19th century political history

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Historical Overview

There was a time when no one lived in our

area. No individual, empire, or nation controlled

the region. The natural wildlife was abundant

on both sides of the Cascades.

For most of the past 14,000 years, only the

Native American lived in the area we now call

Washington. Individual tribes controlled small

areas. Both the coastal and plateau tribes had

similar organization. Individuals held tribal

leadership positions. Tribal leaders normally

included tribal chiefs, elders, council members,

and a shaman.

In the early 16th century, European countries

sent explorers to establish political claims in the

New World. Spain, Great Britain, and Russia

wanted to control the area we call Washington.

Their political struggle lasted from 1542 to 1889.

By the end of the 18th century, explorers sent by

the United States went on to establish political

claims to the Washington region.

The remainder of this chapter will describe

the events from 1542 to November 11, 1889 when

Washington was admitted as the 42nd state of the

United States of America.

Spanish Claims to Washington

In 1494, Spain and Portugal agreed to divide

the non-Christian world into two parts. The line

of demarcation divided the known world into

two halves. Portugal obtained all lands east of

the line of demarcation. These lands included

Africa, India, and a portion of Brazil.

Spain had “exclusive rights” to all lands

west of the Line of Demarcation. Spain now

controlled all of North and South America, except

for northeastern Brazil. Spanish sea explorers

sailed north along the Pacific coastline from 1542

to 1792. Spain had strong political claims to the

Pacific coastline, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and

the San Juan Islands.

However, Spanish sea explorers missed

many key features along Washington’s coast.

They never explored or claimed the mouth of the

Columbia River, Grays Harbor, Willapa Bay,

Hood Canal, Puget Sound, or any of

Washington’s inland areas. Spain also failed to

send land explorers to map the inland areas of

the region. The fact that these explorers never

sailed into these areas weakened Spain’s claim

to western North America.

Spain dropped its “exclusive rights” policy

in 1792 when Bodega y Quadra met with Great

Britain’s George Vancouver at Nootka Sound.

Spain’s political interest in the Oregon Country

declined rapidly.

The Adams-Onês Treaty was signed in 1819.

As a result of this treaty, Spain was forced to

drop any political claims north of the 42nd parallel.

This meant that Spain could no longer claim any

Map 12-1 part of the “Oregon Country.”

British Claims to Washington

Great Britain’s political claim to Washington

was very strong. British sea and land explorers

established British control over the Washington

area between 1577 and 1811. Great Britain’s four

major sea explorers were Sir Francis Drake, John

Meares, and captains James Cook and George

Vancouver. All of them strengthened Britain’s

claims to the Washington Territory.

Sir Francis Drake sailed along Washington’s

coastline to as far north as the Queen Charlotte

Islands. Captain Cook sailed south from Alaska

past Washington’s coast. John Meares sailed

near the mouth of the Columbia River. He entered

Willapa Bay and the northern Puget Sound area

near present day Everett. George Vancouver

explored the Hood Canal and Puget Sound areas.

He also sailed around a large island which would

later be named after him, Vancouver Island.

Great Britain’s land explorers included

Alexander Mackenzie, Peter Pond, Simon Fraser,

and David Thompson. They explored the region

of British Columbia, Canada. It was Thompson

who discovered the source of the Columbia

River. In 1808, he started to map the course of the

river to its mouth. It took him more than three

years to map the 1,245 mile long Columbia.

Great Britain clearly had a stronger legal

claim than the United States to present day

British Columbia and Vancouver Island. In fact,

Britain’s sea explorers and fur traders established

very obvious claims to western Washington.

Their claim covered all areas west of the

Columbia River.

United States Claims to Washington

The United States was last to actively compete

for control of present day Washington. Four

American explorers strengthened the United

States’ claim to our area. They were Captain

Robert Gray, Meriwether Lewis, William Clark,

and Lieutenant Charles Wilkes.

In the summer of 1792, Captain Robert Gray

discovered Grays Harbor and the mouth of the

Columbia River. Gray’s discoveries, plus the

Lewis and Clark Expedition, gave the United

States first claim to the lower Columbia River.

On Lewis and Clark’s return journey, they

strengthened our country’s claim to the

southeastern corner of present day Washington

when they traveled south of the Snake River to

present day Clarkston, Washington.

In 1841-1842, Lieutenant Charles Wilkes

explored the lowlands of Puget Sound. He also

journeyed into eastern Washington. During the

period of 1811-1847, several American fur traders

and Christian missionaries explored and

established early forts, trading posts, and

missions in the area that is now Washington.

International Boundary Dispute

At the beginning of the 19th century, there

was no international boundary between Canada

and the United States. Great Britain and the

United States had differing views about the

location of the boundary. You may be asking

why Great Britain was involved in the decision?

Great Britain controlled all of Canada until

Canada’s independence on July 1, 1867. All

decisions regarding boundary disputes had to

be negotiated with Britain.

Where should the boundary be located? The

present day 4,000 mile boundary between

Canada and the United States took more than 70

years to establish through negotiations!

The War of 1812 and the Treaty of Ghent

The boundary dispute between Great Britain

and the United States was a major cause of the

War of 1812. There was no agreement on the

boundary between the two countries east of the

Mississippi River. The conflict centered around

who would have ownership of the Great Lakes.

The War of 1812 accomplished little.

However, the Treaty of Ghent, signed in 1815,

had two provisions that affected our region. One

provision stated that both parties must return all

possessions acquired by an act of war. The British

had acquired Fort Astoria, owned by the Pacific

Fur Company. The fort was returned to the

United States.

The second provision of the Treaty of Ghent

stated that the two nations must conduct

negotiations. The purpose was to establish a

boundary between Canada and the United States.

In 1817, the Rush-Bagot Agreement stated

the process of ending the long dispute. It called

for the countries to share ownership of the Great

Lakes. Later, in 1842, the eastern boundary

between Canada and the United States was

established. This was a result of the Webster-

Ashburton Treaty. These two agreements

established the boundary from the Atlantic Ocean

to the Lake of the Woods, Minnesota.

The Convention of 1818

The boundary was still unsettled from the

Lake of the Woods to the Pacific Ocean. The two

countries negotiated at the Convention of 1818.

They agreed that the 49th Parallel (the northern

boundary of the Louisiana Territory) would serve

as the international boundary. The boundary

ran from the Lake of the Woods to the Continental

Divide in the Rocky Mountains.

The Convention of 1818 stated that the British

and Americans would jointly occupy the

“Oregon Country” for ten years. Both countries

could encourage their citizens to settle in the

Oregon Country.

The Oregon Country (1818-1846)

The Oregon Country was located in

southwestern Canada and the Pacific Northwest

of the United States. The Oregon Country’s

northern boundary was 5440´ north latitude.

Its southern boundary was 42north latitude.

The Continental Divide was the eastern

boundary, and the Pacific Ocean bound Oregon

on the west.

The Oregon Country was a large area. It

included portions of today’s British Columbia

Province in Canada. Also included were the

present day states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho,

and the western portions of Wyoming and

Montana. The Oregon Country was formed in

1818. Four countries expressed claims to a part

of the area. Spain gave up its political claim by

signing the Adams-Onês Treaty. Obviously both

Great Britain and the United States wanted

political control. What was the fourth country?

Russia also had interests in the Oregon

Country. Russia owned Alaska and its southern

panhandle to 5440´ north latitude. In 1821, Tsar

Alexander I announced that the Russians would

Parallel. This extended Russian claims

southward from 5440´ to the 51st Parallel.

In 1823, President James Monroe issued the

Monroe Doctrine. This was in response to

Russia’s aggressive claims to the Oregon

Country. The Monroe Doctrine stopped Russia

from expanding its colonial claims in the Western


Great Britain supported the United States

doctrine. In 1824, Tsar Alexander I and the

Russians withdrew its proposed expansion to

the 51st Parallel. In 1867, Russia withdrew her

political claims to North America. Russia sold

Alaska to the United States for $7,200,000. The

price paid was just two cents per acre!

Joint Occupation (1818-1846)

Now only Great Britain and the United States

sought control of the Oregon Country. Both

countries could explore and develop the land.

Each tried to strengthen its respective claims.

How could the Oregon Country be fairly

divided between Great Britain and the United

States? Both countries realized that the Oregon

Country would be shared between them. Each

had very strong claims to certain areas but neither

could claim the entire region.

The United States wanted the 49th Parallel to

be extended to the Pacific Ocean. If Great Britain

agreed, the southern part of Vancouver Island

would have become part of the United States.

The British, in contrast, wanted the 49th

Parallel boundary to be extended to only the

Columbia River. The Columbia would become

the natural boundary to the Pacific Ocean. This

would have given Great Britain all areas of

Washington north and west of the Columbia

River. From 1818 to 1846, Great Britain’s official

policy was to encourage all American fur traders,

missionaries, settlers, and miners to live in areas

east and south of the Columbia River.

The Treaty of Oregon (1846)

When thousands of American pioneers began

moving into the Oregon Country, Great Britain

decided to settle the boundary issue. Americans

hoping to expand their country were supporting

“Manifest Destiny” and Polk’s 1844 campaign

slogan, “54 40´ or fight.”

Manifest Destiny was the belief that America

should own all the land from the Atlantic to the

Pacific. Many Americans were more than willing

to wage war to see its boundaries extended from

ocean to ocean.

On June 15, 1846, Great Britain and the United

States signed the Treaty of Oregon. The 49th

Parallel was extended to the main channel

separating Vancouver Island and the United

States’ mainland. The agreement allowed Great

Britain to control Vancouver Island. Both

countries would share the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

The United States received all lands south of the

49th Parallel.

The San Juan Dispute (1859-1872)

The current United States-Canada

international border did not exist until 1872.

There are many islands between Vancouver

Island and the mainland of the North American

continent. The terms of the Treaty of Oregon

stated that the “main channel” was to be the

boundary. A problem arose. Was the main

channel the Haro Strait or the Rosario Strait?

Who owned the San Juan Islands? If the main

channel was the Haro Strait, then the San Juan

Islands belonged to the United States. If the

main channel was the Rosario Strait, then the

San Juans belonged to Great Britain. German

Kaiser Wilhelm I and a British pig would settle

the dispute over who owned the San Juan Islands.

Lyman Cutler was an American citizen. On

June 15, 1859 Cutler shot and killed a pig. This

pig belonged to a British citizen, Charles Griffin.

Cutler offered to pay ten dollars to Griffin. Griffin

refused; he wanted one hundred dollars. They

lived within the disputed area of the San Juan

Islands. So, in which country’s courts would the

incident be settled? The “Pig War” resulted. The

San Juans were occupied by British and American

soldiers from 1860 to 1872. Both built numerous

blockhouses and forts to defend their territory.

On November 25, 1872, Germany’s Kaiser

Wilhelm I finally settled the San Juan Islands

dispute. He declared Haro Strait as the main

channel between Vancouver Island and the

mainland. Through this decision, the United

States won ownership of the San Juan Islands.

The 4,000 mile international boundary

between the United States and Canada was now

complete. It took 80 years, many negotiations,

and even a dead pig to achieve its settlement!

Washington’s Road to Statehood

In 1846, few Americans lived north of the

Columbia River before the signing of the Treaty

of Oregon. The people who did live there had no

official government or rule of law. Americans

were governed by ship captains, overland

expedition leaders, managers of fur trading posts,

head missionaries, and wagon masters.

Finally, for those living south of the 49th

Parallel, they now lived on American soil. They

were under the control of the United States

government. However, for those Americans

living north of the Columbia River, there would

be no organized government until 1848. Congress

was very slow to create a territorial government

for those living south of the 49th Parallel. From

June 15, 1846 to August 14, 1848 there was no

territorial government or rule of law.

The Whitman Massacre on November 29,

1847 shocked Congress into action. The Oregon

Territory was finally established on August 14,

1848. Originally the Oregon Territory included

the present states of Oregon, Washington, Idaho,

and the western sections of Montana and


Several major issues faced Americans living

north of the Columbia River and the Willamette

River Valley. These issues eventually caused

Washington and its residents to seek separation

from the Oregon Territory.

Washington Territory 1853-1889

American citizens living north of the

Columbia River held two meetings. Both were in

regards to political separation from the Oregon

Territory. One meeting was held at Cowlitz

Landing in August 1852. The second meeting

was held at the so-called Monticello Convention

on November 25, 1852.

A formal petition was sent to Congress

requesting a separate territory for Washington.

Then a bill was introduced on February 8, 1853.

The bill was signed into law on March 2, 1853.

President Millard Fillmore’s signature created

the Washington Territory.

President Fillmore appointed Isaac Stevens

as the first territorial governor of the Washington

Territory. Olympia was chosen as the territorial

capital. The Organic Act established three

branches of territorial government. They were

the executive, legislative, and judicial branches.

The Congress of the United States appointed all

territorial officials. The Washington Territory

existed from March 2, 1853 to November 11,

1889. It was a territory for more than 36 years.

Why did it take over 36 years for Washington to

become a state?

Washington Statehood

New territories of the United States had to

meet certain qualifications before they could

become a state. Washington and 34 other states

followed the procedures established by the

Northwest Ordinance of 1787.

There are many procedural steps to

statehood. The two most important are a

minimum population and a written state


Before statehood could be approved by

Congress, each territory needed a population of

more than 125,000 people. Once the population

requirement was met, then the residents of the

territory asked for permission to write a state

constitution. The drafted constitution had to be

approved by the voters of the territory. Finally,

it had to be approved by Congress.

Statehood was a short process for some states;

it was a long process for others. Oregon achieved

statehood in only 11 years. In contrast, it took

Washington 36 years to gain its statehood.

Why did it take Washington 36 years to

become a state? Several factors contributed to

this lengthy amount of time. Our population

grew very slowly. Dr. McLoughlin at Fort

Vancouver told pioneers to settle south of the

Columbia River. People were also fearful of

moving into the territory because of the Indian

Wars. The lack of railroads also slowed the

growth. The last factor was the length of time it

took to write an acceptable state constitution.

In 1850, only 1,201 white people lived in

Washington. The Indian Wars also discouraged

white settlement in the territory. Even in 1880

the population of the Washington Territory was

only 75,116. This was obviously short of the

125,000 population requirement.

With completion of three transcontinental

railroads and the end of the Indian Wars,

Washington’s total population exploded to over

300,000 by 1889. Once population requirements

were met, residents could attempt to write an

acceptable state constitution. Two constitutions

were written. Finally, in the summer of 1889, the

voters approved the second constitution.

Washington was admitted as the 42nd state

on November 11, 1889. President Benjamin

Harrison’s signature of the Presidential

Proclamation finalized the statehood process.

Chapter Summary

Establishing the United States-Canada

boundary and the political organization of

Washington were very difficult issues to resolve.

It took 80 years to settle the boundary dispute. It

took 36 years before the statehood process created

the state of Washington.

Originally, four countries claimed the Oregon

Country. Spain, Russia, Great Britain, and the

United States competed for this area. During the

early 1800s, Spain (1819) and Russia (1824)

dropped their claims to Oregon.





42nd Parallel

49th Parallel




Pacific Ocean


Map 12-7

Great Britain and the United States each had

strong claims to the Oregon Country. Their sea

and land exploration led to permanent

settlements by both countries. From 1818 to

1846, the British and Americans jointly occupied

the Oregon Country.

In June 1846, the Treaty of Oregon split the

area between Great Britain and the United States.

Great Britain received all of Vancouver Island

and present day British Columbia north of the

49th Parallel. The United States received all lands

south of the 49th Parallel and the Strait of Juan de

Fuca. In 1872, the San Juan Islands became part

of Washington and the United States.

In 1848, the area south of the 49th Parallel was

organized as the Oregon Territory. In 1853,

Washington residents petitioned Congress to

become a separate territory. The Washington

Territory existed from 1853 to 1889.

Washington achieved statehood on

November 11, 1889. It became the 42nd state. The

city of Olympia has served as both the territorial

and state capital.

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