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Oregon Treaty

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Oregon Treaty
Treaty between Her Majesty and the United States of America, for the Settlement of the Oregon Boundary
Map of the lands in dispute
TypeBilateral treaty
Signed15 June 1846 (1846-06-15)
LocationWashington, D.C., United States
Full text
Oregon Treaty at Wikisource

The Oregon Treaty[1] is a treaty between the United Kingdom and the United States that was signed on June 15, 1846, in Washington, D.C. The treaty brought an end to the Oregon boundary dispute by settling competing American and British claims to the Oregon Country; the area had been jointly occupied by both Britain and the U.S. since the Treaty of 1818.[2]



The Treaty of 1818 set the boundary between the United States and British North America along the 49th parallel of north latitude from Minnesota to the "Stony Mountains"[3] (now known as the Rocky Mountains). The region west of those mountains was known to the Americans as the Oregon Country and to the British as the Columbia Department or Columbia District of the Hudson's Bay Company. (Also included in the region was the southern portion of another fur district, New Caledonia.) The treaty provided for joint control of that land for ten years. Both countries could claim land and both were guaranteed free navigation throughout.

Original manuscript of the treaty (transcription), as kept by the U.S. National Archives.

Joint control steadily grew less tolerable for both sides. After a British minister rejected the offer of U.S. Presidents James K. Polk and John Tyler to settle the boundary at the 49th parallel north, American expansionists called for the annexation of the entire region up to Parallel 54°40′ north, the southern limit of Russian America as established by parallel treaties between the Russian Empire and the United States (1824) and Britain (1825). However, after the outbreak of the Mexican–American War in April 1846 diverted U.S. attention and military resources, a compromise was reached in the ongoing negotiations in Washington, D.C., and the matter was then settled by the Polk administration (to the surprise of its own party's hardliners) to avoid a two-war situation, and another war with the formidable military strength of Great Britain.[4]

Senate vote in June 1846


In early June 1846 the British offered to negotiate the boundaries between the United States and British North America in the region west of the Rockies. Some US senators such as Charles Gordon Atherton and Benning Wentworth Jenness were combative and were in favor of rejecting British proposals to negotiate. However others, such as both Alabama senators (Arthur P. Bagby and Dixon Hall Lewis) as well as both Massachusetts senators (Daniel Webster and John Davis) were in favor of accepting British proposals. The Senate agreed that they would vote on whether or not to recommend President Polk accept British offers to negotiate. Watching closely, the British hoped this vote would pass the Senate. On June 12, the Senate voted 38–12 recommending that President Polk accept British proposals to negotiate this boundary. Votes in favor included 18 Democrats and 20 Whigs, whereas 11 Democrats and one Whig voted against. Three Democrats and three Whigs abstained.[5]



The treaty was negotiated by US Secretary of State James Buchanan and Richard Pakenham, British envoy to the United States. Foreign Secretary Earl of Aberdeen was responsible for it in Parliament.[6] The treaty was signed on June 15, 1846, ending the joint occupation and making Oregonians south of the 49th parallel American citizens, with those north of it becoming British.[7]

The Oregon Treaty set the border between the U.S. and British North America at the 49th parallel with the exception of Vancouver Island, which was retained in its entirety by the British. Vancouver Island, with all coastal islands, was constituted as the Colony of Vancouver Island in 1849. The U.S. portion of the region was organized as Oregon Territory on August 15, 1848, with Washington Territory being formed from it in 1853. The British portion remained unorganized until 1858, when the Colony of British Columbia was set up as a result of the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush and fears of the re-asserted American expansionist intentions. The two British colonies were amalgamated in 1866 as the Colony of British Columbia. When the Colony of British Columbia joined Canada in 1871, the 49th parallel and marine boundaries established by the Oregon Treaty became the Canada–US border.

In order to ensure that Britain retained all of Vancouver Island and the southern Gulf Islands, it was agreed that the border would swing south around that area. Ownership of several channel islands, including the San Juan Islands remained in dispute. A bloodless confrontation known as the Pig War erupted in 1859 over ownership of the San Juans, which was not resolved until 1872. Ultimately, arbitration began with German Emperor Wilhelm I as head of a three-man arbitration commission.[8] On October 21, 1872, the commission decided in favor of the United States, awarding the San Juan Islands to the U.S.[9]

Treaty definitions


The treaty states that the border in the Strait of Juan de Fuca would follow “the middle of the channel which separates the continent from Vancouver's Island.” It did not, however, specify which of several possible channels was intended, giving rise to ownership disputes over the San Juan Islands beginning in 1859.

Other provisions included:

  • Navigation of "channel[s] and straits, south of the forty-ninth parallel of north latitude, remain free and open to both parties".
  • The "Puget's Sound Agricultural Company" (a subsidiary of the Hudson's Bay Company) retains the right to their property north of the Columbia River, and shall be compensated for properties surrendered if required by the United States.
  • The property rights of the Hudson's Bay Company and all British subjects south of the new boundary will be respected.[10]

Issues arising from treaty

Territorial expansion of the United States; Oregon Territory in yellow

Ambiguities in the wording of the Oregon Treaty regarding the route of the boundary, which was to follow "the deepest channel" out to the Strait of Juan de Fuca and beyond to the open ocean, resulted in the Pig War, another boundary dispute in 1859 over the San Juan Islands. The dispute was peacefully resolved after a decade of confrontation and military bluster during which the local British authorities consistently lobbied London to seize back the Puget Sound region entirely, as the Americans were busy elsewhere with the Civil War.[11] The San Juans dispute was not resolved until 1872 when, pursuant to the 1871 Treaty of Washington, an arbitrator (William I, German Emperor) chose the American-preferred marine boundary via Haro Strait, to the west of the islands, over the British preference for Rosario Strait which lay to their east.

The treaty also had the unintended consequence of putting what became Point Roberts, Washington on the "wrong" side of the border. A peninsula, jutting south from Canada into Boundary Bay, was made by the agreement, as land south of the 49th parallel, a separate fragment of the United States.

According to American historian Thomas C. McClintock, the British public welcomed the treaty:

Frederick Merk's statement that the "whole British press" greeted the news of the Senate's ratification of Lord Aberdeen's proposed treaty with "a sigh of relief" and "universal satisfaction" comes close to being accurate. The Whig, Tory, and independent newspapers agreed in their expressions of satisfaction with the treaty. Though a few newspapers had at least mild reservations, completely absent was the strong condemnation that had greeted the earlier Webster-Ashburton Treaty (which determined the northeast boundary between the United States and Canada). Lord Aberdeen had been determined to prevent such a response to the Oregon Treaty, and obviously he was extremely successful in doing so.[12]

See also


References and footnotes

  1. ^ officially titled the Treaty between Her Majesty and the United States of America, for the Settlement of the Oregon Boundary and styled in the United States as the Treaty with Great Britain, in Regard to Limits Westward of the Rocky Mountains, and also known as the Buchanan-Pakenham (or Packenham) Treaty or (sharing the name with several other unrelated treaties) the Treaty of Washington
  2. ^ David M. Pletcher, The Diplomacy of Annexation: Texas, Oregon, and the Mexican War. (U of Missouri Press, 1973).
  3. ^ "Convention of Commerce between His Majesty and the United States of America.—Signed at London, 20th October 1818". Canado-American Treaties. Université de Montréal. 2000. Archived from the original on 11 April 2009. Retrieved 27 March 2006.
  4. ^ Donald A. Rakestraw, For Honor or Destiny: The Anglo-American Crisis over the Oregon Territory (Peter Lang Publishing, 1995)
  5. ^ "Voteview | Plot Vote: 29th Congress > Senate > 101".
  6. ^ Churchill 1958
  7. ^ Walker, Dale L. (1999). Bear Flag Rising: The Conquest of California, 1846. New York: Macmillan. p. 60. ISBN 0312866852.
  8. ^ "The Pig War". San Juan Island National Historical Park. National Park Service. Retrieved 13 January 2020.
  9. ^ "Britain and the United States agree on the 49th parallel as the main Pacific Northwest boundary in the Treaty of Oregon on June 15, 1846". History Link. 13 July 2013. Retrieved 13 January 2020.
  10. ^ "Treaty between Her Majesty and the United States of America, for the Settlement of the Oregon Boundary". Canado-American Treaties. Université de Montréal. 1999. Archived from the original on 13 November 2009. Retrieved 12 January 2007.
  11. ^ James Robbins Jewell. "Thwarting Southern Schemes and British Bluster in the Pacific Northwest" (PDF). pp. 5–6.
  12. ^ Thomas C. McClintock, "British newspapers and the Oregon Treaty of 1846." Oregon Historical Quarterly,(2003) 94#1 pp 96–109 at p. 96. online


  • Anderson, Stuart. "British Threats and the Settlement of the Oregon Boundary Dispute." Pacific Northwest Quarterly 66#4 (1975): 153–160. online
  • Churchill, Winston S. (1958). The Great Democracies. A History of the English-Speaking Peoples. Vol. 4.
  • Cramer, Richard S. "British magazines and the Oregon question." Pacific Historical Review 32.4 (1963): 369–382. online
  • Dykstra, David L. The Shifting Balance of Power: American-British Diplomacy in North America, 1842-1848 (University Press of America, 1999).
  • Jones, Wilbur D., and J. Chal Vinson. “British Preparedness and the Oregon Settlement.” Pacific Historical Review 22#4 (1953): 353–364. online
  • Levirs, Franklin P. "The British attitude to the Oregon question, 1846." (Diss. University of British Columbia, 1931) online.
  • Miles, Edwin A. “'Fifty-four Forty or Fight' – An American Political Legend.” Mississippi Valley Historical Review 44#2 (1957): 291–309. online
  • Merk, Frederick. “The British Corn Crisis of 1845-46 and the Oregon Treaty.” Agricultural History 8#3 (1934): 95–123.
  • Merk, Frederick. “British Government Propaganda and the Oregon Treaty.” American Historical Review 40#1 (1934): 38-62 online
  • Pletcher, David M. The Diplomacy of Annexation: Texas, Oregon, and the Mexican War. (U of Missouri Press, 1973), a standard scholarly history
  • Rakestraw, Donald A. For Honor or Destiny: The Anglo-American Crisis over the Oregon Territory (Peter Lang Publishing, 1995), a standard scholarly history.
  • Winther, Oscar Osburn. "The British in Oregon Country: A Triptych View." The Pacific Northwest Quarterly 58.4 (1967): 179–187. online