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This despatch was communicated to Mr. Cass on the 12th of September.
It is, perhaps, unfortunate that the British Government should have offered a compromise of the rights of Great Britain, in the face of the evidence presented by the maps of General Fremont and Mr. Preston. This offer naturally tended to produce erroneous impressions in the minds of Americans; and they began to believe, either that we doubted the validity of our claims to the archipelago, and so were willing to give up a part in order to save the rest; or that we did not feel equal to or inclined for an encounter with them in support of those claims.
In the meantime a rumour had reached Lord Lyons that United States troops had been landed on the island, as above described, and he at once, on the 3rd of September, wrote to Mr. Cass as follows:(1) “ Immediate.]
Washington, September 3rd, 1859. “SIR,—It is stated by the newspapers that intelligence has been received in this city that a detachment of United States troops has endeavoured, by order of General Harney, to establish itself on the island of San Juan, in the Gulf of Georgia. It is needless that I should dwell upon the considerations which render me extremely anxious that this statement should not reach Her Majesty's Government without such information respecting its truth or falsehood, and such explanations concerning it as the Government of the United States may be disposed to afford.”
Lord Lyons then referred to his former letter of the 12th of May 1859, and stated that inasmuch as he had received no answer thereto, he was the more earnest in requesting Mr. Cass to enable him to send, as speedily as possible, satisfactory information to Her Majesty's Government on the subject to which it referred.
It will have been seen that General Harney had, on the 19th of July, forwarded a despatch to the “ Assistant Adjutant-General, Head-quarters of the Army,
(1) American State Papers, p. 224.
New York City,” stating that he had established a force on San Juan Island. It does not clearly appear why this despatch was sent to the Assistant-AdjutantGeneral at New York, for I find that on the 7th of August the General forwarded a despatch to the
Adjutant-General, Washington City, D.C.," the seat of the Government of the United States. Whatever may have been the reason, it is clear that the forwarding this despatch to New York, while the seat of Government was at Washington, displayed, to say the least, an ignorance on the part of the General, of the consequences which might have resulted from the step he had taken, or a most culpable recklessness. So great, indeed, was the delay occasioned by this remissness, that it was not until the 3rd of September (the date, to be remarked, of Lord Lyons' pressing communication to Mr. Cass), that an answer was forwarded by the Government of the United States.
The Acting Secretary of War was then, it appears, directed by the President, Mr. Buchanan, to write as follows: (1)
“War Department, September 3, 1859. “SIR, -Your despatch of the 19th of July last, addressed to the General-in-chief, has been forwarded to this department, and laid before the President for his consideration.
“ The President was not prepared to learn that you had ordered military possession to be taken of the island of San Juan or Bellevue. Although he believes the Straits of Haro to be the true boundary between Great Britain and the United States, under the treaty of June 15, 1846, and that, consequently, this island belongs to us, yet he had not anticipated that so decided a step would have been resorted to without
(1) American State Papers, p. 148.
instructions. In cases respecting territory in dispute between friendly nations it is usual to suffer the status of the parties to remain until the dispute is terminated one way or the other, and this more especially while the question is pending for decision before a joint commission of the two Governments. If you had good reason to believe that the colonial authorities of Great Britain were about to disturb the status, by taking possession of the island and assuming jurisdiction over it, you were in the right to anticipate their action.
The President will not, for the present, form any decided opinion upon your course on the statement of facts presented in your despatch. He will await further details, which he expects to receive from you by the next steamer. He is especially anxious to ascertain whether, before you proceeded to act, you had communicated with Commissioner Campbell, who could not then have been distant from you, and who was intrusted by this Government, in conjunction with the British commissioner, to decide this very boundary question.
“In the meantime care ought to be taken to apprise the British authorities that possession has thus been taken solely with the view of protecting the rights of our citizens on the island, and preventing the incursions of the northern Indians into our territory, and not with any view of prejudging the question in dispute or retaining the island, should the question be finally decided against the United States. “ Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
“ Acting Secretary of War. “ Brigadier-General Wm. S. Harney, “ Commanding Departinent of Oregon, Fort Vancouver.”
I would call attention to the tone of this letter, or despatch, and will sum up the state of things which called it forth.
Doubts had arisen between two friendly nations as to the proprietary right to an island, and the settle
ment of those doubts had been referred by a solemn and binding agreement to two commissioners, chosen, one by each party. These commissioners had differed, and the question, by the mutual consent of the parties, remained in abeyance. Whilst affairs so stood, an officer, in high command in the forces of one nation, had rudely taken possession of the disputed territory, had assumed jurisdiction over it, had grossly and wantonly insulted the flag of the other nation, whose soldiers were compelled to receive his insults or plunge their country into war-a wanton breach of the first principles of international law, that nations as well as men should abide by their agreements. Such was the position in which the United States and Great Britain were placed, and such was the despatch which, to the President of the United States, seemed befitting the occasion.
It may be convenient to insert here General Harney's reply, which was as follows: (1)
“ Head-quarters, Department of Oregon,
“ Fort Vancouver, W.T., October 10, 1859. “SIR,-I have the honour to acknowledge the receipt of your communication of the 3rd of September last, transmitting the views of the President of the United States in reference to the military occupation of San Juan or Bellevue Island, as reported in my despatch of the 19th of July last, addressed to the General-in-chief.
“Since the date of that despatch other events have transpired, which are conclusive in showing that the intentions of the colonial authorities of Great Britain were directed towards assuming a positive jurisdiction over the island of San Juan. These occurrences have all been reported in a regular course of correspondence to the General-in-chief, duplicates having been transmitted to the Adjutant-General.
(1) American State Papers, p. 185.