The Oregon Treaty and the British Corn Crisis of 1845-1846

What did the British Corn Crisis have to do with the Oregon Treaty?

In the autumn of 1845 the potato and wheat crops in Britain failed. Famine threatened. Grain from other countries such as the United States were too expensive because of an old tax known as the “Corn Laws” which applied to all cereal crop imports.

At the same time, James Polk was elected president of the United States.  In his campaign, President James Polk promised to expand American territory and push back the borders all the way to the 54th parallel in the north. His slogan “54°40‘ or fight” summed up his intentions.

Why 54°40′?

map before Oregon Treaty signed

disputed area highlighted in yellow before Oregon Treaty was signed

For many years, the northern coast was controlled by two fur trading monopolies—the Russian-American Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company.

After years of clashes between the two  rival companies and conflicts with the Natives, Governor Wrangel decided to hand over the Alaskan panhandle to the Hudson’s Bay Company.

On June 1, 1840, chief factor James Douglas formally took possession of the territory from Governor Wrangel and the Russian-American Company Fort Redoubt St. Dionysius was renamed Fort Stikine. The city of Wrangell, Alaska sits on that same site.

Oregon Territory – land of plenty

The Hudson’s Bay Company had forts and trading posts throughout the Oregon territory which covered a vast area from the 42° parallel (the border with Mexican province of Alta California) to the border with Russia at 54°40′. Competition from American trading vessels was virtually non-existent. The Hudson’s Bay Company had trading posts in Mexico. One of the HBC’s most southerly trading posts was Yerba Buena (the present site of San Francisco).

The Willamette Valley in Oregon (known as the Columbia District) turned out to be a boon for the HBC. They established farms and raised cattle and grew wheat and vegetables which they exported to their own forts as well as Mexican communities in California. They even exported their flour to the Kingdom of Hawaii.

Manifest Destiny

President Polk was determined annex the entire territory of Oregon for the United States. He didn’t necessarily want to start a war with Britain but what better way to take over an enemy’s land than by simply moving in?

Wagon trains of American settlers arrived hungry and destitute at Fort Vancouver. The chief factor John McLoughlin took pity on these new arrivals and provided them with beef and cattle to raise for themselves. Eventually it became obvious that the sheer numbers of new settlers were going to overwhelm the Hudson’s Bay Company’s resources. It wasn’t long before the settlers demanded a democratic government to represent their interests.

The HBC tried to sound the alarm that it was about to lose control of the entire Oregon territory. The American military began surveying the coastal waters and the Columbia River. It didn’t help that the newly elected British government was critical of the Company.

Irish Famine

For the vast majority of Irish farmers, their main crop was one variety of potato. When a fungus  arrived in 1845 it quickly spread across Ireland. By harvest time there was nothing. Famine was imminent. During the winter of 1845-1846 the British government spent £100,000 on American maize which was sold to the poor. For those who could afford it, the maize was hard to grind down and make a meal out of.

Seeing as how they would be dependent on the United States for food, Britain wanted to keep good relations with the United States. The new foreign secretary, Lord Aberdeen, decided to give away the Columbia territory without a fight. On June 15, 1846, The U.S. and Britain signed the Treaty of Oregon which established the boundary between their territories at the 49th parallel.

The HBC received some compensation for the loss of their southern forts, but it was a blow to their operations.

Goldseekers came north for the Fraser River gold rush just twelve years after the Oregon Treaty was signed. Many American miners still believed in ‘Manifest Destiny’ and that the land up to 54°40′ was rightfully theirs.

What is the significance of 54°40′ today? This is the latitude of the border between British Columbia and Alaska.