The Californian (1880s magazine)/Volume 2/Did Dr. Whitman Save Oregon?

The Californian, Volume 2
Did Dr. Whitman Save Oregon? by Frances Fuller Victor

Published in Volume 2, Number 9 (September 1880) in response to S. A. Clarke's "How Dr. Whitman Saved Oregon." "The first public refutation of the so-called Whitman legend," per Hazel Emery Mills, "A Dedication to the Memory of Frances Fuller Victor 1826-1902", in Journal of the Southwest ("Arizona and the West"), Vol. 12, No. 2 (Summer, 1970).


A reference to the Ashburton treaty, which occurs in an article, "How Dr. Whitman Saved Oregon," in the July number of the Californian, suggests the thought of how little may be understood of the nature of our treaties with foreign nations. The author of that article, in recounting the services of Dr. Whitman, imputes to him some influence in forming one of a series of treaties and conventions concerning the boundary of the United States; and without, apparently, having examined the subject, connects the settlement of the north-eastern boundary with the boundary of Oregon, when, in fact, they are distinct, and were settled by different treaties. The following are the facts relative to the Ashburton treaty of August 9, 1842:

On the conclusion of our War of Independence a treaty was held at Paris, November 30, 1782, when the Provisional Articles of Peace were signed, and the boundaries of the new power, so far as our possessions bordered on those of Great Britain, were defined as well as they could be without a more perfect knowledge of the geography of the region through which the line passed, but not "by metes and bounds" that could be understood by all. Therefore, in September, 1783, a second treaty was made and signed at Paris, called the Definitive Treaty of Paris, in which his Britannic Majesty acknowledged "the said United States" to be "free, sovereign, and independent States," and that he treated with them as such, relinquishing all claims to the government, and proprietary and territorial rights; and that disputes which might arise in future on the subject of the boundaries of the United States might be prevented, it was agreed and declared that the north-west angle of Nova Scotia should be at a point where a line drawn due north from the source of the St. Croix River should strike the highlands that divide the waters of the rivers falling into the St. Lawrence River and the Atlantic Ocean respectively, and along said high lands to the most north-western head of the Connecticut River; thence down the middle of that river to the forty-fifth degree parallel of latitude; thence due west on that parallel to the St. Lawrence River; thence along the middle of that river to Lake Ontario; and thence along the middle of all the lakes and rivers connecting, to the most north-west point of the Lake of the Woods; and thence on a due west course to the Mississippi River, down which river to the thirty-first degree parallel of north latitude the line extended, where it deflected to the east till it struck the Appalachicola River, and turned south again down that river to its junction with the Flint River, from which junction it turned straight east to the St. Mary's River, and along the middle of that river to the Atlantic Ocean.

So far, with the exception of the error of imagining that the source of the Mississippi was as far north as, and to the west of, the Lake of the Woods, there could be little or no trouble about determining the exact boundaries of the United States in 1783. The remainder of the line was from the point of beginning, at the head-waters of the St. Croix River, down that stream to its mouth in the Bay of Fundy. All the islands within twenty leagues of the shores of the United States, and comprehended be tween lines projected due east from the northern and southern boundaries already described, were to belong to the United States, excepting such islands as had previously been within the limits of Nova Scotia.

But the boundaries of the United States not being alone the object of the treaty, it was further agreed that the fishermen of our country should continue to enjoy the right, unmolested, to take fish on the Newfoundland Banks, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, or at any other places in the sea where the people of either country had been accustomed to fish; and to take fish of every kind on such parts of the coast of Newfoundland as British fishermen should use, but not to dry or cure them on the island; and to be allowed to fish in all the bays and creeks of all other parts of the British dominions in America, with the liberty to cure fish in the unsettled bays, harbors, and creeks of Nova Scotia, Magdalen Islands, and Labrador, so long as they should remain unsettled; after which, the privilege should depend upon agreements made with the inhabitants or owners of the ground, which section of the treaty was one of great importance, particularly to the people of New England.

Nearly a dozen of years passed away, and there had been very little more discovered concerning the actual location of our northern line. But meanwhile the commercial marine of the United States was slowly growing in importance. Some small New York and Boston companies were sending vessels to the north-west coast of North America, to Africa, and to China, picking up cargoes in the Pacific to exchange for silks and teas in Canton, etc. One of these adventurous traders, who poked the nose of his vessel into almost every opening north of the forty-sixth parallel, was the first navigator to cross the bar of the Columbia River.

It was not in the nature of the British Government to view these ambitious efforts of the young republic without jealousy, and there arose some commercial questions that required settlement. Accordingly, a treaty was negotiated between John Jay, on the part of the United States, and William Wyndham, on behalf of Great Britain, called A Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation, signed at London, November 19, 1794, a part of which referred to our boundary, as follows:

"Article 4. Whereas, it is uncertain whether the River Mississippi extends so far to the northward as to be intersected by a line drawn due west from the Lake of the Woods, in the manner mentioned in the treaty of peace between his Majesty and the United States, it is agreed that measures shall be taken in concert between his Majesty's Government in America and the Government of the United States, for making a joint survey of the said river from one degree of latitude be low the Falls of St. Anthony to the principal sources of the said river, and also of the parts adjacent thereto; and that, if on the result of such survey it should appear that the said river would not be intersected by such a line as is above mentioned, the two parties will there upon proceed, by amicable negotiation, to regulate the boundary line in that quarter, as well as all other points to be adjusted between the said parties, according to justice and mutual convenience, and in conformity to the intent of the said treaty.

"Article 5. Whereas, doubts have arisen what river was truly intended under the name of the River St. Croix, mentioned in the said treaty of peace, and forming a part of the boundary therein described, that question shall be referred to the final decision of Commissioners, to be appointed in the following manner, viz.: One Commissioner shall be named by his Majesty, and one by the President of the United States, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate thereof, and the said two Commissioners shall agree on the choice of a third; or, if they cannot so agree, they shall each propose one person, and of the two names so proposed, one shall be drawn by lot in the same presence of the two original Commissioners," etc.

These Commissioners were to be sworn to make an impartial examination and decision of the question, according to the evidence. They were to decide what river was meant by the St. Croix of the treaty, and to append to their declaration the proofs, and give the particulars of latitude and longitude of its mouth and its source; when the decision made by them should be final. The Commissioners were to meet at Halifax, with the power to adjourn to any other place they might prefer; were to employ surveyors and a secretary, and otherwise to be furnished with every means of settling the question of the identity of the St. Croix River.

At the first glance this might seem an easy enough thing to do. But so it did not prove. The more knowledge the interested parties obtained on the subject the more doubtful they were of the point aimed at. Time passed on, and the United States purchased of France, in 1803, the Louisiana territory west of the Mississippi River, extending indefinitely north-westward, and adding a new feature to our boundary, in which Great Britain was interested. Then followed the war of 1812-14, and the second treaty of peace, signed at Ghent, in the Netherlands, December 24, 1814, by Lord Gambier, Henry Gaulburn, and William Adams, on the part of Great Britain, and John Quincy Adams, James A. Bayard, Henry Clay, Jonathan Russell, and Albert Gallatin, in behalf of the United States, and ratified by the Senate in February, 1815.

The fourth article of the treaty of Ghent referred to the boundary question. It recited that, whereas certain stipulations had been agreed upon by the treaty of 1783, concerning the islands that were to belong to the United States, and whereas the several islands in the Bay of Passamaquoddy, which was part of the Bay of Fundy, and the Island of Menan in the Bay of Fundy, were claimed by the United States, as being within their boundaries, and also claimed by Great Britain, as within the limits of the Province of Nova Scotia, in order to decide the matter two Commissioners shall be appointed, whose decision shall be final and conclusive. In the event of the Commissioners disagreeing, they should make reports, jointly or separately, in detail, of all the evidences and their opinions, and the reports should be submitted to some friendly sovereign or State, who should be requested to decide upon the differences, when the decision should be taken as final.

The fifth article of the treaty of Ghent provided, in the same manner, for ascertaining that point in the highlands lying due north from the source of the St. Croix River, which, according to the treaty of 1783, was to form the north-west angle of Nova Scotia; and also for ascertaining the north-westernmost head of the Connecticut River; and for ascertaining that part of the boundary between the source of the St. Croix and the St. Lawrence Rivers. Commissioners were at the same time provided for, to settle the line through the lakes and rivers from the St. Lawrence to the Lake of the Woods.

The Commissioners appointed to decide upon the proprietorship of the islands in the Bay of Fundy met in New York November 24, 1817, and awarded three islands in the Bay of Passamaquoddy to the United States, leaving the great Menard Island to Great Britain, which award was accepted, and on the 18th of June, 1822, all the islands in the chain of lakes and rivers were apportioned satisfactorily; but that part of the boundary in doubt, between the St. Lawrence and St. Croix Rivers, remained unsettled, though the Commissioners had met a number of times in New York in 1821, and though nearly forty maps had been made by the surveyors. The two points still in doubt were the north-west angle of Nova Scotia and the north-westernmost head of the Connecticut River.

It is not to be supposed that there was any real difficulty about the actual location of these two points. The difficulty was a diplomatic and political one entirely, and, to carry his point, the British Commissioner, acting for the British Government, insisted upon employing in the survey the geocentric method of ascertaining latitude, by which a difference of two miles was made in the location of the forty-fifth parallel, on which an important portion of the boundary depended. On the other side, the United States Commissioner adhered to the ancient survey made in 1774, and to the treaty of 1783, which was drawn up according to a map published in 1775. The two miles gained by the new survey placed Rouse's Point, with the entrance to Lake Champlain and the fortress erected there by the United States, on the British side of the line, which was clearly not the intention of the treaty of 1783.

In the meantime, however, new complications had arisen. The United States had, by acquiring the Louisiana territory, given alarm to Great Britain, who had designs on the northwest coast of North America. Astor, by his effort to establish trade on the Columbia River, had given still further alarm. Great Britain was well aware that the United States had pretensions in that quarter, which they were at some difficulty to maintain, an account of the occupancy of the country by the Hudson's Bay Company, but which, nevertheless, they resolutely asserted on every occasion when the subject was brought forward. In order to secure, if not the whole, a portion at least, of the west coast of America, this British Company pushed their explorations westward, keeping almost an even pace with United States explorers as to time and extent of discoveries. All these movements entered into the boundary question.

Great Britain had taken the position with regard to our rights to the fisheries on the Atlantic Coast, secured to us by the treaty of 1783, that we had forfeited them by the war of 1812, and had expressly refused to renew or recognize them by the treaty of Ghent. But the United States maintained that they were revived by the restoration of peace, and were of the nature of transitory rights in a judicial sense, which, oddly enough, meant a permanent right in the ordinary definition of the term. This matter, requiring settlement, was finally adjusted by the Convention of the 20th of October, 18 1 8, which secured forever to the people of the United States the right to fish on that part of the southern coast of Newfoundland extending from Cape Ray to the Rameau Islands, on the western coast of Newfoundland from Cape Ray to the Quirpon Islands, on the shores of the Magdalen Islands, and on the coasts of Labrador, from Mount Joly to and through the Straits of Belle Isle, and northwardly, with the liberty to cure fish in the unsettled bays and creeks, as before enjoyed under the treaty of 1783, etc.

By this Convention the boundary question was so far settled as that a line drawn along the forty-ninth parallel, from the Lake of the Woods to the "Stony Mountains," was agreed upon as the demarcation between the territory of the United States and that of Great Britain. As to the territory beyond the Stony Mountains, concerning which the two powers held very contrary opinions, that was left for future consideration, and, by the terms of the Convention, was to remain free and open to either nation, without prejudice to the claims of their respective governments, for a period of ten years. No better understanding being arrived at during that period, this Convention was renewed, so far as the north-western boundary was concerned, until its final abrogation, and the treaty of 1846, by which the present limits were definitely fixed.

But to return to the proceedings of the Commissioners appointed to settle the boundary between the St. Lawrence and the sea. Great Britain, having made up her mind to secure every possible advantage, and the United States being equally bent upon not yielding one or two important points, which, according to the original survey could justly be claimed, Mr. Gallatin, writing to Mr. Clay, Secretary of State, in 1827, says:

"The only differences in the two constructions consists in that tract of land of about three hundred thousand acres, lying west of the north line (in the State of Maine). which is drained by the waters falling into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Both constructions are admissible, and consistent with the spirit of the treaty of 1783, the better of which it is impossible to fulfill."

The difficulties experienced by the Commissioners arose from the wording of the treaty of 1783, which specified, as a part of the line, the ridge dividing the waters falling into the St. Lawrence from those falling into the Atlantic Ocean. Now, the only way by which an approximate compliance with the intent of the treaty could he arrived at was by assuming that the River St. John emptied into the ocean, though really it fell into the Bay of Fundy. The north line, which was to proceed in a straight course to the highlands before mentioned, crossed the head-waters of rivers running into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, instead of the ocean; and, in short, Mr. Gallatin said, not a single point could be found on the line, that, according to the words of the treaty, was on the highlands dividing the waters of the St. Lawrence from those falling into the Atlantic. The only ridge that would come within the meaning of the treaty was one between the streams that fell into the St. Lawrence River and the Gulf of St. Lawrence, but the treaty said nothing about the gulf. Other questions might arise, on attempting to compromise, with the States of Maine and Massachusetts and the Legislature of New Brunswick.

Not being able to come to any agreement, the Commissioners made their reports accordingly, and, after much careful negotiation, the matter was at length submitted by Mr. Gallatin and the English Commissioners, Charles Grant and Henry Unwin Addington, to William, King of the Netherlands, who on the tenth of January, 1831, made his award. But neither party being satisfied with the result of the arbitration, it was mutually rejected, and the matter relapsed to its former condition of doubt.

In all these years that the boundary question had been unsettled at both ends of the line across the continent, the United States had been growing in importance and strength, and were better able to insist upon terms than at the commencement of the controversy. Realizing this fact, Great Britain, while maintaining friendly relations, was sensitive to, and dissatisfied with, the attitude assumed by our plenipotentiaries regarding our pretensions on the Pacific Coast, avoiding a final issue, and depending upon some happy chance to secure the coveted prize of the Oregon territory.

But neither Government was willing longer to postpone the adjustment of the north—eastern boundary, when, in 1842, fifty-eight years after the independence of the United States, Lord Ashburton was sent on a special mission to the United States to prevent a possible war with this country, which was threatened on account of troubles between the two countries, growing out of the boundary question not only, but also out of some affairs of navigation, and the claim to the right of search of American vessels on the coast of Africa, which had long been a bone of contention. So serious were the questions to be considered, and so difficult of arrangement, that it was agreed between Lord Ashburton and Mr. Webster (who, though chosen Secretary of State by General Harrison, had been solicited to remain in the Cabinet under Mr. Tyler, and did so remain for one year after the other members had resigned) not to take up that of the Oregon boundary, but to be content if they were able to dispose of the others.

By these two diplomates, who were previously on friendly terms (Lord Ashburton having been in the United States, and Mr. Webster in England). the north-eastern boundary of the United States was finally settled by a treaty known as the Ashburton treaty, concluded August 9, 1842.

As is usually the case after a controversy so long continued, the critics on both sides were dissatisfied. In England the opposition party named the treaty the "Ashburton capitulation," while in the United States Mr. Webster was assailed for conceding anything in dispute. Those who knew the difficulties in the way of a perfectly satisfactory statement were pleased to accept the arrangement. The English Parliament, in both houses, thanked Lord Ashburton, and certainly Mr. Webster's part in the Ashburton treaty has been considered highly creditable to him.

That a private citizen like Dr. Whitman should have had any influence in determining questions that had baffled the skill of the greatest diplomatists for over half a century, is not susceptible of belief. He could say nothing they did not already know; and as to the folly said to have been contemplated by Mr. Webster, of "trading off Oregon for a cod-fishery," it will be seen by the treaties quoted, that the fishery question had been settled, as it was supposed, "forever," by the convention of 1813. It was, however, brought up again in 1852, after the Oregon boundary was settled, in order in force the United states into a reciprocity treaty with the British Provinces, when the United States secured greater privileges on the fishing grounds than they had before enjoyed; but which it is now said they are again in danger of losing.

So much for the origin and purpose of the Ashburton treaty. But there still remains the romantic, though unfortunately foundationless, story of Dr. Whitman's visit to Washington with a political purpose. Dr. Whitman left the Cayuse country on business connected with his mission early in October, 1842, and performed a tedious and remarkable winter journey to the States. The treaty he is said to have influenced was signed before he left Oregon, and he arrived at his destination in the following spring, after Lard Ashburton had returned to England, and about the time Mr. Webster retired from the Cabinet of President Tyler. He may have seen the great statesman, and may have given him his opinion of the Oregon country; but his doing so could not affect a treaty that was already made, tier one that was to be made, several years after, by different plenipotentiaries. Both Great Britain and the United States knew the value of the Oregon territory, and that was why it was so difficult for them to come to a settlement. Immediately after the Ashburton treaty, the negotiations concerning the "Oregon Question" were transferred to London, and there remained until 1844, when they were retransferred to Washington. Polk, who was a candidate for the Presidency, made the Oregon boundary the principal issue on which he was elected. It was Polk who set going the cry of "Fifty-four forty or fight," so popular at one time. Nevertheless, he very cheerfully signed the Oregon treaty or June 15, 1846, which made the forty-ninth parallel the northern boundary of the United States, west as well as east of the Rocky Mountains. As in the case of the Ashburton treaty, both governments were glad to be well rid of the controversy without a war. Perhaps no similar question was ever clothed with the real romance that has clung to and colored the Oregon Question. It less needs the adventitious aids of invention than Any modern history. There was a good deal of the old adventurous and hardy spirit of the Spanish colonists of America in the deeds 1nd discoveries of the rival nations contending for possession. That Dr. Whitman was, while "a soldier or the cross," equally fit to have been a soldier of the sword, there is no doubt. He was a valiant and true man, and would have scorned to claim for himself honors which he had never won. it, therefore, is no kindness to his memory to place him in a false position, from which the reader of encyclopaedias could easily rout him. The author of "How Dr. Whitman Saved Oregon," is only one of a number who have given credence to this well-invented historical romance, without taking the trouble to look up his authorities. He is too good a writer to be so careless of his facts, and too sensible a gentleman not to be glad of being set right.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.

This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.