Fifty-Four Forty or Fight!

Fishermen catching salmon on the Columbia Rive...
Fishermen catching salmon on the Columbia River using a seine. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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On June 15, 1846, Britain and the United States signed the Oregon Boundary Treaty.  There was a good deal of give and take in the Treaty, which extended the frontier along the 49th parallel, dipping south on the Pacific to give Britain all of Vancouver Island.

Britain had hoped to make the Columbia River “the St. Lawrence of the Pacific.”  The Hudson’s Bay Company had pioneered the area and it had also been claimed by explorers Vancouver, Thompson and Broughton.  An amazing mistake by a Royal Naval officer in 1813 may have cost Britain this territory.

the Americans hoped not only to acquire the Pacific coast to the 49th  parallel, but all the way to Alaska.  They were ready to go to war, if necessary.  In 1844, the Democratic Party slogan was, “fifty-four forty or fight,” and fifty-four meant the boundary of Alaska.  The Democrats won the election.  President Polk said in his inaugural address that Britain had no rights to territory on the Pacific.  Britain, however, took a firm stand and American Secretary of State Buchanan (who later became president) warned Polk that there would be war if he pushed the matter too far.  War with Mexico was imminent and it would be dangerous for the States to be fighting Britain at the same time.

Under these conditions, the Oregon Boundary was signed.  The negotiations for Britain were carried out by Lord Aberdeen, the Foreign Secretary.  His firmness in the matter was not undermined by the opinions of his brother, Captain Gordon of the Royal Navy, who had been sent to survey the region.  Captain Gordon wrote to Lord Alberdeen that he would not give one barren hill of Scotland for what he had seen of the Pacific.  The country was worthless because neither salmon nor trout would rise to the fly!  Captain Gordon was obviously using the wrong kind of fly!

To learn more about the Oregon Boundary Treaty, I would suggest going to History.com, and then the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, then after that X Timeline. Lastly, I would suggest a visit to the Internet Archives to read Treaty between Her Majesty and the United States of America for the settlement of the Oregon boundary : signed at Washington, June 15, 1846 (1846).

18 comments

  1. Polk isn’t generally regarded as one of the important presidents by many Americans today, yet it was under his administration that most of the US West was “acquired” from Mexico and through Texas’ admission to the Union (in 1845). Finalizing the the northern boundary with Canada was established, as you write about above. The first US postage stamps, the start of the iconic Washington Monument, the opening of the US Naval Academy and the Smithsonian, and the successful Mexican-American War happened during his one term of office. He died of cholera a short time after he finished his term of office.

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      • Likewise, I learned a lot from your blog! In 1995, the US Postal Service issued a stamp honoring Polk’s bicentennial of birth, but the local post office didn’t have it on hand. I learned from the window clerk that the postmaster made a command decision. He felt it wouldn’t be of sufficient interest to order any in. I cornered him in the PO lobby, pointed out just how much the western end of the country owed to this particular president, and encouraged him to reconsider. They ordered some in, and history geeks – both of us- all over town celebrated by slapping Polk on our letters till we used them up! It was a particularly dull one color design, nothing of particular beauty, and that is most likely why the postmaster didn’t order any in.

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  2. We’re far from done with that stuff! For current interest I offer up:
    – the ongoing ‘fun’ over water rights between us and the US;
    – international (over)fishing on the nose and tail of the Grand Banks;
    – sovereignty in our continental North and in the Arctic Ocean.
    Let’s hope that courage and virtue will continue to define Canada and it’s stance on international affairs and not just quick, under-the-table ‘horse-trading’ intended to benefit a few of the more affluent instead of society-at-large. :>)

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  3. So that’s where that slogan came from! Good to know. These land-grabbing exploits are so fascinating. Reminds me of pick up sticks for some reason. And I’m also thinking of the Oregon Trail game I used to waste time over. (Yes, that is a bit of a tangent.)

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