||July/August 2008 issue||
|Click map to enlarge
Drawing the line
It took almost a century of negotiation and compromise
to establish the world’s longest undefended border
By Steven Fick and Elizabeth Shilts
Canadians may be experiencing increased scrutiny when crossing the boundary
with the United States these days, but the border remains largely undefended
and as peaceable as it was throughout the long and complicated journey of its
From the time of the first successful European colonists in North America
in the 1600s, a host of countries — Britain, France, Spain, Russia — moved
in and out, attempting to establish footholds on the new continent.
1783: Dividing line
At the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783,
Britain had to recognize U.S. independence
with a boundary. Britain had two border
options: a line on the 45th parallel extending
from the St. Lawrence to the Mississippi or a
line through the Great Lakes to Lake of the
Woods (then thought to be the headwater of
the St. Lawrence). They chose the latter, so
in 1783, the line was drawn from St. Croix
Island to Lake of the Woods in 17 segments.
This eastern boundary point is where Samuel de
Champlain camped in 1604. The St. Croix River
formed the boundary between Quebec, Nova Scotia
and New England in 1763.
1818: Eliminating the Gap
In the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, the U.S.
bought more than two million square kilometres
of land, from the Mississippi River to the
Rockies, from France. In doing so, the contentious
gap between Lake of the Woods and
the Mississippi was superseded. Since the
dividing line between Rupert’s Land and the
Louisiana territory approximately followed the
49th parallel and since Britain had previously
said it would concede the line to the French
during land negotiations in 1719, the line was
drawn to the Rockies along the 49th.
||Lake of the Woods|
As the end point of the first stretch of the border, it
left a gap of about 225 kilometres between British land
to the north and the head of the Mississippi, which
was the western limit of the new United States. The
Brits took advantage by freely trapping in “the Gap.”
1825: Protecting territory
Russia had claimed the area now known as
Alaska since 1750, but when the Russians
extended their claim to the northern tip of
Vancouver Island in 1821, the U.S. stepped
in with the Monroe doctrine, which proclaimed
that European states were no longer
welcome to colonize the Americas. The U.S.
managed to push the Russians back to 54°40'
latitude, and Britain later negotiated the
border along the 141° longitude line. The
U.S. bought Alaska from Russia in 1867.
In 1818, the U.S. proposed extending the
border to the coast along the 49th parallel,
but with investments along the southern
Columbia River, the British refused. So there
was joint occupancy in the area known as
“Oregon country” between 1828 and 1838.
Many in the U.S. wanted to keep the territory,
and James Polk even ran for office in
1844 with the slogan “fifty-four forty or
fight.” In the end, there was compromise,
and in 1846 the 49th parallel was drawn
to the Strait of Georgia.
Once the 49th parallel was set as the final stretch
of the border, the United States allowed for a
slight deviation from the line so that the British
territory would include all of Vancouver Island.
The end of the American Revolution in 1783 launched the evolution of the current
border. Britain was forced to recognize American independence by creating a
line on the map between its territory to the north and the United States to
the south. But the border we know today was not drawn in one fell swoop. Instead,
it was established in four distinct stretches, each of which took decades of
negotiation and compromise.
That an 8,891-kilometre international boundary was set without conflict at
a time when maps were being drafted and re-drafted as explorers such as Thompson,
Mackenzie and Lewis and Clark criss-crossed the continent is a testament to
the negotiating skills of the diplomats involved, says historian David Malaher,
who has written extensively on the subject.
“We have to give praise to the negotiators,” he says. “With
all the parties and countries involved, they managed to discuss these things
without shooting anyone.”
How walk/bike friendly is your neighbourhood?