This Week in History

Resolution of Border Dispute Crosses a Line for Canadians

For the week of Monday, October 16, 2017

On October 20, 1903, an international tribunal endorsed the United States’ claim to a stretch of Pacific coastline, known as the Alaska Panhandle, in what was the last major delineation of the Canada-United States border.

The Yukon Detachment of the Northwest Mounted Police (NWMP) at the White Pass Summit, August 8, 1899
Yukon Archives / H. C. Barley Collection / #5532

The Panhandle, traditional territory of the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian peoples, had long attracted international explorers. Fierce competition in the region’s fur trade prompted Russia to formally divide the territory with the U.S. and Britain by means of the Anglo-Russian Treaty of 1825. However, this treaty only specified the Yukon-Alaska boundary, and the southern coastal limits of Russian America, at 54°40’ N, leaving the remainder of the border unclear. America’s purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867 included the Panhandle.

British Columbia’s entry into Confederation in 1871 and the subsequent discovery of gold in the Klondike in 1896 increased the urgency to define the Alaska border accurately. An influx of American prospectors, believed to threaten Canadian sovereignty, prompted both Canada and the U.S. to assert their claims to the Panhandle. The U.S., wanting to control a route to the gold fields, claimed the fjords and islands that hugged the Pacific coastline. Canada protested, wanting direct access to the Pacific, by means of the Lynn Canal.

Political cartoons published during the Dispute reflect the anti-American and anti-British sentiment of the period. Pictured here is the United States, depicted as ‘Uncle Sam’, extending its reach into Canadian gold mines
Printed in Le Canard, Montréal, Québec (September 26, 1903)

In 1903, after several failed attempts to resolve the dispute, the U.S. and Britain (which controlled Canada’s foreign affairs until 1931) agreed to establish a joint commission to settle the boundary. The commission had six members: three Americans, two Canadians, and Lord Alverstone, Lord Chief Justice of England, who represented British interests. Because of the strong case provided by the Americans, and pressure from American President Theodore Roosevelt, Lord Alverstone ultimately sided with the United States.

Despite the burden of evidence favouring the U.S. claim, Canadians were outraged by the decision. For many, it was a betrayal that proved Canada could not depend on Britain to defend its interests on the world stage. There followed a surge of anti-British, anti-American, and Canadian nationalist feeling that found expression in the press, which vilified Lord Alverstone, and increased calls for Canada to take control of its own foreign affairs.

The Anglo-Russian Treaty of 1825 is a designated national historic event. Read The 49th Parallel in the This Week in History’s archives to learn more.

Follow us on Twitter @ParksCanada, and be sure to visit the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada webpage. Explore Canada 150!

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