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The Alaska-Canada Boundary Dispute

by Murray Lundberg

Dateline: October 30, 2000

    Along the road to their current State and Territorial status, Alaska and the Yukon have run into a few problems. None, however were as vexing and long-lasting as deciding precisely where the border should be. Although diplomats thought they had it settled in 1825, the issue continued to flare up right until 1903, and even now, many people believe that the Yukon got robbed of land that should belong to them.

Alaska Boundary Tribunal Map 1904     The short answer as to why the boundary issue came up in the 1820s was that the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) and the Russian-American Company (RAC) were arguing over trading territories. The complete background would take a book to detail, but the key document is an agreement between Russia and Great Britain that divided the Northwest American territories of the two powers, signed on February 28, 1825. As well as substantially reducing the territory that Russia had claimed, it re-opened the Russian colonies to British trading ships for a period of ten years. The HBC had asked for trade and navigation to be opened forever, but British negotiator Sir Henry Bagot told the Governors that no self-respecting government would ever accept such wording.

    A similar ten-year agreement on trade was made with the United States at approximately the same time, formalizing the activities of independent American trading ships who had been working in the waters of Russian America for decades.

    The HBC claimed that, since they were operating forts west of the Rocky Mountains, and the coast had been claimed by British navigators in the previous century, that everything between the coast and the Rockies should be theirs. The RAC, while not denying the explorations of Captain Vanouver in particular, disputed the HBC's territorial claim, as they had many trading stations in full operation within that territory.

    Negotiations went on between the British and Russia governments for three years, with a great deal of "in-the-wings" participation by both the HBC and RAC. The part of the agreement that eventually set the boundary is quite simple. The British were not to be given access to the coast through what was termed in French the sinuosités; the navigation section of the agreement, though, allowed access along the rivers that ran to the coast. An English translation of the original document, which is in French, states that:

Commencing from the Southern-most Point of the Island called Prince of Wales Island, which Point lies in the parallel of 54 degrees 40 minutes, North Latitude, and between the 131st and 133d Degree of West Longitude (Meridian of Greenwich), the said line shall ascend to the North along the Channel called Portland Channel, as far as the Point of the Continent where it strikes the 56th Degree of North Latitude; from this last mentioned Point the line of demarcation shall follow the summit of the mountains situated parallel to the Coast, as far as the point of intersection of the 141st Degree of West Longitude (of the same Meridian); and, finally, from the said point of intersection, the said Meridian Line of the 141st Degree, in its prolongation as far as the Frozen Ocean, shall form the limit between the Russian and British Possessions on the Continent of America to the North West.

    Although not a signatory to either of those agreements, one of the people most affected by them was Captain Matvei Ivanovich Marav'ev, who was in charge of the Russian colonies in North America from September 1820 until November 1825. He had the misfortune to assume his position exactly a year before Alexander I made life in the colonies very difficult by prohibiting any foreign ships from trading in the Russian territory or within 100 miles of shore. The territorial claim was also extended much further south at the same time, from 55° North latitude to 51°, just off the northern tip of Vancouver Island.

    Although the desire was that the Russian colonies would become self-sufficient, the facts were very different. Throughout most of Captain Marav'ev's stay, food and other goods were in critically short supply, particularly when ships from the large RAC post at Fort Ross, California, did not arrive on time (or at all). That critical situation remained until the treaties with Great Britain and the United States were ratified in early 1825. Those treaties were signed despite vigorous opposition from the Directors of the Russian-American Company, who felt that they violated their monopoly and threatened the business. The Directors, of course, did not live in the colonies.

    Upon the expiration of the ten-year trading period specified in the 1825 agreements, the colonies were very quickly in difficult straits again. Not until another agreement was signed with the Hudson's Bay Company in 1839, were they properly supplied, in exchange for leasing the HBC what is now the mainland of Southeast Alaska.

    An aspect of the boundary agreement that is often overlooked is that the Tlingits, who traded with the Russians, had an extensive trade network in what became British territory. The Hudson's Bay Company attempted, in 1833, to establish a post on the Stikine River to intercept that trade, but were stopped from passing through Russian territory to do so, even though such passage was allowed by the 1825 Convention (for a great deal more information on that event, see "The Dryad Affair"). The Tlingit, in any case, were not impressed by the HBC's professed monopoly trading rights, and made that point by sacking Fort Selkirk in August 1852. The boundary was clearly a European convention!

    In the wilderness of Northwest America, setting a boundary on paper was the easy part - marking its location on the ground got very complicated. Due to the difficulties (and the cost), sections of the border were surveyed as economic considerations dictated, and no major surveys were done until after the United States purchased Alaska in 1867.

    In December 1872, following the discovery of gold in British Columbia's Cassiar region, U.S. President Grant ordered that the entire coastal fringe, termed the lisière in the original document, be surveyed. Canada surveyed the boundary at the Stikine River in 1877 so they could set up a Customs post to collect duty on goods headed to the Cassiar gold fields. In 1887-1888 and again in 1895, William Ogilvie surveyed the region around the Fortymile gold discoveries. In 1889, an American survey party under the direction of J. Henry Turner discovered that the HBC trading post of Rampart House was 30 miles west of the 141st Meridian, well inside Alaskan territory, and the company was forced to retreat up the Porcupine River and build a new post. And so the surveying went, a section at a time.

    It was the discovery of gold in the Klondike that brought the boundary issue into critical focus - when every square foot of land could yield enormous wealth, the precise location of the border must be known. And this is where things got complicated - what exactly was meant by the 72-year-old description of the border through the coastal mountains and around or across the deep fjords?

    The head of Lynn Canal, where Captain William Moore had homesteaded, was one of the main gateways to the Yukon, and the North West Mounted Police sent a detachment to secure the location for Canada. This was based on Canada's assertion that that location was more than ten marine leagues from the sea, which was part of the 1825 boundary definition.

    A massive influx of prospectors to what became the town of Skagway very quickly made a retreat advisable. There are stories that a group of heavily-armed Americans demanded that the Canadian flag on the police post be taken down or they would shoot it down (Hamilton, 229). Semi-permanent posts were then set up on the desolate summits of Chilkoot and White Passes, complete with a mounted Gatling gun at each post. This was still disputed territory, as many Americans believed that the head of Lake Bennett, another 12 miles north, should be the location of the border. To back up the police in their sovereignity claim, the Canadian government also sent the Yukon Field Force, a 200-man Army unit, to the territory. The soldiers set up camp at Fort Selkirk so that they could be fairly quickly dispatched to deal with problems at either the coastal passes or the 141st Meridian.

    The posts set up on the passes by the Mounties were effective in the short term - the provisional boundary was accepted, if grudgingly. In September 1898, serious negotiations began in Quebec City between the United States and Canada, to settle the issue beyond further dispute. Those meetings failed, and Great Britain was finally brought in as part of a six-man tribunal. The American representatives were Elihu Root, Henry Cabot Lodge and Arthur Turner; Sir Louis Jetté and Sir Alan Silverstone represented Canada, and Lord Alverstone was the British representative.

    The exact meaning of the wording of the 1825 agreement was what had to be decided upon. The final decision of the tribunal on October 20, 1903, was in the United States' favour; Lord Alverstone had voted with the American representatives. Claims have often been made that Lord Alverstone was instructed to vote that way, regardless of his real opinion, after President 'Teddy' Roosevelt had threatened to take what he wanted by force.

    In the links that follow is extensive documentation dating back to 1825. What do you think - did Canada get robbed when Lord Alverstone caved in to pressure?

Convention Between Great Britain and Russia, 1825

Signatories & Memorials

    The signatories to this agreement were Stratford Canning, Karl Nesselrode (the Count of Nesselrode) and Pierre de Poletica. Stratford Canning, Viscount Stratford de Redcliffe as of 1852, was a British diplomat who became famous for his negotiating skills during his nearly 50 years wth the Foreign Office. Graf Karl Robert Nesselrode, sometimes Anglicized as Robert Charles, was Russia's Foreign Minister for 40 years. Pierre de Poletica, whose real name was Petro Ivanovych Poletyka, was Russia's Ambassador to the United States.

    The only monument to the 1825 agreement appears to be one in front of the Parliament Buildings in Victoria, British Columbia. It was erected in May 1981 by a group of Vancouver Ukrainians, to honour the contributions of Ukrainians such as Pierre de Poletica to the development of North America. Robbin Howatt describes it as

... a granite monument inscribed, in English, French and Ukrainian, with this dedication - "In Commemoration of the Treaty between Great Britain and the Russian Empire - 28 February 1825 - Demarcating Canada’s Western Boundary". The monument displays a summary history, two bronze otters (symbolizing the importance of the fur trade to early European colonization) and a map showing the border between Canada and the State of Alaska. At the conclusion of the text are reproduced the elaborate signatures of the diplomats who negotiated the agreement...
All three signatories have been honoured by having mountains in Southeast Alaska named after them:
  • Mt. Canning, elevation 6,967 feet, is at 59° 14.57' N, 134° 41.58' W
  • Mt. Nesselrode, elevation 8,105 feet, is at 58° 57.47' N., 134° 18.48' W.
  • Mt. Poletica, elevation 7,620 feet, is at 59° 07.53' N., 134° 28.55' W.
As well, other men who were involved in some way have been honoured:
  • Mt. Muravief, on Baranof Island at 56° 31.14' N., 134° 45.26'W, was named after Captain Matvei Ivanovich Marav'ev, who was in charge of the Russian American colonies at the time.
  • Mt. Bagot, at 59° 20.48'N, 135° 01.46' W., honours Sir Charles Bagot, British Ambassador at St. Petersburg and one of the early negotiators for Britain.
  • Sir John Henry Pelly, who as Deputy Governor of the Hudson's Bay Company initiated the company's territorial claims in 1822, has been honoured several times in the Yukon, including the Pelly River, Pelly Mountains, Pelly Banks and Pelly Lakes.

Related Documents

Convention Between Great Britain and Russia, 1825
(English translation)

Convention Between Great Britain and Russia, 1825
(original French version)

Page 1
A photocopy of page 1 of the original document.

Convention Between the United States and Russia, 1825
(English translation)

Convention Between the United States and Russia, 1825
(original French version)

Criticism Upon the Translation of Certain Important Words...
A 1903 article detailing errors in the translations of the above Conventions from French to English.

The Dryad Affair
Subtitled "Corporate Warfare and Anglo-Russian Rivalry for the Alaskan Lisière". A 1989 article by J. W. Shelest.

Alaska Boundary Tribunal
A photo of a meeting of the Alaska Boundary Tribunal at the Foreign Office in London, England, in October 1903.

Yukon and Mackenzie Exploration
A report, published in 1890, on the surveys conducted by William Ogilvie, including setting the location of the 141st Meridian.

References & Further Reading:

  • Alaska: Its History and Resources by Miner Bruce (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1899)
  • An Alaska Anthology: Interpreting the Past, edited by Stephen W. Haycox and Mary Childers Mangusso (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 1996)
  • Building Alaska's Trails by Alfred Hulse Brooks (Fairbanks, AK: University of Alaska Press, 1973)
  • Builders of Alaska: the Russian Governors by Richard A. Pierce (Kingston, ON: Limestone, 1986)
  • Caesars of the Wilderness by Peter C. Newman (Markham, ON: Penguin, 1987)
  • Guarding the Goldfields: The Story of the Yukon Field Force edited by Brereton Greenhous (Toronto, ON: Dundurn Press, 1987)
  • Showing the Flag by William R. Morrison (Vancouver, BC: UBC Press, 1985)
  • The Yukon Story by Walter R. Hamilton (Vancouver, BC: Mitchell Press, 1964)