The Bluff that Won the Northwest

Everyone can find the United States on a map, and every American can find their home state, but few can explain how their state – and the land of the United States – came to be. The US is currently the fourth largest country in the world by land area, but it all started with just a few settlements on the Atlantic coast. It took several centuries of politics, economics, and war to draw the borders which we currently know and love today. In this series, America the Huge-ful, we look at some of the most interesting stories about how our map came to be.

If you played The Oregon Trail in elementary school, then you know that the Oregon Territory was one of the most desirable places to relocate to during the 1800’s: a vast, utopian valley where milk and honey flowed in rivers and the trees stayed green all year round. While it was a nice place to live, this image was actually far from the truth. For much of its history the Oregon Country was a territory disputed by several nations and devoid of much of a central government. However, that would change when America would make one of the most daring land grabs in history.

The history of the Oregon Country goes back several centuries, but we do know for certain that George Vancouver, a British naval officer, first explored Puget Sound and claimed the area for Britain in 1792. In Time, France, Spain, and Russia would all have claims to the vast territory. However, by the 1840’s, America had seized Spain’s claims, and they and Britain were the only two countries with a legitimate hold on the region.

Around this time, there were calls from the American public to annex Texas and admit it to the Union as a slave state. Fearing a shift in balance towards slave states, an equal number of people also called for Oregon to be admitted to the Union as a free territory. Newly elected President James Polk, seeking a compromise, had many options available to him. America wanted all the territory up to the 54°40′ parallel, area that is well in to modern-day British Columbia. The British wanted all territory down to the 42° parallel, which makes up Oregon’s current southern border. The difference is that America was willing to fight for it – Britain was not. Or so it seemed.

Polk and Congress did not want to start a war over the territory, but the public’s desire for the territory was so loud that they essentially let public opinion take hold. Slogans like “54°40′ or Fight!” became very popular, creating the perception that we would go to war over the territory just like we did over Texas.

The British, unwilling to enter their third war with America in 70 years, backed off. A treaty was eventually signed that ceded all of the most seriously disputed territory to America, and created the start of what would become the world’s largest unarmed border along the 49° parallel. It was a daring bluff, but it was one that won us the Pacific Northwest.


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