The Columbia River: Its History, Its Myths, Its Scenery, Its Commerce/Part 1/Chapter 8
Conflict of Nations for Possession of the River
The Six Nations at First Engaged in the Conflict—The Three Left in it—Claims by Sea of Spain, England, and the United States—Claims by Land—Rivalries of the Great Fur Companies—Capture of Astoria by the English—Its Restoration to the United States—Appearance of Fort George in 1818—Joint Occupation Treaty of 1818—Florida Treaty of 1819—Treaty with Russia in 1825—Forces on the Side of England and those on the side of the United States—American Triumph Inevitable—Policy of the Hudson's Bay Company in Contrast with that of the American Immigration—Indifference of the American Government—Utterances of Some American Statesmen—Doings of the American People—Gathering of the Little American Colony in the Willamette Valley—Need of Government—First Meeting at Champoeg—Advice of Commodore Wilkes that they Delay—The "Wolf Meetings"—Second Meeting at Champoeg, and Establishment of the Provisional Government—Its Chief Provisions—Thornton's Account of the "Hall" at Champoeg—Peter H. Burnett—Dr. McLoughlin's Position—Triumphs of the American Immigrant over the Great Fur Company—McLoughlin and Whitman—Movements of Diplomacy between England and the United States—Webster, Linn, Benton, and Calhoun—Inconsistent Positions of the Democratic Party—Polk and the Platform of 54 Degrees 40 Minutes, or Fight—Near Approach of War—Compromise on the Line of 49 Degrees—Momentous Nature of the Issue—Triumph of American Home-builders.
EARLIER chapters of this volume have already developed some of the essential elements in the complicated strife of the maritime nations of the world for possession of the land of the Oregon. This brief chapter will endeavour to recapitulate and group those steps, and to trace the course of events by which the line finally was drawn on the parallel of 49 degrees. As we have seen, the many-named river, and the fact that it was the key to a vast region and that the shores of the ocean contiguous to it seemed to abound in the finest of furs, was a lure to Portuguese, Frenchman, Russian, Spaniard, Englishman, and American. The first three became early eliminated from the conflict, and the last three fought the triangular battle to its ending with the final result that Uncle Sam inserted his broad shoulders between Mexico and the 49th parallel, and thus controls the choicest land of the sunset slope of the continent.
Spain, England, and the United States each had a valid claim to Oregon. Spain, by the partial discovery of the River by Heceta in 1775, by the voyages of Bodega and Arteaga in the same year and again in 1779, and by the voyage of Valdez and Galiano around Vancouver Island in 1792, together with many other voyages of a less definite nature by illustrious navigators, as Malaspina, Bustamente, Elisa, and others, had a strong position. Yet she had failed to clinch her discoveries or to take effective possession.
Great Britain could point to the elaborate examinations of Cook and Vancouver. The latter had made a minute investigation of the noble group of waters whose outlet preserves the name of the old Greek pilot of Cephalonia, Juan de Fuca; and his Lieutenant Broughton had entered the Columbia River and proceeded over a hundred miles up the stream. The nomenclature given to both the River and the Sound regions by Vancouver had been the first in any sense complete. So England, too, had a strong claim.
And what were the claims of the United States! First and foremost was the discovery by Robert Gray of the River and his actual twenty-five-mile ascension of it in May, 1792. He had gone much farther than Heceta, who had only looked in, but he had not gone so far as Broughton. The latter indeed, claimed, and his government followed him in the claim, that Gray had not really been in the River at all, but was only in an estuary of the sea into which the River flowed. But that, to any one who has seen the River, is too much of a forced construction to stand serious examination. Moreover, Gray antedated Broughton by some months.
Turning from sea claims to land claims, England could point to Alexander Mackenzie as having crossed the continent in 1792, and as having reached the veritable ocean at Cascade Inlet. But it again was a very strained construction to extend that claim so far as to include the lower Columbia Valley. The United States could justly advance as a sufficient offset, the expedition of Lewis and Clark in 1804. In 1811 David Thompson had traversed the entire length of the Columbia for the British flag, only to find the Astor Company already established under the Stars and Stripes at the mouth of the River. From these essential facts out of many, we can easily draw the conclusion that no one of these three contestants could justly be too arrogant and exclusive. Some degree of modesty was befitting each.
We have already seen the rivalries of the great fur companies, the Hudson's Bay and the North-western of the British, and the Pacific of the Americans, and the effect of the War of 1812 on their fortunes. As a result of that war the Pacific Fur Company sold out to the North-westers, and a few years later the North-westers united with the Hudson's Bay Company under the name of the latter. To all appearance the Yankee was worsted, and the Briton in possession of the River.
But the Treaty of Ghent in 1815, closing the War of 1812, provided that all territory taken by either party should be restored. The boundary line west of the Lake of the Woods was left undrawn. John Jacob Astor now applied to the Government to restore his captured property on the Columbia, stating that if again in possession, he would resume his former operations. The United States Government accordingly notified Great Britain of its intention to re-occupy the fort at the Columbia's mouth. For two years the communication lay unanswered. In September, 1817, the sloop-of-war, Ontario, Captain J. Biddle, was despatched to the Columbia with Mr. J. B. Provost as special agent, under instructions to assert the claim of the United States to the territory of the River. This decisive move compelled Great Britain to come out from under cover. A long and tedious diplomatic warfare ensued. Meanwhile the Ontario was pursuing her long journey around Cape Horn. In 1818, an agreement was reached to the effect that Astoria should be formally restored to the United States, but that the North-western Fur Company should be allowed to remain in actual possession. Captain Biddle of the Ontario had left Mr. Provost in Chile and had proceeded to the Columbia to take possession. Captain Sheriff, commandant of the British ships in the Pacific, being in Valparaiso, in H. M. S. Blossom, learning of Mr. Provost's presence there, conceived the happy thought that it would be an international courtesy to invite Mr. Provost to accompany him to Astoria. Accordingly on October 1, 1818, the Blossom pushed her bow across the Bar, and on the 6th the formal ceremony of transfer from the Union Jack to the Stars and Stripes took place. Captain J. Hickey of the Blossom represented Great Britain, Mr. J. Keith acted for the North-west Fur Company, while Mr. Provost stood for the United States. It seems to have been a very good-natured affair throughout. Placards were posted at the capes on both sides of the River declaring the change of sovereignty. Fort George was quite a powerful structure at that time, consisting of a strong stockade of fir logs twelve feet high, enclosing a parallelogram one hundred and fifty by two hundred and fifty feet, having within it dwellings, shops, store houses, and magazines. On the walls were two eighteen-pound cannon, six six-pounders, four four-pound carronades, two six-pound cohorns, and seven swivels. The day of transfer must have been a very picturesque day among the many such in Astoria's history. We can imagine the soft October haze floating over Cape Hancock, and the long, lazy swell of six thousand miles of sea, thundering across Point Adams.
One interesting feature of Mr. Provost's presence at Astoria was his observation of the bar at the entrance of the River. This had generally been represented to the world as something frightful. It is often so represented at the present time. Mr. Provost in a letter to Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams, says that there is a spacious bay, by no means so difficult of ingress as has been represented. He states that there is a bar across the mouth of the River, at either extremity of which there are sometimes appalling breakers; but that there is a channel of nearly a league in width with a depth of twenty-one feet at the lowest tides. He thinks, therefore, that with proper buoys the access to vessels of almost any tonnage may be rendered secure. This statement in regard to the Bar is of much interest as furnishing a basis for comparison with the present conditions. The depth at low tide now is about twenty-six feet, the increase probably being due to the jetty.
The logic of the restoration of Astoria to the United States, while at the same time the British Fur Company was left in practical possession, was realised in the Joint Occupation Treaty of 1818. By this singular arrangement it was agreed that any country on the north-west coast of America that may be claimed by either power shall be open for ten years to the vessels, citizens, and subjects of the two powers.
In 1819 another very important step was taken; viz.: the Florida Treaty with Spain. By this, Spain retired to the line of 42 degrees, ceding to the American Republic all her rights above that line. With her own claims joined to those of Spain, the Republic would seem to be able to snap her fingers at England. But, with characteristic tenacity, the latter power made ready to insist all the more strenuously upon her claims. In 1825 England and the United States agreed with Russia upon the line of 54 degrees 40 minutes, as the southern line of Russian claims. With Spain and Russia out of it, Oregon was left for England and the United States to fight over. The Joint Occupation Treaty was to last ten years, with the privilege of renewal. Meanwhile what were the factors in the struggle for possession? There was on the side of England the Briarean monopoly of the Hudson's Bay Company, supported by a disciplined and intelligent government. But the English people were not in it. On the American side the Government was strangely indifferent. There were several ambitious attempts to control the situation by American trading and fur companies. But the essential forces were the American immigrant, the American missionary, the Declaration of Independence, and the ox-team. Those were the champions of America. They were the Davids against the Goliaths of British monopoly. At first thought it seemed that Goliath would have a "walk-over." The case seemed hopeless for the Americans.
But to the deeper observer, American triumph was inevitable. It was the Age of Democracy. The conception both of popular government and of individual ownership of land, with which went the corollary of "equal opportunities for all men and special privileges for none," was graven deep upon American character. With these things there went, of necessity, the disapproval of slavery and the support of free labour. Still further there went, by the same logic, the doctrine of unity and continental expansion. These various influences have constituted the broad foundation on which were reared the towers and battlements of American nationality.
In previous chapters we have outlined the operations of the Hudson's Bay Company, the coming of the missionaries, and the immigrations of Americans. The policy of the Hudson's Bay Company was to keep the country a wilderness, to maintain amicable relations with the Indians, and to depend mainly on the fur-trade for the great profits of their enterprise. The policy of the American immigrants was to build homes, cities, roads, steamboats, mills, develop the country, crowd out the natives, and depend on mining, farming, stock-raising, lumbering, for their profits; not profits of a monopoly located in a distant money centre, but profits of the individual worker on his own land. The difference was world-wide. It represented two different conceptions of government and of life itself.
But though the American people had the manifest destiny of expanding to the Pacific, the Government was strangely supine. We say "strangely," but it was not so strange after all. Congress was dominated by the South in the interest of slavery, and by the East in the interest of the tariff. Calhoun usually led the South, and he weighed everything in the scales of slavery. Webster governed Eastern sentiment largely, and he spoke for New England manufacturers. It is true that Clay was at all times a power in the councils of the nation, and Clay's constant word was nationalisation and expansion. But even Clay was so committed to the tariff that he did not always appreciate the possibilities of the "West-most West." The Presidents of the period from 1819 to 1846 were from the South or the Atlantic seaboard and not usually inclined to regard the far West with special interest.
The American people were away ahead of the American government in the struggle for possession of Oregon. A few of the utterances of leading statesmen of that period as significant of their conceptionof Oregon, may be given here. Benton, who became later the greatest champion of Oregon, was so imperfectly informed in 1825 that he spoke thus: "The ridge of the Rocky Mountains may be named as a convenient, natural, and everlasting boundary. Along this ridge the western limit of the Republic should be drawn, and the statue of the fabled god Terminus should be erected on its highest peak, never to be thrown down." But Benton improved, for later referring to the Columbia, he said, "That way lies the Orient." Webster said of Oregon: "What do we want of this vast, worthless area, this region of savages and wild beasts, of shifting sands and whirlwinds of dust, of cactus and prairie dogs. To what use could we ever hope to put these great deserts or these great mountain ranges, impenetrable and covered to their base with eternal snow? What can we ever hope to do with the western coast, a coast of three thousand miles, rock-bound, cheerless, and uninviting, and not a harbour on it? What use have we of such a country? Mr. President, I will never vote one cent from the public treasury to place the Pacific Coast one inch nearer Boston than it is now." And that was "God-like Dan!" Dayton expressed himself thus: "God forbid that the time should ever come when a State on the shores of the Pacific, with interests and tendencies of trade all looking toward the Asiatic nations of the East, shall add its jarring claims to our distracted and already overburdened confederacy." The National Intelligencer doubtless expressed a common sentiment in the following: "Of all the countries upon the face of the earth, Oregon is one of the least favoured by nature. It is almost as barren as Sahara and quite as unhealthy as the campagna of Italy."
Such an estimate by American statesmen was all right to the Hudson's Bay Company. They wished such an estimate and had taken pains to foster it. But while the gullible American statesmen were thus accepting just the version which their rivals were disseminating, the hard-handed and hard-headed, though not hard-hearted frontiersmen of Missouri and Illinois and Iowa were packing their ox-teams and starting across the desert for that Sahara on the Columbia River. Also one Marcus Whitman, a missionary physician of the Walla Walla, was floundering in the snows of the Sierra Madre and crossing the Arkansas through broken ice, in order to tell the benighted statesmen what the land of the Oregon really was like. The American people were busy, and the statesmen looked askance. And so, a few here and a few there, by trail or ship, adventurers, missionaries, sailors, trappers, there was formed a gathering in the Willamette of the advance guard of American home-builders. They began to call out of the wilderness to Uncle Sam.
As a result of the coming of the missionaries and of the small immigrations of the thirties and early forties, together with the settlement in the Willamette Valley of various French-Canadian employees of the Hudson's Bay Company, there was enough of a population to demand some sort of organised society.
W. H. Gray made a summary of population in 1840 to consist of two hundred persons, of whom a hundred and thirty-seven were American and sixty-three Canadian. Up to 1839 the only law was the rules of the Hudson's Bay Company. In that year the Methodist missionaries suggested that two persons be named as magistrates to administer justice according to the ordinary rules of American law. This was the first move looking to American political organisation. In 1839 and 1840 memorials were presented to the Senate by Senator Linn of Missouri at the request of American settlers praying for the attention of Congress to their needs. But, not content with lifting their voices to the home land, they proceeded to organise for themselves.
At that time, Champoeg, a few miles above the falls of the Willamette and located pleasantly on the west bank of that river, was the chief settlement. There, on the seventh of February, 1841, a gathering of the settlers was held "for the purpose of consulting upon steps necessary to be taken for the formation of laws, and the election of officers to execute them." Jason Lee, the Methodist missionary, was chairman of the meeting, and he outlined what he deemed the needed method of establishing a reign of law and order. The meeting proved rather a conference than an organisation and the people dispersed to meet again at the call of the chairman.
A week later an event occurred which brought most forcibly to the minds of the settlers the need of better organisation. This was the death of Ewing Young, one of the most prominent men of the little community. He left considerable property, with no known heirs and no one to act as administrator. It became clear that some legal status must be established for the settlement. Another meeting was held, in which it was determined that a government be instituted, having the officers usual in an American locality. The work of framing a constitution was entrusted to a committee, in which the five different elements, the Methodist missionaries, the Catholics, the French Canadians, the independent American settlers, and the English, had representation. The committee was instructed to confer with Commodore Wilkes of the American Exploring Squadron, just at that time in the River, and Dr. McLoughlin, the Hudson's Bay magnate. Wilkes advised the settlers to wait for added strength and for the United States Government to throw its mantle over them. The committee decided that his advice was sound and indefinitely adjourned. Constitution building rested for a time along the shores of the Willamette.
In 1841 and 1842, two hundred and twenty Americans reached Oregon, doubling the population.
The Americans were ill at ease without a government and kept agitating the question of another meeting. But the English and the Catholic influences opposed this. Some diplomacy was needed. The irrepressible Yankees were equal to it. They determined to draw the settlers together under the announcement of a meeting for the purpose of discussing the means of protecting themselves against the ravages of the numerous wild beasts of the valley. W. H. Gray was the leading spirit in this enterprise. In a most picturesque and valuable account of it, John Minto has developed the thought that the founding of the Oregon State bore a striking resemblance to that stage in the Roman state, subsequently celebrated in the festival of Lupercalia, wherein the first organisation was for defence against the wild beasts. So the Willamette witnessed again the gathering of the clans, Americans, English, French, half-breeds, Catholics, Protestants, Independents, all coming together to protect themselves against the bears, cougars, and wolves. The meetings were usually known thereafter as the "wolf meetings."
James O'Neil was made chairman of this historic gathering. With the astuteness characteristic of American politicians, a previous understanding had been made between Mr. O'Neil and the little coterie of which Mr. Gray was the manager, that everything should be shaped to the ultimate end of raising the question of a government. As soon, therefore, as the ostensible aim of the meeting had been attained, W. H. Gray arose and broached the all-important issue. After declaring that no one could question the wisdom and rightfulness of the measures looking to protecting their herds from wild beasts, he continued:
How is it, fellow-citizens, with you and me, and our wives and children? Have we any organisation on which we can rely for mutual protection? Is there any power in the country sufficient to protect us and all that we hold dear, from the worse than wild beasts that threaten and occasionally destroy our cattle? We have mutually and unitedly agreed to defend and protect our cattle and domestic animals; now, therefore, fellow-citizens, I submit and move the adoption of the two following resolutions, that we may have protection for our lives and persons, as well as our cattle and herds: Resolved that a committee be appointed to take into consideration the propriety of taking measures for the civil and military protection of this colony; Resolved that this committee consist of twelve persons.
There spoke the true voice of the American state-builder, the voice of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The resolutions were passed and the committee of twelve appointed, mainly Americans. The committee met at the Falls of the Willamette, which by that time was becoming known as Oregon City. Unable to arrive at a definite decision, the committee issued a call for a general meeting at Champoeg on May 2d.
Pending the meeting, there was a general policy of opposition developed among the French Canadians in the interest of the Hudson's Bay Company and England. This opposition threatened the overthrow of the entire plan. It was, however, checkmated in an interesting fashion. George W. Le Breton was one of the leading settlers and occupied a peculiar position. He was of French origin, from Baltimore to Oregon, and had been a Catholic. His existing affiliations were with the Americans. He was keen, facile, and well educated. He discovered that the Canadians had been drilled to vote "No" on all questions, irrespective of the bearing which such a vote might have on the leading issue. Le Breton accordingly proposed that measures be introduced upon which the Canadians ought to vote "Yes." These tactics were carried out. The Canadians were confused thereby. Le Breton watched developments carefully and, becoming satisfied that he could command a majority, rose and exclaimed, "We can risk it, let us divide and count!" Gray shouted, "I second the motion!" Jo Meek, famous as one of the Mountain Men, stepped out of the crowd and said, "Who is for a divide? All in favour of an organisation, follow me!" The Americans speedily gathered behind the tall form of the erstwhile trapper. A count followed. It was a close vote. Fifty-two voted for, and fifty against. The Americans would have been outvoted had it not been that Le Breton, with two French Canadians, François Matthieu and Étienne Lucier, voted with them. The defeated Canadians withdrew, and the Indians, who lined the banks of the River to discover what strange proceedings the white men were engaged in, perceived from the loud shouts of triumph that the "Bostons" had won. Though the victory was gained by so scanty a margin, it was gained, and it was decisive. It was one of the most interesting events in the history of Oregon or the United States, for it illustrates most vividly the inborn capacity of the American for self-government.
The new government went at once into effect. The constitution formulated by the committee and adopted by the meeting at Champoeg provided that the people of Oregon should adopt laws and regulations until the United States extended its jurisdiction over them. Freedom of worship, habeas corpus, trial by jury, proportionate representation, and the usual civil rights of Americans were guaranteed. Education should be encouraged, lands and property should not be taken from Indians without their consent. Slavery or involuntary servitude should not exist.
The officers of government consisted of a legislative body of nine persons, an executive body of three, and a judiciary of a supreme judge and two justices of the peace, with a probate court and its justices, and a recorder and treasurer. Every white man of twenty-one years or more could vote. The laws of Iowa were designated to be followed in common practice. Marriage was allowed to males at sixteen and females at fourteen. One of the most important provisions was the land law. This permitted any individual to claim a mile square, provided it be not on a town site or water-power, and that any mission claims already made be not affected, up to the limit of six miles square. This land law was framed upon the general conception of the proposed Linn bill already brought before Congress. The land law allowed land to be taken in any form, but since there was no existing survey, each man had to make his own survey.
The first elected executive committee consisted of David Hill, Alanson Beers, and Joseph Gale. Within a year an amendment was made to the constitution providing for a governor. George Abernethy, a former member of the Methodist mission, was chosen to fill the place.
Outer things were pretty crude in the little colony on the Willamette, though brains and energy were there in abundance. J. Quinn Thornton expressed himself as follows on the "Oregon State House," which he says was in several respects different from that in which laws are made at Washington City:
There are several facts in connection with the inauguration of this Provisional Government of Oregon which are almost equal to itself in interest. One of these is that Peter H. Burnett, a lawyer and the most notable member of the emigration of 1843, rendered the opinion that, by the spirit of American institutions, the Provisional Government might be regarded as possessing valid authority. Going in a few years to California, Mr. Burnett incorporated the same principles into the government of that State and became its first governor.
The Oregon State House was built with posts set upright, one end set in the ground, grooved on two sides, and filled in with poles and split timber, such as would be suitable for fence rails, with plates and poles across the top. Rafters and horizontal poles, instead of iron ribs, held the cedar bark which was used instead of thick copper for roofing. It was twenty by forty feet and therefore did not cover three acres and a half. At one end some puncheons were put up for a platform for the president; some poles and slabs were placed around for seats; three planks, about a foot wide and twelve feet long, placed upon a sort of stake platform for a table, were all that was believed necessary for the use of the legislative committee and the clerks.
Another most significant fact was the attitude of the Hudson's Bay Company. That great organisation was of course opposed to American ownership and to the Provisional Government. At first, the management under Sir James Douglas (Dr. McLoughlin had been superseded by Douglas because of his supposed leaning toward the Americans) affected to ignore the government framed at Champoeg, declaring loftily that the company could protect itself. Dr. McLoughlin, in his very interesting account of this, says that the Americans adopted in 1845 a provision in the constitution that no one should be called to do any act contrary to his allegiance. This provision struck him as designed to enable British subjects to join the organisation. Dr. McLoughlin was so pleased with the wise and liberal spirit which this evinced that he prevailed on Douglas to join the Provisional Government. The family was now complete. The American farmers and immigrants and missionaries had triumphed over the autocratic government of the great fur company. The American idea—government of the people, by the people, and for the people—was vindicated. The local battle was won for the Yankee.
Before leaving this great epoch of the history of the River, it will interest the reader to know that Dr. McLoughlin, so conspicuous in the story thus far, removed to Oregon City, and became an avowed American citizen, living on the claim on which he filed at the Falls. Much trouble subsequently arose between him and the Methodist mission people represented by Rev. A. F. Waller. Harder yet, Congress was led by Delegate Thurston of Oregon, to exclude him from the benefit of the Donation Land Law. The final result was that the great-hearted ex-king of the Columbia lost the most of his claim on the ground that he was an alien at the time of taking it. The Hudson's Bay Company directors chose to disapprove his acts in bestowing provisions upon the weary and hungry and ragged American immigrants, and they charged him personally with the cost. This, in addition to the loss of his claim, rendered him almost penniless and sadly embittered his old age. He said that he supposed he was becoming an American, but found that he was neither American nor British, but was without a country. It is pleasant to be able to record the fact that the Oregon Legislature restored his land in so far as the State controlled it, but this was only just before his death.
Of all the brave and big-souled men who bore their part in redeeming Oregon and the Columbia from the wilderness, John McLoughlin has stood at the head of the column, side by side with Marcus Whitman, the American physician and missionary. Though identified at first with rival interests and conflicting aims, McLoughlin and Whitman had many traits in common, and the story of their lives and life-work in Oregon should be written in one chapter. No one that ever knew or sympathised with Oregon history has failed to give his meed of praise to both Whitman and McLoughlin. No one ever stood on the hill at Waiilatpu and viewed the mission home of Whitman in the fertile vale of the Walla Walla, the scene of martyrdom and anguish, without joining it in mind with the expanse of the Columbia at Vancouver and recalling "Old Whitehead," and his large-minded and humane lordship for twenty years of the land of the Oregon. Nor can one withhold the thrill of indignation at the cold-blooded commercialism of the Hudson's Bay Company, and at the petty ingratitude of some Americans, which together brought darkness to the old hero's last days.
But though American Democracy was winning a bloodless triumph on the Columbia, it seemed by no means certain that American diplomacy would win on the Potomac. Webster, as Secretary of State under Harrison and during part of Tyler's administration, represented the conservative councils of the New England seaboard, and was inclined to yield to England in respect to the Oregon boundary.
Senator Linn of Missouri was the most steadfast friend of American occupancy. He was the one to frame land bills to encourage American immigration, and in his hands the memorials of the settlers on the Columbia had been placed. But in 1843, he died, with his work undone. Benton, his colleague, had meanwhile become fully as pronounced, and he pursued the same policy with uncompromising and volcanic energy.
But a curious and anomalistic alignment of interests and parties now arose. The Oregon question became entangled with those of Texas and slavery. Calhoun became Tyler's Secretary of State upon Webster's resignation. While the Democrats in general were more inclined to western expansion than the Whigs, yet the slaveholders of the South were much more interested in Texas than in Oregon. The Provisional Government of Oregon had prohibited slavery. Calhoun was ready to fight Mexico for the possession of Texas, but he did not want to fight England for possession of Oregon. Nevertheless, he did not dare to offend the West by a square back-down on Oregon. He therefore adopted a policy of "masterly inactivity." He believed that if war arose with England, we would lose "every inch of Oregon," for England could hurry a fleet to the Columbia River from China in six weeks, whereas American ships would have to double Cape Horn, and an American army would have to cross the continent under every disadvantage of transportation. But time, he believed, would win all for the Americans.
In this conception, Von Holst thinks Calhoun was wise. Roosevelt in his Life of Benton, thinks that the war, if there had been war, would have been fought out in Canada, and that, while Calhoun was not wrong in desiring delay, he should never have abated one jot in demanding all of Oregon up to 54 degrees 40 minutes.
The Democratic platform on which Polk was elected President, demanded "54 degrees 40 minutes," and, in popular clamour, the words, "or fight," were added. Oregon, Texas, and slavery were practically the issues on which Polk was elected. His inaugural address declared our title to Oregon to be "clear and unquestionable." Great excitement ensued, for if Congress stood by the President, war was almost inevitable, unless England yielded. To the surprise of the world, however, James Buchanan, the yielding, not to say shifty, Secretary of State under the new administration, now announced the willingness of our Government to compromise on the line of 49 degrees. But here another complication ensued. Pakenham, the British envoy, declined, in almost insulting terms, to accept 49 degrees. Polk thereupon withdrew the proposition and in his next message stated that "no compromise which the United States ought to accept can be effected." At the same time he advised the cancellation of the Joint Occupation Treaty. It seemed now that the conflict between the nations for the possession of the River would surely eventuate in war. Senator Cass of Michigan fanned the flame by a speech declaring that "War is almost upon us." The committees on Foreign Relations in both House and Senate proposed resolutions to notify England at once of the close of the Joint Occupation Treaty. Excitement rose to fierce heat, and the standing of marine risks and commercial ventures at once showed the popular sentiment. "Fifty-four, forty, or fight!" was the spirit of Congress.
But now Calhoun found himself betwixt the devil and the deep sea. He did not really wish to get all of Oregon, for fear of the effect on slavery. Yet he dared not throw cold water on the tremendous spirits of patriotism and ambition in the West demanding Oregon. A compromise was the only recourse. Powerful men of the "Moderates" in both England and the United States brought their influence to bear. Calhoun caused Lord Aberdeen, Foreign Secretary of England, to understand that the President would again take up the line of 49 degrees. Lord Aberdeen directed Pakenham to revive the negotiations which had been somewhat rudely broken off. The Senate reconsidered the situation more calmly and opened the way to a new treaty. This was consummated and signed by President Polk on June 15, 1846, and confirmed by the Senate on June 19th. The line of 49 degrees was accepted. The Great River was divided by that line nearly equally between the two nations, there being about seven hundred and fifty miles in American territory and six hundred and fifty in British.
The decision of the ownership of the River was one of the most momentous in American history. If we had not got Oregon, we probably would not have got California. And without the Pacific Coast, the history of the Great Republic would be essentially different, and the history of the world would be essentially different.
The Oregon Question owed much of its interest to its very complicated nature. It was at first a question between the governments of five different nations, England, France, Russia, Spain, and the United States. In time it became a question between England and the United States. Then it was a question between Oregon immigrants and British Fur Company. Then it became a question between slavery and freedom. This was still further complicated by the fact that it was also a question between West, East, and South. Different factions of different parties still further complicated it. It was in truth a manifold question, and in its final solution we read some of the most vital of American traits and movements. Out of it all the settlers of the River may justly be said to have emerged with highest credit. The American home-builder, the great Democracy of the West, the inborn impulse to expand and to nationalise,—these were the essential factors in the triumph. The settlers on the Willamette, the constitution-makers of Champoeg, the immigrants and the missionaries, had already gained the day before diplomacy took it up.