Oregon Trail Helps Avoid War with Great Britain
Every American knows the Revolutionary War against the British led to our country’s independence, and most Americans know we fought a second war with Great Britain, the War of 1812. Few Americans realize, however, that we almost fought a third war with the British in the 1840s, when war fever gripped the nation over the dispute concerning the “Oregon Country.”
This was a vast area, stretching from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean, from California all the way up to Alaska, rich with resources and fertile land. At one time four powers had interests in this territory—Spain, Russia, Great Britain and the United States—but Spain and Russia dropped their claims when the U.S. and Great Britain signed the Anglo-American Convention of 1818, agreeing to joint occupancy of the Oregon Country.
Article continues after this newspaper image from the Sept. 1, 1842, issue of the Jamestown Journal (New York)
Aside from Native Americans the only real presence in this area was the British Hudson’s Bay Company, and from 1818 until 1840 the Oregon Country was essentially British territory, despite the joint occupancy agreement. All that changed in the 1840s, when America became obsessed that its “Manifest Destiny” was to extend across the entire continent, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. What made this expansion possible, and enabled so many Americans to pour into Oregon that Great Britain realized further resistance was futile, was the Oregon Trail.
Newspapers played a major role in supporting and encouraging this migration. More than ten years before the Oregon Trail had even been established, the Portsmouth Journal of Literature and Politics (Portsmouth, New Hampshire) published a piece in its May 14, 1831, issue that stated:
There seems to be no limit to American enterprise.
Things that were considered, a year ago, to be impracticable, or wild, are, this year, sober matters of fact.
…We have recently seen an advertisement, issued from Boston, inviting emigrants to the number of 5,000, to go and settle on the shores of the Oregon, or Columbia River; 1,000 to go out the present year; a good code of laws is annexed; and everything about the scheme looks well on paper. There is no limit to American enterprise.
In 1836 two Protestant missionaries, Marcus Whitman and Henry Spalding, traveled overland with their wives to the Oregon Country and set up missions for the local Indians. (Their wives, Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Hart Spalding, were the first white women to cross the Rocky Mountains.) The missionaries began writing letters East encouraging emigrants to come settle the fertile land, and a slow trickle began following a rough trail laid out by fur trappers and mountain men. Several small wagon trains made the trek in 1841 and 1842, further developing the trail as they went.
Newspapers back East trumpeted this advance. In its Sept. 1, 1842, issue the Jamestown Journal (Jamestown, New York) declared:
The day is not far distant when, if the General Government shall do its duty in the matter, Oregon will be inhabited by a hardy, industrious, and intelligent population, and the enterprise of our citizens find a new channel of trade with the Islands of the Pacific, the western coast of this whole continent, and perhaps with Eastern Asia. Notwithstanding the many obstacles at present in the way of the settlement of this territory, emigrants are rapidly pouring into it and only demand of Government that protection which is due to all our citizens, wherever they may choose to reside.
By 1843 an “Oregon Trail,” entirely passable by wagon, had been created—and that year around 900 settlers made the difficult six-month, 2,000-mile journey from Missouri to Oregon, later called “The Great Migration of 1843.”
Newspapers increased their coverage of this mass movement, making it seem inevitable that America’s destiny was to settle the entire Oregon Country at the exclusion of the British. In its March 10, 1843, issue the Daily Ohio Statesman (Columbus, Ohio) stated:
…until this long neglected portion of our rich possessions is fully subject to the jurisdiction and control of the American people. The far-seeing statesman and philosopher will look into the future, and keep pace with the mighty sweep of civilization in its onward course towards the setting sun…The time has now arrived when the question can no longer be postponed. Citizens of the United States have taken up their abode in the very heart of this future great empire, and demand from their Government protection and recognition of citizenship.
While continuing to encourage more and more emigrants to head West, the papers mixed in another element to their stories: strident anti-British rhetoric, fanning the flames of possible war. The Daily Ohio Statesman provided extensive coverage of a committee appointed “to urge immediate occupation of the Oregon Territory,” and in its May 17, 1843, issue published these words from the committee’s report:
If, then, our occupation of the territory be a declaration of war [as declared by Lord Palmerston in Great Britain’s House of Commons March 21], when a right of joint occupation exists, then has England been at war with us for the last twenty-five years – a war to whose aggression we have so long tamely submitted that immediate resistance, or the loss of the Oregon, and our consequent disgrace, seem the only alternatives. War we do not wish for – war we do not advocate – war we would avoid if possible – but when a foreign power tells us that, to occupy territories which are our own, not only by all the rules of international law, but by actual purchase from another power, will be equivalent to a declaration of war, we cannot too soon make that declaration, so far as the occupation of the Oregon by our arms, our laws, and our people is concerned.
The New Bedford Register (New Bedford, Massachusetts) published this article on June 28, 1843:
The Oregon Territory
The people of the West, weary of waiting the tardy action of the government, are already taking possession of the Oregon. Emigrants are flocking thither from all the Western States, and settlements will speedily be springing into life all along the borders of the Pacific. To show the feeling, beyond the Alleghanies, upon this subject, we quote the following passages from the Address of the Ohio Oregon Committee to the Eastern States:
“If anything distinguishes the Western pioneer, it is a lively jealousy of the growing power and a deep, instinctive, unalterable, and unmitigated hatred of Great Britain. This, indeed, has become hereditary, in consequence of the perpetual contest, waged for hundreds of years, with the fierce savages of the wilderness, who must necessarily give way before the march of civilization.
Instigated and supported, as they have been, for sixty years past, by the emissaries of England, in peace, and most generally combined with her in war, they are inseparably connected in the mind of each Western pioneer; and an Indian and British war are with him terms absolutely synonymous, and the just equivalents of each other. The Western pioneers have been taught to consider the whole region before them theirs, by those laws of nature which will give way to no human institution. They have always been given to understand that the limits of the Union extended to a Great Western Ocean, which they all have always hoped to see. They are all aware, too, that the all-grasping avarice of England has threatened to extend itself over regions West of the Mississippi – and they have seen with apprehension a settlement of our boundaries on the Northeastern frontier, without the slightest reference to their own immense expectations in the West.”
By 1844, thanks to the Oregon Trail, more than 5,000 Americans had settled in Oregon, compared to only about 700 British. American territorial expansion was hotly debated during the presidential election that year, especially the annexation of Texas and control of the Oregon Country. The Democratic Party candidate (and eventual winner), James K. Polk, strongly supported expansion of America’s boundaries. He wrote a letter on April 23 clearly stating his views; it was published in the June 4, 1844, issue of the New-Hampshire Gazette (Portsmouth, New Hampshire):
…Let Texas be re-annexed, and the authority and laws of the United States be established and maintained within her limits, as also in the Oregon Territory, and let the fixed policy of our Government be, not to permit Great Britain or any other foreign power to plant a colony or hold dominion over any portion of the people or territory of either.
After Polk’s election and the admission of Texas into the Union, the Democratic Party turned its attention to kicking the British out of the Oregon Country. A popular rallying cry became “Fifty-four Forty or Fight!” threatening war with Great Britain unless it relinquished the entire Oregon territory—all the way up to fifty-four degrees and forty minutes of north latitude, the territory’s border with Alaska.
Tensions between the two countries increased throughout 1845, and war seemed a very real possibility. All this time, determined pioneers were hitching up their wagons and tackling the arduous trek on the Oregon Trail, populating Oregon with more and more Americans. In its June 14, 1845, issue the New York Herald (New York, New York) published this letter from an emigrant camp:
This morning the warlike news from England reached the camp, at the announcement of which all declared that they went equally determined to settle and to conquer. Should they be called to rally around the Star Spangled Banner, and plant the national standard forever firmly on the sublime heights that overlook the Pacific, we shall know that truer hearts or better soldiers never primed a rifle or drew a deadlier bead.
We cannot too highly appreciate those who thus depart with such intentions, or too highly value the services they go to render to their country without remuneration. They go to plant a new people in a new and active country – to create new states – to give us a new commercial empire – to open a new field to the growing energies and wants of our expanding Republic…They go to confront and dislodge British invasion and stop British conquest, which vanquished in front upon the Atlantic, has gone round our flanks and round the world to crush and destroy us from behind – to counteract British spleen which has heated our enemies, soured our friends, concerted for us domestic strife and servile war, and intrigued to sow the seed of enmity against us in every foreign breast.
Early in 1845, newspaperman John L. O’Sullivan had urged the annexation of Texas because it was “our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” Then, on Dec. 27, 1845, he declared the U.S. had the right to claim the Oregon Country: “And that claim is by the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us.”
As 1846 began, Congress rallied around President Polk’s determination to announce to Great Britain that joint occupancy of the Oregon Country was over—no matter what the consequences. On January 5, Ohio Representative Jacob Brinkerhoff gave a speech on the floor of the House of Representatives. The Ohio Statesman (Columbus, Ohio) published the entire speech in its Feb. 4, 1846, issue, including these words:
Shall we get rid of this tenancy, by giving the other party notice to quit? It is said, this is a warlike measure…‘But,’ say Gentlemen, ‘postpone it. We are not ready now. Great Britain has fleets and armaments.’ Well, fleets and armaments she always will have. ‘We have no fleets and armaments.’ Well, when have we ever had fleets and armaments before war came? Is there any gentleman upon this floor who dreams that we shall ever be ready for a vigorous prosecution of war before it is upon us? If so, it strikes me that he has studied with little attention the history of the country on this point. We have heard gentlemen talk of our ‘manifest destiny’; but it strikes me that our ‘manifest destiny’ is never to prepare for war until war comes.
Three days after Brinkerhoff’s speech, on January 8, Georgia Representative Howell Cobb gave a similar speech before the House of Representatives. His entire speech was published in the Jan. 27, 1846, issue of the Macon Weekly Telegraph (Macon, Georgia), including these strong words:
No doubt now remains on the minds of American statesmen that the government of the United States holds a clear and unquestionable title to the whole of the Oregon territory…Go to those people who have emigrated to Oregon and ask them if they believed at the time that they abandoned their homes in the western part of our western States and emigrated to Oregon territory that this joint occupancy was to continue from year to year, from time to time, and that they were to be left there without the protection of the laws of their country; that they would be left there with the title to every foot of land on which they have so located themselves uncertain and insufficient? They settle there not temporarily, but they build up for themselves a home in that territory, which we say is ours, but which we fear to declare in such terms as shall authorize that emigrant people, when they plant themselves on any portion of the Oregon territory, to feel confidence that they are on ground consecrated to American freedom, and which shall never cease to be made prosperous and happy by the prevalence of republican principles. I ask you, if this is not the feeling under which this emigration is carried on to Oregon?...If war be the consequence, we must meet it. It is a circumstance not to be avoided, not to be evaded, but to be met with boldness, firmness and decision.
In the face of such defiance, Americans’ fierce belief in their “manifest destiny” to expand across the entire continent, and the overwhelming number of American settlers that continued to reach the Oregon Country via the Oregon Trail, Great Britain realized compromise was better than losing everything. The British foreign secretary, Lord Aberdeen, was authorized to work out a settlement with the Polk administration, and the resulting agreement, the Oregon Treaty of 1846, established American control of the Oregon Country up to the 49th parallel (the American-Canadian border today). Great Britain was allowed to keep the stretch of territory above that boundary up to Alaska’s border. War had been averted, and peace achieved through compromise—to a great extent because the Oregon Trail enabled so many Americans to settle the Oregon Country that Great Britain did not have much alternative.
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