Oregon Country Cessation

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For thousands of years native peoples lived in the rich lands of North America's Pacific Northwest. The first known European presence in the region was in the sixteenth century as Spanish and English ships ventured northward from Mexico, looking for the mythical Northwest Passage. Not until the late eighteenth century, however, did European expansion in the region truly begin. In the mid-1770s Spanish ships sailed north from Lower California to determine the extent of Russian penetration in the region as they had moved along the southern Pacific Coast of modern Alaska and British Columbia. The British arrived with the voyages of captains James Cook in 1788 and George Vancouver shortly afterwards; U.S. Captain Robert Gray marked the first American presence in the West in 1788 as well. A lucrative fur trade began with furs acquired from the indigenous population and sold in the Orient for substantial profit.

By 1790 several European nations, Russia, Spain, Great Britain, and the United States asserted claims to the region. Following a dispute over fur-trapping rights along the Vancouver Island coast, Spain was the first to begin a withdrawal through the Nootka Sound Convention of 1790 with Britain. The settlement sought to open the region to British colonization.

The coast was substantially charted starting in 1792, with Gray's important discoverythe mouth of the Columbia River. Having this information in hand, President Thomas Jefferson (18011809) dispatched the Lewis and Clark Expedition to explore the Pacific Northwest over land. They wintered near the mouth of the Columbia River in 18051806. The Expedition and Captain Gray's voyages provided a strong U.S. claim to the Oregon country. In 1811 Boston fur entrepreneur John Jacob Astor (17631848) established an American trading post at the mouth of the Columbia. However, the post traded hands to the British during the War of 1812 (18121814).

Vying for a crucial Pacific coast commercial position, the United States wanted to extend its northern boundary with Britain east of the Rocky Mountains along the 49th parallel, westward to the Pacific Ocean. The British demanded the Columbia River be the boundary. With these continuing rival claims, the Convention of 1818 uniquely arranged for joint-use between the United States and Britain. The joint-use region extended north of the 42nd parallel to near the 54 degree-40 minute parallel (5440) and eastward to the Rocky Mountains crest, including modern-day Oregon, Washington, Idaho, British Columbia, and western Montana. Spain then relinquished any remaining claims north of the 42nd parallel to the United States through the Transcontinental Treaty of 1819. The treaty resolved all claims between the two nations from Florida westward across the continent. Russia, holding the weakest rights, was the next to bow out of its claim to the area south of the 54-40 line through separate treaties with the United States in 1824, and Great Britain in 1825. However, despite all the diplomacy, Britain held a monopoly over commerce in the entire region through most of the early nineteenth century. Americans attempted to penetrate that market but without success.

American-funded military exploration in the Northwest resumed in 1841. Lt. Charles Wilkes' naval party extensively explored the region, reporting on the great port promise of Puget Sound in western Washington. Lt. John C. Fremont (18131890) led an expedition over land in 18421843. Those few American settlers who had trickled into the region formed a Provisional Government in 1843, further creating antagonism between U.S. and British citizens in the region. Finally, with restlessness and feelings of manifest destiny (a popular notion of the day that supported U.S. expansion from the Atlantic to the Pacific coasts) quickly growing in the United States, the great migration began across the Oregon Trail in 1843, and "Oregon fever" swept the United States.

U.S. expansionism was a key issue in 1844 presidential election, in which James K. Polk (18451849) won, after exhorting desires for a unified continental nation. Though overall American attitudes were split over the question of Oregon, and extremists threatened force in the Oregon boundary dispute, adopting the slogan "Fifty-four forty or fight" in pressing for U.S. control of the entire region.

Following his election to the presidency Polk approached Britain in early 1845 with a compromise to finally split the two nations' claims by setting the boundary at the 49th parallel. Britain, however, balked, still demanding the Columbia River serve as the boundary. Polk hardened his stance, adopting the 5440 position. Little progress in negotiations occurred through the remainder of 1845, but in 1846 Polk took the offensive again, threatening to terminate the 1818 joint-use agreement. Despite few U.S. citizens residing north of the Columbia River, Polk's assertion of new settlements south of the Columbia that contained over 5000 U.S. citizens by 1845 further validated U.S. claims. Britain, suffering domestic problems and also having moved their Northwest base to Vancouver Island, became more conciliatory to settlement. Anticipating war with Mexico, however, Polk backed off from the 5440 claim despite bitter political opposition. Both parties finally agreed to the original compromise dividing the Oregon country along the 49th parallel, and they signed the Oregon Treaty in 1846. Britain retained navigation rights to the Columbia River, though, and its Fort Vancouver property. Not until 1872 was the boundary around the south end of Vancouver Island firmly resolved.

Assertion of national ownership of the Pacific Northwest by the United States, while largely ignoring Native American claims, represented a major step in U.S. expansionism. The United States also annexed the Texas Republic in 1845 and together, with the Oregon cessation, extended the U.S. western boundary both to the south and to the Pacific Ocean establishing the nation's northern boundary. Heavy traffic over the Oregon Trail continued through the late 1840s and 1850s, totaling 53,000 people, leading to a strong agrarian economy. Statehood was granted to Oregon in 1859 and for Washington in 1889.

Topic Overview

By January and February (of 1846) a new slogan, "Fifty-Four Forty or Fight," had stamped its irresistible alliteration on the public mind. The principal themes of extremist argument sprang from both the natural expansionist pride of the people and the more artificial fury of the Democratic press. One theme was defiance of England, the traditional enemy . . . The second theme was that of manifest destiny . . . A third theme was suspicion of . . . the plantation aristocracy (over the slavery issue).

See also: Lewis and Clark Expedition, Manifest Destiny, Oregon, Oregon Trail


Fisher, Robin. Vancouver's Voyage: Charting the Northwest Coast. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 1992.

Gibson, James R. Farming the Frontier: The Agricultural Opening of the Oregon Country, 17861846. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 1986.

McCabe, James O. The San Juan Boundary Question. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1964.

Schwantes, Carlos A. Pacific Northwest: An Interpretive History. Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press, 1996.

, ed. Encounters with a Distant Land: Exploration and the Great Northwest. Moscow, ID: University of Idaho Press, 1994.

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Oregon Country Cessation

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Oregon Country Cessation