Early Life
Oregon Laws
The Trail
Bush Biography
Tumwater Born
Thurston County
State History
Bush Farm Today


British Newspapers and the Oregon Treaty of 1846

March 22, 2003
Oregon Historical Quarterly
by Thomas C. McClintock

In 1846, THE UNITED STATES and Great Britain finally settled their long-standing dispute over the boundary between the U.S. and British Canada in the Oregon Country, a dispute that became known as the "Oregon Question."  The first official attempt by the two nations to settle the dispute was in 1818. Unsuccessful, they agreed to joint occupation of the region for ten years. Failing to reach a settlement again at the end of that decade, they continued joint occupation indefinitely with the provision that if either nation wished to terminate the arrangement it must give the other a year's notice.

The two nations found it so difficult to reach a settlement because the boundary each proposed was so unacceptable to the other. Great Britain maintained that it should hold all of the region north of the Columbia River from the point where it crossed the forty-ninth parallel to the Pacific, thus awarding Britain all of Puget Sound and present-day western Washington. The U.S. eventually would claim all lands south Of 54'40" Of north latitude--that is, the southern boundary of Russian Alaska.  Ironically, both nations had favored the forty-ninth parallel as a compromise, but prior to 1846 one or the other party had always rejected it.

In the 1840s, however, developments occurred in both nations that finally made a settlement possible. Probably most crucial was Lord Aberdeen's return to the office of the British foreign secretary. In addition, both nations were under great pressure to settle the dispute. In Great Britain, for example, there was a growing fear of war because of the demand by increasingly vocal expansionists in the U.S. for "Fifty-four Forty or Fight" and the bellicose tone of President James Polk's inaugural address in March 1845 and other pronouncements. In the U.S., war with Mexico appeared to be inevitable, and there was growing pressure on the government to reach a peaceful settlement on the Oregon Question. As a result of these and other developments, President Polk forwarded the forty-ninth parallel compromise proposed by Aberdeen to the U.S. Senate as a treaty, though without his endorsement. The Senate ratified it without change on June 18, 1846.

Was the compromise also favorably received in Great Britain, at least as revealed by the reactions of magazines and newspapers?  According to Richard S. Cramer, although British magazines “staunchly upheld British rights to Oregon almost to the end," they then accepted "with scarcely a murmur" the compromise Aberdeen had proposed. Frederick Merk, the American historian who has provided the most detailed account of the thirty-year effort to settle this territorial dispute, concluded that the "whole British press" greeted the news of the Senate's ratification of Aberdeen’s proposed treaty with "a sigh of relief" and "universal satisfaction."

Merk may have been correct, but the evidence he provided is hardly persuasive. Not only did he cite only one British newspaper, the London Times, but, as Merk himself acknowledged elsewhere, no other British newspaper would have been expected to be as favorable to the Oregon Treaty as the Times.  The young editor of the Times, John T. Delane, had been carefully cultivated by Lord Aberdeen for just such a purpose.  According to Arthur Dasent, in his biography of Delane. Shortly after he became editor, Delane was admitted to the confidence of a Minister for whom he conceived an enduring admiration and respect. This was Lord Aberdeen .... The communications which passed between Lord Aberdeen and the editor of the Times were verbal, and hardly a day passed without their meeting. Aberdeen's communications to Delane were inside information concerning planned diplomatic and other initiatives by the Peel government, information that would have been eagerly sought by any member of the press.

The foreign secretary's efforts had been well rewarded. On January 3, 1846, Delane published a long editorial on the Oregon territorial dispute in the Times. After a rather detailed discussion of the reasons why "joint occupation of the [sic] Oregon by British and American settlers is no longer judged expedient" and, thus, why "partition is recommended and desired," Delane informed his readers:

We think, then, that every purpose both of honour and interest would be answered, if the British Minister [Lord Aberdeen], on whom now devolves the duty of making fresh proposals to the Government of the United States, were to renew on his part the offer made to England [in 1826] by Mr.Gallatin [at that time a special envoy to London] in the presidency and under the direction of Mr. Adams. That proposal was to take the 49th degree of north latitude as far as the sea [Puget Sound] as the boundary line, reserving to Great Britain Vancouver’s Island, the harbour of St. Juan de Fuca [?], and the free navigation of the Columbia.

It was no coincidence that the compromise terms proposed by Lord Aberdeen and presented by Richard Pakenham, British minister to the United States, to U.S. Secretary of State James Buchanan the following June were virtually the same as those suggested by Delane.  (Aberdeen's terms would be forwarded to the U.S. Senate, where the treaty was ratified on June 18, 1846, without change.

Adding to the value of Delane's editorial for Aberdeen in his efforts to prepare the nation for a compromise settlement of the Oregon…

The full text of this article is found here