As early as the 18th century the Russians, Spanish, British and Americans were all competing for possession of this land.
The United States wanted—and was prepared to fight for—all the land called the Oregon Territory up to latitude 54° 40’ (what is now the southern tip of Alaska). The U.S. stated they would make better use of the land allowing for five or six new states.
However they had just declared war on Mexico and President Polk was keen to settle the Oregon question and avoid a conflict with Britain. Britain was not keen to fight either. They saw the land in question as producing furs for the Hudson’s Bay Company but little else so possibly they would have given it all to the U.S.
In April 1846 Polk proposed a treaty to divide the land. ‘How about we draw the line at 49°?’ Britain, unwilling to give up Fort Victoria, compromised on one exception: Britain would get all of Vancouver Island.
As a result the Oregon Treaty, divided the Territory at 49 degrees north, precisely where the U.S.-Canada border is today.
The Edinburgh Review declared the Pacific Northwest “the last corner of the earth left free for the occupation of a civilized race. When Oregon shall be colonised, the map of the world may be considered as filled up.”
For the first 3 years, the American government didn’t have the resources to govern the area that is now Washington and Oregon so Sir James Douglas, BC’s first governor, retained control. Douglas’s father was a Scottish sugar planter, and his mother was a mixed-blood Caribbean from Barbados so when U.S. officials arrived and posed exclusion laws Douglas found the situation intolerable. Neither blacks nor Hawaiians, who comprised 30 per cent of the population, were allowed to live there. There was even a short-lived law that said any black person who came into the Oregon territory would be lashed.
So the HBC transferred Douglas to Fort Victoria, when in order to prevent American expansion northward, Vancouver Island was declared a Crown colony in January 1849. He was also appointed the first governor of the separate Colony of British Columbia, created in 1858.
In search of immigrants who might be sympathetic to Britain, Douglas reached out to members of San Francisco’s Black community, who had been discussing the need to emigrate to a more welcoming environment. In 1857, a United States Supreme Court decision had denied citizenship to both free and enslaved African Americans so in 1858, Douglas invited nearly 800 free black people to leave the oppressive racial conditions for a new life on Vancouver Island. Douglas promised them British citizenship after five years of land ownership and full protection of the law in the meantime.
“I am glad that Her Majesty’s Government…generously grants, within the Colony of Vancouver’s Island, a refuge for political exiles, provided they yield obedience to the Laws, and avoid public scandals, and lead quiet and honest lives.”(Douglas)
Yes folks, we are lucky to be part of Canada, it certainly could have turned out differently.
(Written by Maureen Alexander, MILL BAY / MALAHAT HISTORICAL SOCIETY, with thanks to Wikipedia and the TC Archives)