represented American commercial interests and Polk wished to end earlier agreements with Great Britain that provided for joint administration of the territory. By 1846, however, the two nations agreed to the boundary at the 49th parallel.

Early Exploration and Territorial Claims

By the time Captain George Vancouver claimed much of the Oregon Territory for Britain in 1792, coinciding American claims through the voyages of Captain Robert Gray destined to create long-term rivalries. Earlier Spanish and Russian claims had been relinquished by those nations. Exploration was followed by the lucrative fur trade. The Hudson Bay Company operated as a British monopoly, competing with John Jacob Astor’s Pacific Fur Company.

Early settlement of the territory focused on the Columbia River. British settlers, originally dependent families of Hudson Bay Company employees, inhabited the region north of the river while American settlement was limited to the southern bank. Following the fur trade, missionaries arrived and would soon be joined by American farmers eager for new opportunities. American migrations increased during years of financial distress, such as the Panic of 1837.

Joint Occupation and Jurisdiction of the Oregon Territory

Negotiations with the British government during the Monroe and John Quincy Adams administrations resulted in a treaty stipulating joint control of the territory but the treaty did not address specifics. The 1814 Treaty of Ghent, ending the War of 1812, provided for a return to all original pre-war boundaries. Although the treaty did not specify boundary questions regarding Oregon, Americans not only asserted prior land claims but insisted that the boundary be construed as the 49th parallel.

Increased American Settlement and Commercial Opportunities

The Oregon Territory had long been important for New England merchants engaged in the China trade. Otter and beaver furs brought high profits in China, along with Hawaiian sandalwood and New England ginseng. Before the 1848 Mexican Cession, the Oregon Territory was the only link between American shipping and the Pacific trade. By the time new negotiations with the British began under the John Tyler administration in 1842, large numbers of Americans were traveling to the territory, notably the much heralded Willamette Valley. Although the high number of American settlers is often cited as a reason the British eventually agreed to American demands in 1846, other theories played a part in avoiding an Anglo-American war.

James Polk and the “All Oregon” Democrats

James Polk asserted in 1845 that his victory over the Whig Henry Clay gave him a mandate to expand the nation to the Pacific. This included Mexican-held lands, resolved by the Mexican-American War, as well as settlement of the Oregon question, inherited from the prior Tyler administration.

Polk soon realized, however, that a stubborn position on Oregon would not have necessary Congressional support. Any potential war with Britain over Oregon was opposed, even by members of his own party. New England Congressional leaders feared that a war with Britain might hurt commerce. In the South, political leaders opposed any hint of war for fear of losing their largest cotton export market.

Diplomacy Averts War with Britain

The British-Canada boundary was set at the 49th parallel, in keeping with earlier British offers to settle the dispute. The speed of the resolution and U.S. Senate ratification was based on several factors that influenced the end of the dispute. For the United States, the Mexican-American War was the chief focus in late 1846. In Britain, a Cabinet crisis had resulted in a coalition government that was forced to deal with a “famine scare,” part of which involved the failure of the Irish potato crop.

Although final settlement of the Oregon question took almost half a century, the results stand today. The Canadian-American boundary has not changed. Significantly, it was diplomacy and not war that resulted in an agreement acceptable to all parties.

Sources:

  1. Frederick Merk, History of the Westward Movement (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978) see chapter 35
  2. Frederick Merk, The Oregon Question: Essays in Anglo-American Diplomacy and Politics (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1967)
  3. Page Smith, The Nation Comes of Age: A People’s History of the Ante-Bellum Years, Volume 4 (McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1981)