January 5

This Day in History

Old West

Jan 5, 1846:

House resolves to stop sharing Oregon

Boldly reversing its long-standing policy of "free and open" occupation in the disputed Oregon Territory, the U.S. House of Representatives passes a resolution calling for an end to British-American sharing of the region. The United States, one congressman asserted, had "the right of our manifest destiny to spread over our whole continent."

In different circumstances, such aggressive posturing might have led to war. The British, through their Hudson Bay Company at the mouth of the Columbia River, had a reasonable claim to the disputed territory of modern-day Washington. In contrast, the only part of the Oregon Territory the U.S. could legitimately claim by settlement was the area below the Columbia River. Above the river, there were only eight recently arrived Americans in 1845. Nonetheless, the aggressively expansionistic President James Polk coveted Oregon Territory up to the 49th parallel (the modern-day border with Canada). Yet Polk was also on the verge of war with Mexico in his drive to take that nation's northern provinces, and he had no desire to fight the British and Mexicans at the same time.

Consequently, Polk had to move cautiously. Some of his fellow Democrats in the Congress pushed him to be even more aggressive, demanding that Americans control the territory all the way up to the 54th parallel, approximately where Edmonton, Alberta, is today. For five months, debate raged in Congress over the "Oregon controversy," but the House resolution in January made it clear that the U.S. was determined to end the joint occupation with Great Britain.

Luckily, the British agreed to abandon their claim to the area north of the Columbia and accept the 49th parallel as a border. The Hudson Bay Company already had decided to relocate its principal trading post from the Columbia River area to Vancouver Island, leaving the British with little interest in maintaining their claim to area. Despite the cries of betrayal from the advocates of the 54th parallel, Polk wisely accepted the British offer to place the border on the 49th parallel. The new boundary not only gave the U.S. more territory than it had any legitimate claim to, but it also left Polk free to pursue his next objective: a war with Mexico for control of the Southwest.

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