Bizarre Border? You Bet! A Short HIstory of the Canada-US Border

I recently came across this fun little video romp through the intricacies and contradictions in the Canada-US border.

I’ve since linked to it in my online Canada and the United States history course, in the lecture that touches on the founding of the International Boundary Commission. Established not many years after the contentious Alaska Boundary Dispute, the creation of the IBC represented the bureaucratization of border conflicts. For this reason, the IBC might ordinarily be considered a somewhat dry topic. C.P.G Grey’s video, “Bizarre Borders, Part 2: Canada and the United States,” manages to make it seem cool.

The history of the border (especially prior to the creation of the IBC) is quite a bit more colourful than one might think. What follows is a brief history of how the Canada-US border—even the seemingly straight part that runs along the 49th parallel—got to be so contentious and complicated.

Defining the Border

Figure 1.4 Map of British North America 1774

Map of British North America (1774) on the eve of the American Revolution. The Quebec Act passed the same year (one of the so-called the “Intolerable Acts” to Americans) extended the Quebec border south of the Great Lakes and hemmed the expansionist-minded Thirteen Colonists in east of the Appalachian Mountains. The Quebec Act seemed clear evidence to American colonists of the British government’s attempts to encircle them “in a ring of British steel.”

In the century after the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783), two nation-states emerged in Upper North America. The United States, founded in revolution, expanded from its original base of colonies huddled on Atlantic Coast westward over the Appalachian Mountains and to the west coast of the continent.

Canada did not officially emerge as a nation-state (and even then it was not entirely independent from Britain) until Confederation in 1867. Yet even at the beginning of this period there was a unity amongst the scattered northern colonies that made up British North America in their rejection of the American Revolution. In this sense, the Revolution that made the United States also made Canada.

Mutual suspicion and often open hostility characterized relations between Britain and the United States in the decades after the revolution. Tensions exploded in the War of 1812. Britain’s maritime policies (especially its habit of impressing British-born American sailors into its navy) were the ostensible cause of the American declaration of war, but British policies in the Ohio Valley were among the chief causes of the war.

Map of British North America in 1784, showing the border with the United States.

Map of British North America in 1784, showing the border with the United States.

Following the end of the American Revolution, Britain hoped to create a Native American buffer between its colonies and the expansionist United States. To that end, it actively encouraged the hopes harbored by native leaders, such as Mohawk leader Joseph Brant and the Shawnee chief Tecumseh, of forming a large Native federation in the Ohio Valley capable of blocking the United States’ westward expansion. To this end, Britain maintained several forts below the Great Lakes (in violation of the borders established by the Treaty of Paris that settled the Revolutionary War). Even after agreeing to remove the forts in the Jay’s Treaty (1794), Britain continued to support Native American resistance to American settlement of the Ohio.

The War of 1812 in North America was a costly stalemate that both sides were thereafter anxious to avoid. Following the war, the British and Americans made an effort to settle remaining boundary issues and disputes that had not been settled in 1783.

Yet conflicts over borders remained as ongoing reminders of the tense relationship of the two powers on the continent. These conflicts were generally settled peacefully, and war was avoided, but often only just.

The Maine-New Brunswick Border and the Aroostook War

The Treaty of Ghent (1814), which ended the War of 1812 in North America, extended the boundary between British North American (Canada) and the United States from Lake Superior to the Lake of the Woods. In the Convention of 1818, the British Empire and the United States agreed that the boundary between them in the west would extend along the 49th parallel from the Lake of the Woods to the Rocky Mountains.

This left significant disputes still unsettled. The Maine-New Brunswick border presented one of the most intractable cases. The border was supposed to have been defined in 1783, but cartographic error and confusion over the definition of geographical markers described by the treaty, led to rival claims to the rich forest and farmland between Maine and New Brunswick. (The easternmost border was agreed upon as part of the Jay Treaty.)

After Maine became a separate state in 1820, the border became a burning issue. The influx of British and American subjects into the disputed area led to increasing tensions. An attempt to have the dispute arbitrated by King William I of the Netherlands failed when Maine refused to accept his decision.

In the late 1830s tensions heated up once again as American and New Brunswick lumbermen clashed in the disputed territory, leading to the unofficial (and not especially warlike) “Aroostook War.” In 1839, Maine and New Brunswick both raised militias and sent them to the disputed border on the Aroostook River.

Anxious to avoid war, however, American President Martin Van Buren sent General Winfield Scott (fresh from removing the Cherokee from Georgia along the “Trail of Tears”) to prevent armed conflict. Britain and the United States agreed to negotiation and in the Webster-Ashburton Treaty (1842) settled the disputed boundary (as well as portions of the Canadian border with New Hampshire, Michigan, and Minnesota) at essentially the line decided a decade before by King William.

The Border in the Age of Manifest Destiny

Manifest Destiny was the belief, widely held by Anglo-Saxon Americans (that is, those of English descent) in the mid-nineteen century, that the expansion of the United States across the entire continent was manifest (readily apparent) and destined (inevitable, or pre-ordained by god). Journalist John L. O’Sullivan coined the term in 1845, though he was describing a belief that had obviously been around for years. It encompassed notions of American exceptionalism (which was founded on the virtue of Americans and their institutions), and it embraced the sense of mission that could be traced back to the original Puritan settlers of New England, who proclaimed that their colony would be as “a city on a hill,” a beacon to light the way for the rest of the world to follow. Manifest Destiny was a more activist version of this, for it entailed the belief that the United States had a divine mission to spread or export democracy by expanding.

Manifest Destiny was also more a general belief than an actual policy. Yet in the 1840s, the Democratic administration of President Jame K. Polk used it to justify expansionist policies that led to the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), which ended with the American annexation of Texas and about a third of Mexico. Manifest Destiny was not universally accepted in the United States. Polk’s Whig opponents (the two major parties at the time were the Whigs and Democrats) bitterly criticized it, as well as the administration’s bellicose expansionism.

American Progress, by John Gast, 1872 (Public domain). The painting is an allegorical representation of the settlement and modernization of the American west. It depicts angelic Columbia (the United States) guiding settlers westward, accompanied by railroads and the telegraph (which Columbia is stringing up). Note that as “American progress” sweeps west it brings with it the light of civilization, driving Native Americans and the buffalo into darkness and obscurity. The various stages of settlement are depicted from right to left.

Although Manifest Destiny increased Canadian and British fears of the United States, its thrust was actually directed west and southwest and not northward. Many Americans did believe that Canada would eventually become part of the United States, but by choice rather than by force. Manifest Destiny did, however, have a significant effect on the west coast, where a dispute between Britain and the United States over control of the Oregon territory nearly led to war. (Belief in Manifest Destiny declined by the outbreak of the Civil War, but shades of it can be seen in later American foreign policy proclamations, such as Woodrow Wilson’s “Fourteen Points” of the so-called “Bush Doctrine” of George W. Bush.)

“Fifty-four Forty, or Fight!”: The Oregon Border Dispute

The saber-rattling that had accompanied the Aroostook War was more than outdone by the bellicose posturing, most of it coming from Washington, over the disputed Oregon territory in the Pacific Northwest. Earlier disputes over sparsely settled Oregon (which included much of modern-day British Columbia as well as the states of Washington and Oregon) had led to joint occupation and administration of the disputed territory. The influx of an increasing number of land-hungry settlers in the 1840s made a settlement necessary.

The Americans rejected a British offer to split the territory in half by extending the border from the Rockies to the Pacific Ocean along the 49th parallel. Democratic President James Polk, supported by war hawks in the northwest had promised to settle the border at “Fifty-four Forty, or Fight!” (This referred the latitude of the northernmost border of the disputed territory.)

But war with Mexico also threatened to erupt at any time over Texas, which had declared itself independent of Mexico and was seeking statehood. The American government thus wisely accepted a compromise, essentially along the lines of the earlier British offer.

Caught between Two Poles: Canada as a quasi-independent nation-state

Disputes over boundaries after the British North American colonies entered into Confederation highlight the ambiguous place that Canada, as a a quasi-independent nation-state within the British empire, occupied in international affairs. Britain still maintained control over Canadian defence and foreign policies, but Canada was increasingly acting to assert and protect its own interests.

Border conflicts in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century must be seen in the context of the United States’ rise to the status of a world power. Americans had always thought of themselves as exceptional, and national leaders after the Civil War (1861-1865) considered the United States to be already an international leader.

In the 1890s, the US began to act vigorously upon this belief. A successful war against Spain (1898-1901), during which the US seized control of the Philippines, Cuba, and Puerto Rico, gave the US an overseas empire. The US also annexed Hawaii, elbowed its way into the imperial competition over trade in China, and vigorously asserted the special rights and responsibilities in the Western hemisphere that it had claimed since its proclamation of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823.

These developments accentuated the asymmetry between Canada and the United States and led Britain, concerned over its own status as a leading world power, toward a more conciliatory attitude to the United States. Canadians often felt themselves to be the losers in this new Anglo-American accord.

Disputes over the border—especially the Alaska Boundary Dispute—highlighted the ambiguous position that Canada, as a quasi-independent nation-state within the British empire, occupied in international affairs. Britain still maintained control over Canadian defence and foreign policies, but Canada was increasingly acting to assert and protect its own interests.

Yukon Gold and the Alaska Boundary

It was not by coincidence that the United States purchased Alaska from Russia the same year that the British provinces entered Confederation. Secretary of State Seward pushed for the purchase as a check on British-Canadian imperial expansion, which he and other Americans saw as being strengthened by Confederation and the designs that the Dominion of Canada had on extending its dominion across the continent. The American purchase included the so-called Alaskan “panhandle,” a long narrow stretch of real estate that jutted southward along the Pacific Coast.

The dispute arose over how far inland the American claim stretched. A 1825 treaty between Britain and Russia had established the border as “ten marine leagues from the ocean.” The Americans interpreted this as ten leagues from the head of the many fiords (inlets) that riddled the coastline, while Canada claimed ten leagues from the mouth of the fiords, which moved the boundary considerably further west. The American claim was strengthened by its occupancy of the towns along the disputed territory.

Map of the Alaskan Boundary Dispute, showing competing claims and the eventual boundary. During the Klondike Gold Rush, the dispute came to focus due on control of the Chilkoot Pass and White Pass from the coast into the goldfields.
Source: Albert Bushnell Hart, The American Nation Vol. 25 (New York, NY: Harper and Brothers, 1907) 200, [map #02802].

The simmering boundary dispute suddenly became a burning issue in 1897 with the discovery of gold in the Canadian Yukon territory. This set off the Klondike Gold Rush. The problem was that route to the gold fields was up one of the disputed inlets and then through the disputed Chilkoot Pass. Canada wished to control the eastern headlands of the fiords so that it could land Canadian vessels, people, and supplies from Vancouver without having to pass through US territory.

The United States pressed its claim strongly, even more so after Theodore Roosevelt assumed the presidency upon the assassination of his predecessor, William McKinley, in 1901. Roosevelt was bellicose on the boundary dispute. He threatened that the United States would have its way by whatever means necessary, and he emphasized the point by sending US soldiers to the disputed area.

The Alaska Boundary Dispute Settlement

Britain was anxious at this time to reach an accord with the United States, and so it agreed to arbitration of the Alaska Boundary Dispute. The arbitration panel consisted of three representatives from the United States, two from Canada, and one from Britain. Because the British commissioner sided with the American claim, the panel eventually decided in favour of the United States. This decision so angered the Canadian representatives that they refused to sign the settlement.

As David Haglund and Tudor Onea write, “Most Canadians, then and now, have subscribed to the view that the US ‘shafted’ them on the Panhandle issue, and that the British were complicit in the felony, effectively ‘sacrificing’ Canadian interests and territory to the cause of closer Anglo–American understanding.” Historians Norman Hillmer and J.L. Granatstein largely ascribe to this view. They write, “The Alaska controversy was settled through arbitration but the outcome was predetermined by American maneuvering and pressure. That Canada’s case was weak is beside the point. It never had a chance.” Despite their superior claim to the disputed territory, the Americans’ bluster and threat turned the arbitration process into a joke, they note, one that only an American could find funny. “I do not wonder that they are furious,” US Secretary of State John Hay stated privately. “But…serves ’em right, if they can’t take a joke.”

But is this the case? Did Canada get shafted by a bullying US and its British collaborators? Turns out: not so much. The Canadian case was weak by the standards of international law. Despite his bluster, US President Theodore Roosevelt did not behave in a heavy-handed way towards Canada, and the British representative worked hard to ensure that Canada got the best deal possible.

A Bilateral Relationship Emerges

The settlement of Alaskan Boundary Dispute left Canadians with a lingering resentment against both the United States and Britain and demonstrated to Canadians the need for greater say in their own foreign affairs. When James Bryce, the British diplomat who took over as that country’s ambassador in Washington in 1907, made his first visit to Canada, Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier introduced him (rather undiplomatically) to one audience as the latest in a line of British representatives fond of donating tracts of Canadian land to the United States.

Yet the settlement also cleared away the last of the major boundary problems, considerably reducing tensions. By the turn of the century, Canada had already taken its first tentative steps toward bilateral relations with the United States. After the Alaska settlement, it took significant strides in that direction both of its own accord and in response to Britain’s ongoing efforts to divest itself from the burden of Canadian affairs. A series of agreements and treaties in the first decade of the century institutionalized and depoliticized conflict resolution, establishing a pattern that would characterize the way that Canada and the United States would resolve thorny disputes in the future.

Between 1905 and 1911, a total of eight treaties or agreements were reached between Canada and the United States, marking this as a particularly fruitful period of cross-border diplomacy. Significantly, these series of agreements cleared away what had been for many years the main points of conflict between the two countries—the border, the Atlantic fishery, and the Pacific seal hunt.

Figure 4.1 James Bryce a029197

British Ambassador to Washington, James Bryce (at right), with Goldwin Smith, a prominent advocate of a “commercial union” with and annexation to the United States, c. 1907. Bryce served as ambassador from 1907 to 1918 (Canada. Patent and Copyright Office / Library and Archives Canada / PA-029197).

A key figure in this spate of agreements was James Bryce, a scholar, journalist and lecturer, who was well-respected in the United States before assuming the British ambassadorship. Bryce prodded both the Canadian and American governments toward agreements, overcoming the Laurier government’s post-Alaska skepticism about British motives and the resistance of President Theodore Roosevelt’s secretary of state, Elihu Root, who had been one of the “impartial” American commissioners in the Alaska settlement. Canadian affairs, Bryce discovered upon taking office, took up three-quarters of the British embassy’s time and resources, so encouraging bilateral solutions to Canada-US disputes made a certain amount of sense for Britain. Bryce proved highly sympathetic to Canadian interests, acting (according to Hillmer and Granatstein) “consistently for Canada and sometimes even against Britain,” so much so that by 1911 he was referred to by one Laurier minister as “our ambassador.”

The creation of Canada’s own Department of External Affairs (1909) was a small, but not insignificant step toward autonomy in Canadian relations with the United States. It was created, however, at Bryce’s prodding, to bring greater efficiency and modern management to Canada creaky diplomacy. The first undersecretary of state for external affairs, Joseph Pope, had “a passion for filing cabinets rather than policymaking,” note Hillmer and Granatstein, which “was appropriate, since no one in Canada was yet arguing for a gallop into international affairs or disengagement from the foreign-policy apparatus of the imperial government in London. That, for one thing, might put Canadians right up against a too powerful United States.”

The IBC and Bureaucratization of Border Conflicts

The International Boundary Commission (1908) was the first of a number of binational bodies, some of which still operate today, established to settle disputes.  After the settling of the Alaska boundary, remaining border disputes were no longer of great significance, especially in the context of rising Anglo-American amity, which stripped border disputes of their military significance. (The last British garrisons were withdrawn from Canada in 1906.) The commission turned disputes into technical questions to be settled by expert surveyors and geographers rather than politicians and removed them from the public view.

By 1911, Canadian-American relations had changed rather dramatically from their form in the late nineteenth century. The establishment of joint commissions and truly impartial dispute settlement mechanisms set a “new and nonconfrontational pattern” in US-Canada relations. Collectively the negotiation of the treaties and the creation of the joint commissions were significant steps toward Canadian relations with its southern neighbour that did not have to be mediated through the British. Although Britain was still technically responsible for Canadian foreign affairs (Britain only officially relinquished control of Canada’s foreign affairs in the 1931 Statute of Westminster), it increasingly exercised minimal oversight over the expanding field of direct relations between Ottawa and Washington, which were for all intents and purposes becoming the new norm.


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