The next time you’re celebrating American independence from the British with a picnic and fireworks on a sunny and warm summer day, consider that on July 4, 1776, the Pacific Northwest wasn’t part of those original festivities in New England.
For much of the 18th century, what’s now Washington, Oregon, Idaho, much of British Columbia and parts of Montana and Wyoming was almost completely unknown in New England and Old England, too. The Oregon Country, as it came to be called, was home to thousands of Natives and had been for millennia. It was rich in resources, but it was remote and hard to get to.
Thanks to explorers such as Great Britain’s Captain George Vancouver and the Americans Lewis and Clark, the Oregon Country soon became something of a not-quite-warm potato, with both countries seeking to stake a claim to the land, but unwilling to invest much militarily or otherwise to do so.
Private industry tried first, with American businessman John Jacob Astoria underwriting a failed effort to establish a fur trading company at what’s now Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia River. The British were more successful, and what became the Hudson’s Bay Company operated throughout the Oregon Country for the first few decades of the 19th century and even functioned as a de facto government.
American and British diplomats tried to settle the issue of who would control Oregon. A series of negotiations beginning in 1818 established a joint occupancy of the land, with neither side creating a government or sending in the troops. Since neither country fully understood the wealth of natural resources and strategic importance of the Pacific Northwest, the stakes were just not high enough for either country to want to get too involved.
Meanwhile, American settlement began with missionaries and a few hearty pioneers in the 1830s, and then a flood of settlers along the Oregon Trail in the early 1840s. The joint occupation continued throughout this time, but Americans living in Oregon felt unprotected, and even harassed by the Hudson’s Bay Company. They wanted the Oregon Country to become part of the United States.
By the time James K. Polk was elected president in 1844, the United States was ready to take decisive action and expand westward. But it was complicated. Expansion forced confrontations over whether slavery would be permitted in new territories, and the seeds of Civil War began to take root.
In his first annual message to Congress on December 2, 1845, President Polk laid out a series of bold initiatives to acquire territory in Western North America. These would later be characterized as part of the concept of “Manifest Destiny”; the notion that it was America’s divine right to ultimately expand the republic across the continent.
In his remarks, Polk spoke of the Oregon Country and made it clear that it was time to settle the matter by splitting the land and setting a boundary between American territory and British territory. Polk wanted Oregon far north of the Columbia River boundary proposed by the British. Polk’s word choices make it clear that he was willing to go to war. This December 2 address was, in some ways, Polk’s “Declaration of Independence” from Britain for the Oregon Country:
“The civilized world will see in these proceedings a spirit of liberal concession on the part of the United States, and this Government will be relieved from all responsibility which may follow the failure to settle the controversy. All attempts at compromise having failed, it becomes the duty of Congress to consider what measures it may be proper to adopt for the security and protection of our citizens now inhabiting or who may hereafter inhabit Oregon, and for the maintenance of our just title to that Territory. Oregon is a part of the North American continent, to which, it is confidently affirmed, the title of the United States is the best now in existence.”
Them were fightin’ words, of course, but historians also say that Polk’s strategy was a good one: to speak in terms of war in public, but to negotiate more gently in private to seek a compromise. During Polk’s one term as president, Texas joined the Union by annexation, and the U.S. went to war with Mexico to acquire California and much of what’s now the Southwest. He was a busy guy.
For Oregon, the solution ultimately was diplomatic. British and American officials met again in 1846 and agreed to set the boundary at the 49th parallel where it remains to this day. Britain gave up the Columbia River and Puget Sound, and kept all of Vancouver Island. Hudson’s Bay Company moved most of their operations to Victoria, B.C. and by 1848, Oregon Territory was created by Congress. Washington Territory was carved out from Oregon Territory in 1853.
Chances are that December 2 is unlikely to ever catch on as another Independence Day holiday here in the old Oregon Country. It’s probably a just little too cold and wet for a picnic.
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