Where Mountains Meet The Sea: A Coastal History

Posted by Daniel on Mar 21, 2010

Part 18

While the HBC was driving its American competitors from the coast, the diplomats were back at the table trying to resolve the issue of the border. The matter had been too thorny to resolve in 1818, when negotiators for Britain and the US had agreed to joint occupancy of the disputed territory between the Columbia River and the 49th parallel. In 1828, when this agreement was renewed, but it was becoming clear that the Americans were not going to give up what was being called the Oregon Territory, and the British were not willing to risk an international incident over the matter. It was only a matter of time before the “Oregon Question” came to head, which it did in 1844.


That fall James Polk campaigned for president under the “All Oregon” banner, meaning all of British-held territory on the Pacific slope as far north as 54º 40’, or most of what is now British Columbia. “Fifty-four Forty Or Fight” became the bellicose slogan of American expansionists. The British did not want to appear to be bullied out of the Columbia and for a while war seemed a distinct possibility. In the end a peaceful resolution of the issue was in the best interest of both sides. In 1846, the Treaty of Washington established the border at the 49th parallel west from the Rocky Mountains to the coast where it dipped south around the bottom of Vancouver Island and out through the middle of Juan de Fuca Strait. The exact location of the border through the Gulf Islands was not firmly fixed for another quarter century, but basically the 1846 treaty confirmed Britain’s possession of what would become the province of British Columbia.


Meanwhile, to the north, a different diplomatic challenge had been playing out. Russian traders were ensconced in Alaska and from their headquarters at Sitka developed their own ambitions for the coast. In 1821, Tsar Alexander I declared that Russia owned the Pacific shoreline as far south as the northern tip of Vancouver Island, and he prohibited foreigners from coming within 160 kilometres of it. Such a claim contained more bravado than common sense; the Russians had no settlements in this area and had hardly even visited it.


Naturally, the British rejected what they considered to be Russian pretensions, as did the Americans, and in 1824 the Tsar withdrew any claim to the coast below 54º 40’. In 1825, the British and the Russians also agreed to a boundary between their respective territories that left the Russians in possession of the coastal strip subsequently known as the Alaska Panhandle while acknowledging freedom of navigation as far north as Lynn Canal and allowing the British access to the rivers flowing across the mainland portion of the Panhandle.


By the 1840s, then, the imperial rivalry for control of the Northwest Coast that began so many years before at Nootka Sound was resolved. After seven decades of exploration, trading, diplomacy and sabre-rattling, the imperial powers settled for a division of the spoils. The Spanish, weakened by war and civil strife, were no longer a factor. To the north, Russia agreed to confine its ambitions to Alaska. To the south, the US claimed the Columbia River and Puget Sound. And in between, Great Britain held on to the territory north of Juan de Fuca Strait and the 49th parallel. It was largely the fur trade that dictated this outcome. The aggressive trading practices of the HBC, along with the near extinction of the sea otter, drove the American sea captains from the coast. Had the company not established its chain of posts and network of trade, Britain surely would not have bothered to oppose the occupation of the entire Pacific slope by the Americans. But the company did have a presence there, and as a result the British government decided that it was good imperial policy to take some trouble to retain this distant, difficult stretch of coastline.


In 1843, recognizing that the Columbia District was fated to fall into the hands of the Americans, the HBC constructed Fort Victoria in a sheltered harbour at the southern end of Vancouver Island. It was, said Chief Factor James Douglas when he visited the site, “a perfect ‘Eden’ in the midst of the dreary wilderness of the Northwest coast.” Following the Treaty of Washington, the HBC transferred its coastal headquarters north from the Columbia to the new fort. In 1849, Great Britain created the colony of Vancouver Island and, for a payment of just seven shillings and a promise to bring in settlers, turned over control of the island to the HBC which became its “true and absolute lords and proprietors”. It was the beginning of the official colonization of the coast.


All of which might have amused the First Nations people, who vastly outnumbered the European newcomers and considered the coast their homeland. Except that it was no joke. The interlopers would soon begin to back up their impudent claims with gunships and cannon. More importantly, they would precipitate the second great ecological disaster to strike the coast, the spread of epidemic diseases that would ravage the First Nations population, reducing it to a fraction of its pre-contact size and leaving the people numb with grief and uncertainty.


Next time: arrival of smallpox