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Alaska boundary dispute

Varying claims in Southeast Alaska before arbitration in 1903.

The Alaska boundary dispute was a territorial dispute between the United States and the United Kingdom (Canada was then a British Dominion with its foreign affairs controlled from London). It was resolved by arbitration in 1903. The dispute had been going on between the Russian and British Empires since 1821, and was inherited by the United States as a consequence of the Alaska Purchase in 1867.[1] The final resolution favored the American position, and Canada did not get an all-Canada outlet from the Yukon gold fields to the sea. The disappointment and anger in Canada was directed less at the United States, and more at the British government for betraying Canadian interests in favour of healthier Anglo-American relations.[2]


  • Background 1
    • 1825–1898 1.1
    • Klondike gold rush 1.2
  • Arbitration 2
  • Aftermath 3
    • Growth of a distinct Canadian identity 3.1
  • See also 4
  • References 5
    • Bibliography 5.1
  • Further reading 6



In 1825 Russia and Britain signed a treaty to define the borders of their respective colonial possessions, the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1825. Part of the wording of the treaty was that:

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[3]

The vague phrase "the mountains parallel to the coast" was further qualified thus:

Whenever the summit of the mountains... shall prove to be at the distance of more than ten marine leagues from the ocean, the limit... shall be formed by a line parallel to the winding of the coast, and which shall never exceed the distance of ten marine leagues therefrom.[3]

This part of the treaty language was an agreement on general principles for establishing a boundary in the area in the future, rather than any exact demarcated line.

Signed in 1839, the RAC-HBC Agreement created an understanding between the Russian-American Company and the Hudson's Bay Company. Typically referred to as the lisière, a stretch of the Alaskan Panhandle from Cross Sound to 54-40 was given to the HBC as a fur trade monopoly in exchange for the agricultural and pastoral products produced by its subsidiary, the Puget Sound Agricultural Company, along with an annual amount of furs given to the Russian company. The lease was renewed until the end of Russian America. This lease was later brought up by the Province of British Columbia as bearing upon its own territorial interests in the region, but was ignored by Ottawa and London.[4]

The United States bought Alaska in 1867 from Russia in the Alaska Purchase, but the boundary terms were ambiguous. In 1871, British Columbia united with the new Canadian Confederation. The Canadian government requested a survey of the boundary, but the United States rejected it as too costly; the border area was very remote and sparsely settled, and without economic or strategic interest. In 1898, the national governments agreed on a compromise, but the government of British Columbia rejected it. U.S. President McKinley proposed a permanent lease to Canada of a port near Haines, but Canada rejected that compromise.

Klondike gold rush

In 1897–98 the Klondike Gold Rush in Yukon, Canada, enormously increased the population of the general area, which reached 30,000, composed largely of Americans. Some 100,000 fortune seekers moved through Alaska to the Klondike gold region.[5]

The presence of gold and a large new population greatly increased the importance of the region and the desirability of fixing an exact boundary. Canada wanted an all-Canadian route from the gold fields to a seaport. There are claims that Canadian citizens were harassed by the U.S. as a deterrent to making any land claims.[6]

The head of Lynn Canal was the main gateway to the Yukon, and the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) 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 American prospectors through Skagway very quickly forced the Canadian police to retreat. They set up posts 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 (19 km) north, should be the location of the border. To back up the police in their sovereignty 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 NWMP were effective in the short term, as the provisional boundary was accepted, if grudgingly. In September 1898, serious negotiations began between the United States and Canada to settle the issue, but those meetings failed.

The treaty of 1825 was drawn in French and the 1903 English advocates discussed the meaning of words like "côte-coast", "lisière strip" and "crête-crest". The maps of George Vancouver were used as a fixing line by the commission of 1825 which showed a continuous line of mountains parallel to the coast but the mountain range is not parallel to the coast nor continuous. [7]

Finally, in 1903, the

  • ,Report relative to the Alaska Boundary Question, submitted to the Hon. J.H. Turner, Minister of Finance etc. etc. (sic), 15 August 1896. Alexander Begg, Victoria, British Columbia: R. Wolfenden, 1896
  • ,Review of the Alaskan boundary question Alexander Begg, Victoria, British Columbia, publ. Unknown, 1900
  • ,Statement of facts regarding the Alaska boundary question Alexander Begg, Victoria, British Columbia, publ. R. Wolfenden, 1902, report to David McEwen Eberts, Attorney-General of British Columbia.
  • Survey of boundary line between Alaska and British Columbia : letter from the Acting Secretary of the Treasury, transmitting a communication from the Secretary of State, submitting an estimate of appropriation for survey of the boundary line between Alaska and British Columbia, R.Wike, US Dept. of State, publ. s.l.: s.n., 1895.
  • British Columbia from the earliest times to the present, Vol 2, Chapter XXXI - Alaska Boundary Dispute, E.O.S. Scholefield & Frederic William Howay, S.J. Clarke Pub. Co., Vancouver, British Columbia, 1914

Further reading

  • Bailey, Thomas A. "Theodore Roosevelt and the Alaska Boundary Settlement," Canadian Historical Review (1937) 18#2 pp: 123-130.
  • Carroll, F. M. "Robert Lansing and the Alaska Boundary Settlement." International History Review 1987 9(2): 271-290. in JSTOR
  • Cranny, Michael "Horizons: Canada Moves West" pg 256 1999 Prentice Hall Ginn Canada
  • Gelber, Lionel M. The rise of Anglo-American friendship: a study in world politics, 1898-1906 (1938)
  • Gibson, F. W. "The Alaskan Boundary Dispute," Canadian Historical Association Report (1945) pp 25–40
  • Haglund, David G. and Tudor Onea, "Victory without Triumph: Theodore Roosevelt, Honour, and the Alaska Panhandle Boundary Dispute," Diplomacy and Statecraft (March 2008) 19#1 pp 20–41
  • Kohn, Edward P. This Kindred People: Canadian-American Relations and the Anglo-Saxon Idea, 1895-1903 (2005)
  • Munro, John A. "English-Canadianism and the Demand for Canadian Autonomy: Ontario's Response to the Alaska Boundary Decision, 1903." Ontario History 1965 57(4): 189-203. Issn: 0030-2953
  • Munro, John A., ed. The Alaska Boundary Dispute (Copp Clark Publishing Company, 1970), primary and secondary sources
  • Neary, Peter. "Grey, Bryce, and the Settlement of Canadian‐American Differences, 1905–1911" Canadian Historical Review (1968) 49#4 pp 357-380. ...
  • Penlington, Norman. The Alaska Boundary Dispute: A Critical Reappraisal. McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1972. 120 pp.
  • The Canadian Encyclopedia: Alaska Boundary Dispute


  1. ^ Farr, D.M.L. (February 6, 2006). "Alaska Boundary Dispute". The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved October 10, 2014. 
  2. ^ Gibson (1943)
  3. ^ a b Political Geography, by Norman J. G. Pounds (ISBN 0-07-050566-7), 1972 p. 82
  4. ^ , J. W. Shelest, website"The Dryad Affair: Corporate Warfare and Anglo-Russian Rivalry for the Alaskan Lisière"
  5. ^ "Alaska Boundary Dispute". 2009. 
  6. ^ , p.3487Statement of facts regarding the Alaska boundary question Alexander Begg, Victoria, British Columbia, publ. R. Wolfenden, 1902, report to David McEwen Eberts, Attorney-General of British Columbia.
  7. ^ Brown, John W. (1909). An Abridged History of Alaska (1 ed.). Author. 
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i Keenlyside, Hugh LL.; Brown, Gerald S. (1952). Canada and the United States: Some Aspects of Their Historical Relations. Alfred A. Knopf. pp. 178–189. 
  9. ^ Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1987) p 251
  10. ^ John A. Munro, "English-Canadianism and the Demand for Canadian Autonomy: Ontario's Response to the Alaska Boundary Decision, 1903." Ontario History 1965 57(4): 189–203.
  11. ^ Gibson (1943) at notes 60–61
  12. ^ Joseph Schull, Laurier (1965) pp 431–32


See also

The Canadian judges refused to sign the award, issued on 20 October 1903, due to the Canadian delegates' disagreement with Lord Alverstone's vote. Canadians protested the outcome, not so much the decision itself but that the Americans had chosen politicians instead of jurists for the tribunal, and that the British had helped its own interests by betraying Canada's.[8] This led to intense anti-British emotions erupting throughout Canada (including Quebec) as well as a surge in Canadian nationalism as separate from an imperial identity.[10] Although suspicions of the U.S. provoked by the award may have contributed to Canada's rejection of a free trade with the United States in the 1911 "reciprocity election",[8] historian F.W. Gibson concluded that Canadians vented their anger less upon the United States and "to a greater degree upon Great Britain for having offered such feeble resistance to American aggressiveness. The circumstances surrounding the settlement of the dispute produced serious dissatisfaction with Canada's position in the British Empire."[11] Infuriated, like most Canadians, Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier explained to Parliament, "So long as Canada remains a dependency of the British Crown the present powers that we have are not sufficient for the maintenance of our rights."[12] Canadian anger gradually subsided, but the feeling that Canada should control its own foreign policy may have contributed to the Statute of Westminster.[8]

Had the United States been willing to submit her case to The Hague, or to an impartial juridical body, as Canada had desired, the result would have been, in all probability, substantially the same, except that Canadians could not feel that they had been unfairly treated. ... Had justices of the United States Supreme Court been appointed in the place of the two Senators, Canadian criticism of the award would not have been audible.[8]

Keenlyside and Brown wrote that[8]

Growth of a distinct Canadian identity


This was one of several concessions that Britain offered to the United States (the others being on fisheries and the Panama Canal). It was part of a general policy of ending the chill in Anglo–U.S. relations, achieving rapprochement, winning American favour and resolving outstanding issues (the Great Rapprochement).[9]

there can be little doubt that the tribunal in this instance accepted a compromise, which, however justified by the political considerations involved, was a direct violation of the judicial character of the court. Instead of accepting either the American or the British claim in toto, the line was drawn through Tongas Passage, thus giving each country a portion of its claim, but entirely disregarding the real problem involved. The original negotiators might, logically, have intended the line to be drawn either as the British claimed or as the Americans claimed; certainly they had no intention of dividing the channel islands between the two ... There can be scarcely any doubt that Lord Alverstone's final pronouncement was merely an attempt to rationalize a political expedient ... In all but one case they seem justified by the facts, and yet that one case of political compromise tarnished the whole award.[8]

In 1929 Canadian scholar Hugh L.L. Keenlyside concluded, "The Americans, of course, did have the better case." He judged that most of the tribunal's decisions were fair. Regarding the key issue of the islands in the Portland Channel, however,[8]

The British member Lord Alverstone sided with the U.S. position on these basic issues, although the final agreed demarcation line fell significantly short of the maximal U.S. claim (it was a compromise falling roughly between the maximal U.S. and maximal British/Canadian claim). The BC Panhandle (the Tatshenshini-Alsek region) was not quite exclaved from the rest of British Columbia.

  • Where the boundary began.
  • What "Portland Channel" meant, and how to draw the boundary line through it. Four islands were in dispute.
  • The definition of the line from "the southernmost point of Prince of Wales Island to Portland Channel", which depended on the answer to the previous question.
  • The line from Portland Channel to the 56th parallel.
  • The width of the lisière (border or edge), and how to measure it.
  • Whether mountain ranges existed in the area.

The tribunal considered six main points:[8]


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