An Interlude Of Diplomacy


The War of 1812 had advanced the fortunes of the Nor'Westers over those of the Astorians: the Canadians were in control of the trade west of the Rockies, unchallenged by American competitors. However, in the negotiations which ended hostilities, the United States asserted claims to the region, and the Pacific Northwest entered the arena of Anglo-American controversy.

The Far Northwest was in no way connected with the complex issues which had brought the United States and Great Britain to war. In a most casual manner, the area entered into the negotiations which followed. But having become an issue of the peace, the region took on importance in the national interest.

Since Jefferson had opened the way for American expansion into the trans-Mississippi West, a subtle change of political attitude toward this expansion had taken place. It will be recalled that Jefferson's continental policy aimed at protecting the new nation from hostile neighbors by any expedient means. He did not underestimate the drive of the American people toward territorial growth. It was, he held, "impossible not to look forward to distant times, when our rapid multiplication will expand . . . and cover the whole northern if not the southern continent, with people speaking the same language, governed in similar forms, and by similar laws." However, in his conception of the nature of the union--a federation of independent republics with a central government of limited powers--the function of the federal government was to defend but not to define the republics' interests. Although he was an ideological imperialist--that is, he would encourage republican institutions throughout the world as well as in the western hemisphere--Jefferson did not favor expansion that might breed imperial ambitions in the nation.

By 1812 his followers had departed from his strict constructionist views and become ardently nationalistic. The War Hawks whispered of their hankering to acquire Cuba and called for the conquest of Canada. The War of 1812 itself was, in large part, the expression of a militant and expansionist nationalism for which the federal government was the implementing agent. When the progress of the war established that Canada was securely British, it became federal policy to contain Britain within set boundaries, while losing no opportunity to extend American dominion. So it happened that while much of the peace negotiation was concerned with maritime matters--fisheries, impressment of sailors, trade, and navigation--boundary issues were a major problem, not easily solved. We shall concern ourselves here with only the western aspects of the problem.

After the purchase of Louisiana and completion of the Lewis and Clark expedition, Great Britain and the United States had tacitly accepted as their mutual boundary of 49th. parallel from the Lake of the Woods west "as far as the respective territories" of the two powers extended.1 This prudently vague statement allowed the British to assume the limit of the United Sates to be the Rocky Mountains. In the opinion of fur traders on the Missouri, however, there was no question but that the territory of the United States extended to the Pacific Ocean. Such was the assumption underlying Jeremy Pinch's ultimatum to David Thompson, and the one on which American statesmen acted in 1814 and for forty years thereafter.

Circumstances of domestic and foreign politics from 1790 to 1828 brought experienced diplomats into the State Department and then to the presidency, giving consistency to the nation's foreign policy. James Monroe and John Quincy Adams inherited the Jeffersonian principle of isolation from European politics and entanglements. They also inherited--or acquired--a strong conviction that national destiny made it incumbent upon the central government to anticipate the national interest. Both Monroe and Adams figured in the negotiations Which followed the War of 1812; Monroe as Secretary of State and then as President, Adams as peace commissioner and then as Secretary of State.2

The Treaty of Ghent (1814) And The Restoration Of Astoria

Adams and his fellow peace commissioners had already received their instructions when Monroe, almost as an afterthought, reminded them that "the United States had in their possession at the commencement of the war a post at the Mouth of the River Columbia . . ." If it could be shown that this possession had been "wrested" from Americans in war, then this should be so stipulated in case the eventual treaty provided for reciprocal restitution of captured territories. Further, Monroe set up the position that the commissioners were to take if the question of western boundaries arose. The United States adhered to this position even though at times its demands were enlarged for bargaining purposes:

On no pretext can the British Government set up a claim to territory, South of the Northern Boundary of the United States. It is not believed that they have any claim whatever to Territory on the Pacific Ocean. You will however be careful, should a definition of boundary be attempted not to countenance, in any manner or in any quarter a pretension of the British Government to Territory South of that line.3

The Treaty of Ghent did not take up boundary issues, except to provide for a commission to negotiate a settlement of the Maine boundary. The Pacific Northwest was not even mentioned. However the treaty contained a provision that "all territory, places and possessions . . . taken by either party" during hostilities, should be restored "without delay." As soon as the treaty was ratified (March, 1815), Monroe announced to the British attache in Washington that Fort Astoria came under this provision. There the matter rested until 1817. Adams, by now Monroe's Secretary of State, while laying a groundwork for discussions of the Maine boundary as provided for in the treaty, abruptly requested the restoration of Astoria, and ordered special agent John B. Prevost to the Columbia to claim national authority and dominion with appropriate rites and symbols.

Fort Astoria was, in effect, doubly restored. While Prevost was delayed, awaiting British participation in the restoration ritual, Captain James Biddle of the U.S. Ontario appeared at Astoria in the late summer of 1818 and took possession of both shores of the Columbia. Two months later, after the surprised British government had given reluctant consent to Adams' demand, Prevost arrived on the British vessel Blossom. The British captain lowered the Union Jack and Prevost hoisted the Stars and Stripes. The Nor'Westers watched with interest and accepted with grace Prevost's concession that they could remain in charge of the post.

The British government protested this abrupt assertion of American claims. Adams blandly replied that the British had no authorized establishment on the Columbia and that they had "intimated no question whatever to the title of the United States" to Astor's settlement before the war. It had not therefore occurred to him that the United States' title was now "an object of interest" to Great Britain. He warned also that if it should ever become an object of serious importance to the United States, Great Britain would not find it either "useful or advisable" to resist.

Richard Rush, minister to London, probably did not submit verbatim to Lord Castlereagh Adams' ironical treatment of British territorial claims or his bold announcement that the Pacific Northwest fell within the United States "natural dominion."

If the United States leave her [Great Britain] in undisturbed enjoyment of all of her hold upon Europe, Asia, and Africa, with her actual possessions in this hemisphere, we may very fairly expect that she will not think it consistent either with a wise or a friendly policy, to watch with eyes of jealousy and alarm, every possibility of extension to our natural dominion in North America, which she can have no solid interest to prevent, until all possibility of her preventing it shall have vanished.4

The British argued ineffectually that Astor's post had been sold to the North West Company prior to its capture. They admitted that the Americans were justified in demanding return of the fort on the same principle by which Britain had demanded restoration in the Nootka controversy. But Castlereagh would not admit that consent to restoration settled the matter of sovereignty, and he requested further consideration of the boundary line between the two nations in the Far West.

The Boundary Issue And Convention Of 1818

Thus the Pacific Northwest boundary question appeared on the agenda of the commissioners' meeting called in the fall of 1818 to iron out other problems connected with the treaty.

Albert Gallatin and Richard Rush, the American commissioners, conceded that the United States did not have a perfect right to the country west of the Rocky Mountains, but they held that their country's claim was as good as Great Britain's. As to lands drained by the Columbia, they argued indisputable rights on the basis of discovery, exploration, and the settlement at Fort Astoria.

The British commissioners intimated that their government might accept the 49th. parallel to where it crossed the Columbia River, land from that point let the river itself form the boundary--provided that the two powers held the river mouth in common ownership. This proposal was unacceptable to the Americans, since it would bring the British south of the 49th. parallel. Facing other issues of greater immediate importance, after lengthy and fruitless discussion the commissioners agreed to a convention which postponed settlement of the Pacific Northwest boundary issue, and at the same time provided against its becoming a source of international friction.

It was agreed that the boundary between the United States and Canada should follow the 49th. parallel to the Rockies but that

. . . any such Country as may be claimed by either Party on the North West Coast of America, or on the continent of America Westward of the Stony Mountains shall . . . be free and open, for the term of ten years . . . to the vessels, Citizens and Subjects of the Two Powers; it being well understood that this Agreement is not to be construed to the Prejudice of any claim, which either of the Two High Contracting Powers may have to any part of the said Country; nor shall it be taken to affect the Claims of any other Power or State to any part of the said Country. . . .

In popular terms the Convention of 1818 has been known as the "joint occupation" agreement. But, as Samuel Bemis has pointed out, there was no such thing as joint occupancy. The convention simply meant that for ten years the region west of the Rockies was "free and open," without prejudice to either nation's claims or to those of other nations. This was essentially the method of conciliation Great Britain had found satisfactory in dealing with Spain in the Nootka controversy.

There is no evidence to suggest that British statecraft considered colonization of the Far West. Not so with the Americans. The United States was an expanding nation; in its vocabulary expansion now meant colonization and ultimate absorption into the Union of lands which fell within its "natural dominion." Under the leadership of Adams, government took the initiative in establishing claims to such lands.

The Idea Of Natural Dominion

Within six years after the acceptance of the Convention of 1818, Adams had eliminated two possible contenders to title in the Pacific Northwest. His 1819 Spanish "Treaty of Amity, Settlement and Limits" secured Spain's formal surrender of East and West Florida, areas already infiltrated by Americans. It also transferred to the United States the Spanish claims to all lands west of the source of the Arkansas River and north of the 42nd. parallel to the Pacific. It was later argued that through this agreement, the United States succeeded to the original Spanish claims. The question was academic, but that Adams secured this provision reveals his determination to allow no ambiguities which might weaken the United States' case for an enlarged "natural dominion." He firmly believed that ". . . the remainder of the continent should ultimately be ours," although it was "very lately that we have distinctly seen this ourselves; very lately that we have avowed the pretension of extending to the South Sea." To Adams the United States and North America were identical."5

The Russian Threat

The Russians were also possible contenders for title to the western shore. Although her nationals had settlements on islands off the Alaskan coast, Russia did not seem actively concerned with claims on the continent. In 1806 Baron Nikolai Rezanov, one of the organizers of the Russian American Company, had urged the establishment of a colony at the mouth of the Columbia River, where, he pointed out, his country "could attract population . . . and become strong enough to make use of any turn in European politics to include the coast of California in the Russian possessions."6 Four years later, when Astor sought a contract to supply the Russian settlements form his projected depot on the Columbia, the Chancery at St. Petersburg informed Adams, then minister to Russia, that it would not object to trade between Russian colonies and the Astorian post, but that Russia's claims in America extended to the mouth of the Columbia. Adams was told that Russian maps "included the whole of Nootka Sound, and down to the mouth of the Columbia River, as part of the Russian possessions." As he understood the situation, the Russian government was more interested in curtailing British commercial power by encouraging the Americans than it was in developing the naval power necessary to set up and protect colonies of its own.

However, in 1812, with the consent of Spain, the Russians founded Fort Ross on Bodega Bay in California, and later in the same year established a post in the Hawaiian Islands. This prompted Monroe to suggest in 1816 that the United States and Russia enter into a treaty to ensure their continuing amity in North America, and he proposed the 49th. parallel as a boundary between their interests. The treaty was not pushed, but it is noteworthy that in his proposal Monroe ignored British claims in the area.

When Adams became Secretary of State, he suggested that the United States minister to Russia "observe attentively" the Muscovites' movements with regard to settlements on the coast. He did not believe that Emperor Alexander displayed "symptoms of the Passion which so vehemently prompted his ancestor Peter to make Russia a Naval Power"; nevertheless, he felt extreme caution was needed in dealing with him. As a leader of Europe's conservative reaction to the French revolutionary and Napoleonic eras, Alexander was intent upon restoring the Old Regime and undermining British power wherever possible. Thus to Adams, in 1818,

. . . the whole System of Russian policy, as it bears on her Relations with Great Britain, with the European Alliance [the Holy Alliance], with Spain and the South American affairs, may require the most steady and attentive observation as it may link itself with objects of importance to the interests and welfare of the United States.7

Later in the same year John Prevost reported on his journey to the Columbia and his visit to California. The establishment of Fort Ross on Bodega Bay had dangerous implications. Not far distant was San Francisco Bay, a harbor "the most convenient, capacious and safe in the world." Spanish rule was weak, the population disaffected, and the harbor undefended. Prevost concluded that the Russians had in mind "early possession of this harbor and ultimately . . . the sovereignty of entire California." Surely," he concluded

. . . the growth of a race on these shores, scarcely emerged from the savage state, guided by a Chief who seeks not to emancipate but to inthrall, is an event by all to be deprecated. An event the mere apprehension of which I should think ought to excite the jealousies of the United States, so far at least, as to induce the cautionary measure of preserving a Station which may serve as a Barrier to a northern aggrandizement.8

In September, 1821, Alexander invited further suspicion when he issued a ukase excluding non-Russians from trading on the northern coast from Bering Strait to the 51st. parallel and forbidding foreign vessels to approach within 100 Italian miles of the shore. Although this ultimatum had no force unless it was backed up by action, both the United States and Great Britain protested it. And although Russia had adopted the 51st. parallel--two degrees above the line Monroe had earlier proposed--as the southern limit of her sphere of interest, circumstances had so changed in the intervening years that Adams could not be happy with the Russian position. While he would recognize Russia's rights to certain islands north of 55 degrees, he announced his nation's intention to contest any other nation's claim to continental territory.

These were years of harassment and worry for Adams. He was more ambitious for the presidency than he would admit. His succession to that office was being fought by men who seized any and every occasion to embarrass him. While Adams was negotiating with Great Britain over the northeastern boundary and fishing rights, his enemies tried to make it appear that he was sacrificing American rights in the Far Northwest. In Congress, Senator Benton from Missouri charged that "sovereignty of the Columbia" had been surrendered to Britain. Senator Lloyd of Boston protested that the State Department was not taking a strong stand against Russian interference with fishing rights in the North Pacific. In December, 1820, Senator Floyd of Virginia introduced a resolution calling for a congressional investigation of the settlements on the Pacific Ocean and for a report on the "expediency of occupying the Columbia." He introduced the so-called Oregon Bill again in 1821, and when the Russian ukase came up, Floyd demanded the transportation of artillery to the mouth of the Columbia to protect American interests. Again in February, 1823, he introduced a resolution calling upon the Committee on Military Affairs to make an appropriation to "take and retain possession of the territories of the United States on the Northwest Coast of America."

Senator John Floyd's cousin, Charles Floyd, a sergeant with the Lewis and Clark Expedition, had died on the Missouri; the Senator had known the Astorians Ramsay Crooks and Russell Farnham, and had become an ardent advocate of national expansion that would include the Columbia region. Adams charged that Floyd formed "gigantic projects upon crude and half-digested information" and was leagued with Clay of Kentucky and Benton of Missouri to undermine Adam's position.

Although exasperated, Adams wisely refrained from precipitous action. Early in 1823 Russian was in a mood to negotiate. When talks got under way, Adams informed Richard Rush, minister to Great Britain, with regard to the official United States position in the Northwest; he also clarified his own views for the benefit of his enemies in the Senate.

"It is not imaginable," he said, "that in the present condition of the world, any European Nation should entertain the project of settling a Colony on the Northwest Coast of America,"

. . . but that the United States should form establishments there with views of absolute territorial right, and inland communication is not only to be expected, but is pointed out by the finger of Nature. . . . the American Continents henceforth will no longer be subjects of Colonization. Occupied by civilized Independent Nations, they will be accessible to Europeans and to each other on that footing alone, and the Pacific Ocean in every part of it will remain open to the Navigation of all nations in like manner with the Atlantic. . . .

The application of Colonial principles of exclusion, therefore, cannot be admitted by the United States as lawful upon any part of the Northwest Coast of America, or as belonging to any European nation. Their own settlements there, when organized as territorial Governments, will be adapted to the freedom of their own Institutions, and as constituent parts of the Union, be subject to the principles and provisions of the Constitution.9

This principle of noncolonization was set forth in President Monroe's annual message to Congress in December, 1823: "The American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintained, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers."

The Monroe Doctrine had other ramifications with which we are not here concerned. But with regard to North America, it formalized a long developing policy of American continentalism and exclusive sovereignty. This was not a policy Great Britain wanted to hear enunciated unilaterally by the United States as just that juncture, but because it in effect upheld the British position on Russian expansion in North America and in other respects supported Britain's views concerning South America, it was acclaimed as the New World's answer to the Old.

Adams moved swiftly, if not tactfully, to reach rapport with Russia, and a convention was signed on April, 1824. Russia consented to a southern boundary of 50 degrees, 41 minutes. Between this latitude and 49 degrees, it was agreed that both powers should enjoy free and equal navigation and commerce.

The Issue Of Sovereignty

The issue of sovereignty was now limited to two contestants: Great Britain and the United States. In 1824 Richard Rush tried to attain some agreement in accord with Adams' stand of the summer before. He proposed an extension of the Convention of 1818 for ten more years, with the further stipulation that the British would make no settlements south of 51 degrees north latitude. Evidently Rush hoped that such demands would make the British fall back gratefully upon the 1818 American offer of the 49th. parallel to the sea. However, the British commissioners took the position their predecessors had hinted at in 1818: they would accept the 49th. parallel to where it intersected the Columbia and then the Columbia would be the boundary to the Pacific. The negotiations were inconclusive, but at least the "Oregon Question" was defined. It was a dispute for the territory, including Puget Sound, which lay between the 49th. parallel on the north and the Columbia River on the south, between the ocean and the Columbia on the east.

Great Britain had followed with interest and not a little annoyance John Floyd's persistent efforts to create an Oregon territory. In December 1824 he had managed to get through the House a bill authorizing the President to occupy Oregon with a military post and to organize a government there. The bill failed in the Senate, but the prospects of its success prompted Richard Rush to warn his government that if it attempted in any way to exercise exclusive jurisdiction over both shores of the Columbia, even while keeping within the limits of 49 degrees north, "serious difficulties" with Great Britain would result. Furthermore, the report of a congressional committee, headed by Francis Baylies of Massachusetts, took such a belligerent tone in backing American claims that, according to Britain's Prime Minister, it had "almost the appearance of a Manifesto issued on declaring war."10

In this mood, Prime Minister Canning invited Albert Gallatin and Richard Rush to discuss the problem once more. Why he chose this time (1826) is difficult to explain. One possibility is that he wished to settle the controversy before the Americans, in Congress and at large, generated more heat about their rights in the Far West. Frederick Merk in Albert Gallatin and the Oregon Question (1950) has argued that Canning was forced to act because the HBC demanded clarification of the government's position before undertaking further development of its establishments. The company was acting on the assumption that the lower Columbia--that is, from the junction of the Snake westward--would be part of the boundary line. It was now suggested to Canning that this line be extended east along the line 46 degrees 20 minutes to the Continental Divide and thence north to where the Divide and the 49th. parallel intersected.

As it happened, circumstances did not promise success for the negotiations. It took all the tact and diplomacy of aged Albert Gallatin, the United States special minister, to keep discussion alive. Futile concessions were made by each side. Gallatin's proposal was the perpetual free navigation of the Columbia south of 49 degrees. The British retreated to their former position in which the Columbia was the boundary, and offered to yield to the United States a small strip of shoreline, an enclave, on Puget Sound as compensation for the loss of that inland sea.

Two points were stressed repeatedly during the conferences: the British emphasis that they had no intention of colonizing the Oregon country and wished only to protect their right to trade there; and the equally repetitive assertion by the United States that it expected eventually to hold exclusive dominion up to the 49th. parallel.

The outcome of weeks and months of discussion, terminating in August, 1827, was disheartening to the tired American commissioners. It was also distinctly anticlimactic. The Convention of 1818 was extended indefinitely, with but one change: either party could terminate it with one year's notice.

However, when Adams left the presidency in 1828, relations between his country and Great Britain were relatively harmonious. Much had been accomplished in his fourteen years of concern over the pacific Northwest. He and his associates had, for all practical purposes, made firm United States claims to the Northwest form the Rockies to the Pacific, between 42 degrees and 49 degrees. The area of continuing dispute was, roughly, that part of Washington lying west of the Cascades. But the British had won something also. By accepting the Convention of 1818 and its renewal in 1827, they had kept the country open for the British fur trade.


1Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States: Canadian Relations, 1784-1860, William R. Manning, ed., 3 vols. (1940-1945), I, 278. Hereafter cited as Canadian Relations.

2Samuel F. Bemis, John Quincy Adams and the Foundations of American Foreign Policy (1949); Bradford Perkins, Prologue to War: England and the United States, 1805-1812 (19611), and Castlereagh and Adams, 1812-1823 (1964).

3Canadian Relations, I, 218.

4Canadian Relations, I, 268-269.

5Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, C.F. Adams, ed., 12 vols. (1874-1877), IV, 438-439.

6Hubert H. Bancroft, The North West Coast, 2 vols. (1884-1886), I, 321.

7Canadian Relations, I, 275-276.

8Ibid., I, 891.

9Ibid., I, 58, 64.

10Quoted in Raymond Walter, Jr., Albert Gallatin, Jeffersonian Financier and Diplomat (1957), 335.