Oregon Question


Oregon Question
   A territorial dispute involving the lands west of the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean and between latitudes 42° and 54°40', encompassing approximately a halfmillion square miles. Until the early nineteenth century, the United States, Great Britain, Spain, and Russia each asserted colonial rights to the territory, based on either discovery, exploration, or settlement. Spain conceded its title to Oregon to the United States in 1819 with the Adams-Onís Treaty, and in treaties with the United States and Britain in 1824 and 1825 respectively Russia renounced its rights. Although the Oregon territory was on the periphery of the British and American empires, both powers valued it for its economic and strategic potential. Britain sought to divide the territory on the basis of settlement, extending the U.S.- Canadian border along latitude 49° to the Columbia River, then following the river to the Pacific Ocean. The United States refused, biding its time until in a stronger position to assert its claims. Instead of a final settlement, for more than 20 years after the 1818 Convention, the United States and Britain established a joint occupation of Oregon that was open to equal settlement.
   Awareness of Oregon intensified in the United States as a consequence of the 1842 Wilkes expedition, as thousands of migrants pioneered across the Oregon Trail. The popularity of Manifest Destiny, abundant fertile lands, a deep water port, and a burgeoning commercial interest in the Orient made Oregon high priority for many Americans. Publicly, President James K. Polk insisted that all of Oregon was U.S. territory, echoing jingoist demands of “54°40' or Fight!,” but privately he promoted compromise at 49°. The British desired to retain the disputed territory between 49° and the Columbia River, but were unwilling to go to war for it. British Foreign Secretary Lord Aberdeen, realizing that American migration would not abate and that American war cries were intensifying, that Britain was unable to defend Oregon, and that the fur trade was stagnant, conceded the disputed territory. The Buchanan- Pakenham Treaty of 1846 - also known as the Oregon Treaty and the Treaty of Washington -established the American-Canadian border at 49°, extending through the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The final settlement resolved a longstanding Anglo-American colonial dispute, guaranteed the United States greater access to the Pacific Ocean and Oriental markets, and paved the way for American redevelopment of Oregon. The steady influx of Euro-American culture in subsequent decades undermined traditional indigenous tribal societies, resulting in their eventual displacement or annihilation.
   See also <>; <>; <>; <>.
   FURTHER READING:
    Merk, Frederick. The Oregon Question: Essays in Anglo-American Diplomacy and Politics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967.
   JONATHAN GANTT

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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