Alaska Boundary Dispute

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During the late 1800s and early 1900s, a dispute erupted between the United States and Canada regarding the legal boundaries of Alaska, which the United States had purchased from Russia in 1867. The primary point of contention in the dispute related to a several thousand mile long strip to the west of British Columbia and to the southeast of the Alaska territory. Although the dispute was resolved by way of a treaty signed in 1903, it caused a severe threat to U.S.-Canadian relations.

Russia was the first nation to claim the Alaska territory after it was discovered by Vitus Bering, a Danish explorer who received a commission from Peter the Great to lead Russian sailors on a expedition of Siberia on August 20,1741. Russia named the land Russian-America, and Russian whalers and fur traders established settlements in the region. Russia and Canada, then a colony of Great Britain, disagreed as to the proper boundaries, and, in 1825, Russia and Great Britain signed the Anglo-Russian treaty. Under this treaty, the Russian and Canadian territory was divided by the 141st Meridian, though at the time, much of this land had not been surveyed. Russia lost much of the land it had claimed under the treaty, though the specific boundaries were still unclear.

As fur-trading from Russian-America began to decline, Russia lost interest in the territory. The United States in 1867 agreed to purchase the territory for $7,200,000 and renamed the territory Alaska. The continental nation of Canada formed during the same year, encompassing the Province of Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick.

The United States maintained that it had taken over the territory that appeared on Russian maps at the time of the purchase. However, the Russian maps indicated that Russia had owned more of the land than had been stipulated in the 1825 treaty. As early as 1872, British Columbia petitioned the United States for an official survey of the boundaries between Alaska and western Canada, but the United States refused due to the costs that would have been involved. Both the United States and Canada conducted surveys of particular areas in the region in the 1870s and 1880s, but no widespread survey was conducted during that time.

The dispute regarding the proper boundaries between Alaska and western Canada heated up during the 1880s after gold was discovered in the area. Between the 1880s and 1890s, an estimated 100,000 fortune seekers moved to the Klondike region in search of gold. Though only a fraction of these miners and prospectors actually discovered gold, more than $100 million was eventually extracted from the region. Although the Klondike gold rush was not a direct factor in the Alaska Boundary Dispute, it almost certainly focused more attention on that region.

In 1898, the United States and Great Britain formed a Joint High Commission to resolve the boundary dispute. The goal of the commission was to order the survey and marking of the 141st Meridian and to reach a compromise between the United States and Canada. The commission agreed to a convention that would have resulted in the survey and marking of the territory, but the western states of the United States objected to the commission's work, and the United States Senate refused to ratify the convention.

Five years later, in January 1903, the United States and Great Britain agreed to appoint an Alaskan Boundary Tribunal, which consisted of six impartial judges, three from each side, to resolve the dispute. U.S. President theodore roosevelt appointed Senator henry cabot lodge, Secretary of War Elihu Root, and former senator George Turner. Great Britain appointed Lord Chief Justice of England Baron Alverstone and two officials from Canada, Sir Louis A. Jette and Allen B. Aylesworth. Although Canada believed that Great Britain would support Canadian interests, Great Britain largely sided with the United States because it needed the latter's assistance in an arms race between Great Britain and Germany. After three weeks of discussion, the panel of judges voted in favor the United States' position.

The tribunal established an International Boundary Commission to mark the official boundaries between Alaska and Canada. The commission was made permanent by a treaty between the United States and Great Britain in 1908. Another treaty in 1925 required the commission to maintain a 20-foot wide demarcated line along the border. The boundary is several thousand miles long and spread over mountains and through rivers, marshes, and forests.

Although the Alaska Boundary Dispute has fallen beyond the American consciousness, it remains a point of contention among some Canadians. The United States and Canada have had several disagreements regarding the proper land and water division in parts of the area. Moreover, environmentalists decry the clearing of timber along the border because of the potential for destroying biological diversity of plant and animal life. The Alaskan boundary remains, however, exactly how it appeared in the 1903 agreement, and the 1925 treaty remains intact.

further readings

Munro, John A. 1970. The Alaska Boundary Dispute. Toronto, Ontario: Copp Clark Pitman.

Penlington, Norman. 1972. The Alaska Boundary Dispute: A Critical Reappraisal. New York: McGraw-Hill Ryerson.


Boundaries; International Law.

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Alaska Boundary Dispute

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