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You might want to follow this explanation on a map.

How US 20 (America’s longest highway and the subject of my book trilogy The Yankee Road) ended in Newport, or even at Yellowstone, is a complex story. First and foremost, it begins with boundaries. After the American Revolution, the British kept control over the eastern seaboard as far south and east to the area around Machias ME (then MA.). They also kept the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the river of the same name upstream until south of Montreal. Then the rivers and lakes making up the Great Lakes system were shared down the middle of the St. Lawrence River, and through Lakes Ontario, Erie and Superior, with Lake Michigan remaining completely within the US. The boundary line then left Lake Superior at what is now Grand Portage MN and went upstream through to the Lake of the Woods country and was left undefined from there westward.

Both countries’ citizens began moving west, but settlement was light in the US and, with the exception of some lead mining communities in what is now northwestern Illinois and Wisconsin, did not reach the Mississippi in the north until well into the 1830s. In what is now Canada, the population grew slowly, but did not go past the eastern Great Lakes in any numbers. 

The situation was reversed in terms of exploration. The Hudson’s Bay Company, which had been in business in northern North America (now Canada) for nearly two centuries, continued to send trappers and agents west and north, as did its rival, the Northwest Company1. The main determinant of exploration came down to the efficient, including quick, transportation of fur trade factors, trappers and agents, to the west and north of the continent. 

The fur trade involved identifying the riverine areas where beaver, in particular, had their lairs, trapping them in different ways, taking their pelts and delivering these to the European market, in particular. Fur was in fashion for a couple of centuries. Trapping was a lonely job, subject to possible Indian attacks or even conflicts with other trappers. The beaver commonly preferred cold country and mountain streams. Normally the hunters would deliver the pelts to outposts where they were paid and resupplied. Others might be paid an annual salary and sent into designated trapping areas. It was a difficult and dangerous occupation that attracted ‘loners’. 

In this, the British found themselves lucky, in that there was an almost continual water connection between the Atlantic saltwater and the Pacific Ocean north of what is now the US/Canadian border. Freighter canoes could go up the St. Lawrence, across the Great Lakes, making a couple of short portages, and then paddle up to Lake of the Woods. From there, it was a 70-mile portage to the Red River and Lakes Winnipeg and Winnipegosis. Then trappers could go up the Saskatchewan River that drained into these lakes, west to the Rockies, where, with short or long portages to south and west flowing rivers, namely, the Columbia and the Fraser, could carry them through dangerous passages to the Pacific Ocean. These routes were explored by Scots and French trappers in the mid-to late 1700s, while others went farther north into the sub-Arctic and Arctic interiors.

On the American side of the border, the Mississippi River flowed generally north to south through the lower half of the middle of the continent. There were no navigable rivers north and west besides the Missouri River, which also ran generally from west to east and north to south. The Missouri was navigable upstream by freighter canoe, turning west for a long distance and then southwest as it approached the Rockies. From there, American trappers had to portage inland for considerable distances through mountains until they reached the Snake or the Columbia Rivers and on to the Pacific.

As a result of this disparity, the British HBC ‘company men’ had explored most of the west as much as two decades before the Americans arrived there with and after the Lewis and Clark Expedition. It is little remarked upon, but Sacajawea’s husband, who was employed by the Expedition when it reached the Mandan villages in what is now North Dakota, was a native of Quebec and had, in all likelihood, reached the Mandan villages as an HBC trapper. He may have even bought Sacajawea from the Blackfeet, who were enemies of her tribe. There were many other British subjects living among the North American tribes at the time. 

In 1803, President Jefferson agreed to the Louisiana Purchase2, giving the US the rights to the headwaters of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. The Mississippi River has its headwaters south of the post-Revolutionary boundary that went upriver from Lake Superior and stopped at the Lake of the Woods, so that changed nothing in the east. However, there was the US right to the land around the Missouri River and one of the objectives of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804-6) was to determine if that River’s watershed extended north of the Lake of the Woods, in effect, the 49th parallel, thus possibly extending American claims farther north than the British had anticipated. It did not.

The Expedition found that the River’s northernmost reach was just south of the 49th parallel before bending southward. In 1814, by agreement, the border was extended west as far as the Continental Divide along the 49th parallel. By then, the War of 1812 had seen the demise of the fledgling American outpost at Astoria and the withdrawal of American fur traders from the Northwest. Border or not, the HBC took advantage of its presence in the whole area.

In 1818, the British and American governments agreed that the land to the west of the Continental Divide should be open to both countries. The British were in effective control of the whole area, but they agreed to help out any American traders and settlers in need of assistance. This agreement was to last 10 years, but it effectively lasted until 1846, 28 years.

At this point, with the border extending only to the Continental Divide, things get messy again. By the late 1500s, the Spanish had explored the Pacific coast as far north as today’s California-Oregon border, so, over time, everyone expected that the shore extended farther north. In the late 1790s, HBC employees had discovered and partially explored the Rocky Mountains north of the 49th parallel and had discovered two major rivers draining the range. One of these, the Fraser, had been followed by Matthew Fraser to the sea at present-day Vancouver BC. No one had managed to connect the headwaters and mouth of the other, but it was suspected to be the river that Lewis and Clark had used to reach the sea in 1805 after ascending and descending mountain ranges west of the Missouri River headwaters. It was only in 1811 that the Northwest Company’s David Thompson reached the Pacific overland, though others had reached the area by sea.

To add to the puzzle, Captain James Cook had left the Hawaiian Islands in 1778 to sail northwestwards to find the fabled Northwest Passage around North America and/ or northeast Asia. At around the 45th parallel, he sighted the North American coast during rough weather and named the 500-ft. promontory he saw Cape Foulweather. It lies about a dozen miles north of today’s Newport, Oregon. He did not stop to explore the coast, but continued north to try to find the mythical Passage.

In May, 1792, Robert Gray, a Yankee merchant and ship captain, was on a pioneering voyage along the North American west coast to gather furs for the Chinese market3. He noticed that the currents along the shore were pushing his vessel out to sea, while the water seemed less saline than normal, both indicating the presence of a large river to the east. He tried to enter its mouth and eventually managed to find a navigable channel and passed 30-40 miles upstream. Correctly, as it turned out, he was convinced this was the river used by Lewis and Clark to descend to the Pacific.  He named it the Columbia River, after his ship, the ‘Columbia Rediviva’4.

Gray later met two British ships and told their captains what he had discovered. The senior commander, George Vancouver, who had sailed with Cook to Hawaii, convinced himself that Gray was wrong, but later sent Captain William Broughton to follow a chart that Gray had given him and he too ascended the great river.

Vancouver then attempted, vainly, to claim Broughton as the river’s discoverer, as the law of the sea then gave ‘possession’ of a newly-discovered land or river to the first to find and report it.  In effect, Fraser’s discovery of the Fraser River ‘gave’ the British a claim to the lands north and south of present-day Vancouver, while Gray’s discovery gave the lands north and south of the Columbia to the United States. The overlap of these claims mattered little as long as the boundary did not extend to the Pacific.

The word of Gray’s discovery and of his trading profits led other American ships to the area. Their dominance before war interrupted it, was shown in the numbers of ships off the Pacific coast trading for furs a decade later, 87% were American.

Twenty years later, in the War of 1812, the British effectively forced the American traders out of the Northwest, while in the mid-1840s, aggressive Americans called for ‘Fifty-Four–Forty (the southern border of Russian Alaska) or Fight!’ It was tempting, but it was clear to President Polk at the time that, having the annexed the Republic of Texas in the face of fierce Mexican opposition, his main adversary was Mexico, not Great Britain. A potential war with both at the same time was vain folly, so he agreed to ‘saw off’ the territory along the 49th parallel once more, with some adjustments in the islands of Puget Sound to be arbitrated and to split jurisdiction over the Strait of Juan de Fuca. This is where the border remains today.

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  1. The two companies were sometimes allies and sometimes rivals. The HBC had been created in the 1600s and the Northwest Company was 1770s to 1821, when it merged with the HBC. This merger came just as Astor and Gen. Ashley were becoming active in the fur trade after the boundary questions were being settled, at least to the Continental Divide.
  2. The word ‘purchase’ means, in this context, that the various European powers of the day recognized the ‘buyer’s’ property rights. It was assumed that the native tribes and bands were not involved, either as proprietors or citizens. The ‘purchaser was a sovereign and, while ‘citizens’ had rights, the natives residing there did not have them until the sovereign bestowed them. They were not personal property, like slaves, but ‘wards of the State’ akin to orphan children as far as the law was concerned. 
  3. The fur trade was part of the broader trade between America and China. In this, the Yankee ships were only following the Europeans’ lead, but their success was critical to the growth of the cities and towns on the Atlantic seaboard after the Revolution. See, Eric J. Dolin, When America First Met China  New York: Liveright Publishing, 2012, esp. the Introduction (Dolin II).
  4. The ship had been sent to the Pacific by a group of Boston merchants in 1789 to first get sea otter skins and then trade them in China.  The ‘Columbia Redivia’,  besides discovering the mouth of a great river on the Pacific coast, was also the first American ship to circumnavigate the globe. See Dolin II, p109. A more detailed account of this voyage is in Dolin II, pp. 147-156.
  5.  Ibid, pp.152-154.
  6. Calculated from Dolin II, p.155. The Indians referred to the Yankee ship-borne traders as ‘Boston men’.