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The boundary line between the United States and the British possessions in North America has been defined by various treaties and conventions, including the unfortunate Ashburton treaty, by which Great Britain virtually ceded a large tract of valuable territory to the United States. The lands lying between the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, and between 42° and 54° 40' of north latitude, formed, during a long period, a kind of debatable ground, to which claims were advanced by both countries.
The parties most deeply interested in the question of proprietorship were, on the part of Great Britain, the Hudson's Bay Company and the North-West Company. These companies depended for their existence upon the absolute and undivided possession of extensive wastes, forming a kind of preserve for the wild animals in whose furs they traded. Through these wastes their hunters, Indian and half-caste, roamed, and their agents, established in places available for trade, collected furs and forwarded them to the central depôts. Between the respective agents of these rival companies the fiercest animosities grew up, and numerous were the skirmishes and fights which took place between the hunters and Indians who owned allegiance to the Hudson's Bay Company and
those who were attached to the North-West Company. The latter was at length driven from the field, or merged into the former. These companies have been the pioneers on the part of Great Britain in the wettlement of the north-west of America, just as the backwoodsmen have been the pioneers of the United Ntates in the settlement of the west; and the occupation of the Hudson's Bay Company, or of the NorthWest Company, by their agents, must be taken as Occupation by Great Britain.
In the year 1788, Lieutenant Meares, of the British navy, discovered and entered the mouth of a river (now called the Columbia) the head waters of which rise on the western declivities of the Rocky Mountains, within British territory, and which flows down south and west into the Pacific Ocean. About the year 1805, and in subsequent years, the British North-West Company established their posts on the main branch of the river, being induced to do so by the casy communication it gave them with the Pacific through a country at that time unsettled by any civilised power.
In the year 1792, Captain Gray, an American merchant captain, entered the mouth of the river, and, from the name of his vessel, it received the name of the Columbia River. In 1805-6, Captains Lewis and Clarke, Americans, descended the river from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific, and passed the winter on its banks.
Subsequently a company of fur traders set up a trading settlement at the mouth of the river,
giving it the name of Astoria, and a small military post was established for its protection. This fort was in the possession of Great Britain at the conclusion of her war with the United States, commenced in 1812, and, being claimed on the part of the latter country, was given up to her under the first article of the treaty of Ghent, 1814, express reservation being made by Great Britain in respect of her claims to the whole of the territory surrounding the fort, and upon which territory the fort and settlement was then declared to be an encroachment. By the third article of the convention between the United States and Great Britain, in 1818, it was agreed as follows:
“ That any country that may be claimed by either party on the north-west coast of America, westward of the Stony Mountains, shall, together with its harbours, bays, and creeks, and the navigation of all rivers within the same, be free and open, for the term of ten years from the date of the signature of the present convention, to the vessels, citizens, and subjects of the two powers; it being well understood that this agreement is not to be construed to the prejudice of any claim which either of the two high contracting parties may have to any part of the said country; nor shall it be taken to affect the claims of any other power or state to any part of the said country; the only object of the high contracting parties in that respect being to prevent disputes and differ. ences amongst themselves.”
The arguments, by which the claim of the United States to the territory which I have termed the debatable ground is supported, are thus put by a United States authority, Mr. Wheaton. (1)
(1) Wheaton's “Elenienis of International Law.” 6 h Edition, p. 229.
“1. The first discovery of the mouth of the river Columbia by Captain Gray, of Boston, in 1792; the first discovery of the sources of that river, and the exploration of its course to the sea, by Captains Lewis and Clarke, in 1805-6; and the establishment of the first posts and settlements in the territory in question by citizens of the United States.
"2. The virtual recognition by the British Government of the title of the United States in the restitution of the settlement of Astoria, or Fort George, at the mouth of the Columbia River, which had been captured by the British during the late war between the two countries, and which was restored in virtue of the 1st Article of the treaty of Ghent, 1814, stipulating that all territory, places, and possessions whatever taken by either party from the other during the war,' &c., shall be restored without delay.' This restitution was made, without any reservation or exception whatsoever communicated at the time to the American Government.
3. The acquisition by the United States of all the titles of Spain; which titles were derived from the discovery of the coasts of the region in question, by Spanish subjects, before they had been seen by the people of any other civilised nation. By the 3rd Article of the treaty of 1819, between the United States and Spain, the boundary line between the two countries, west of the Mississippi, was established from the mouth of the river Sabine, to certain points on the Red River and the Arkansas, and running along the parallel of 42 degrees north of the South Sea; his Catholic Majesty ceding to the United States all his rights, claims, and pretensions to any territories east and north of the said line; and’ renouncing for himself, his heirs, and successors, all claims to the said territories for ever.' The boundary thus agreed on with Spain was confirmed by the treaty of 1828, between the United States and Mexico, which had, in the meantime, become independent of Spain.
“4. Upon the ground of contiguity, which should give to the United States a stronger right to those territories than could be advanced by any other power. “If,' said Mr. Gallatim, “a few trading factories on the shores of Hudson's Bay have been considered by Great Britain as giving an exclusive right of occupancy as far as the Rocky Mountains ; if the infant settlements on the more southern Atlantic shores justified a claim thence to the South Seas, and, which was actually enforced, to the Mississippi ; that of the millions of American citizens already within reach of those seas cannot consistently be rejected. It will not be denied that the extent of contiguous country to which an actual settlement gives a prior right must depend, in a considerable degree, on the magnitude and population of that settlement, and on the facility with which the vacant adjacent land may, within a short time, be occupied, settled, and cultivated by such population, compared with the probability of its being occupied and settled from any other quarter. This doctrine was admitted to its fullest extent by Great Britain, as appeared by all her charters, extending from the Atlantic to the Pacific, given to colonies established then only on the borders of the Atlantic. How much more natural and stronger the claim when made by a nation whose population extended to the central parts of the continent, and whose dominions were by all acknowledged to extend to the Rocky Mountains.'”
The counter arguments in support of the claim of Great Britain are put by him as follows:(1)
“1. That the Columbia was not discovered by Gray, who had only entered its mouth, discovered four years previously by Lieutenant Meares, of the British navy; and that the exploration of the interior borders of the Columbia by Lewis and Clarke, could not be considered as confirming the claim of the United States, because if not before, at least in the same and subsequent years, the British North-West Company had, by means of their agents, already established their posts on the head waters or main branch of the river.
(1) Wheaton's “ Elements,” p. 230.