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The 49th Parallel Boundary Survey in the Pacific Northwest

Grand Forks, British Columbia, currently shares at least 7 or 8 miles of the 49th parallel international border with Washington State, its southern neighbour. It has been a friendly co-existence since the border's formal declaration in 1846, although even a casual examination of its history reveals that it had not always been the case. There had been a number of territorial claims, counter claims and jurisdictional disputes between the Americans and British Canadians for decades before then, their differences and the location of the boundary itself, being finally resolved by the Oregon Treaty of 1846.

Link to this map with explanatory notes

Within a dozen years after the signing of the treaty there was already plenty of evidence to demonstrate that a mere political boundary, essentially a dotted line on a map, would not be sufficient in a practical sense, and that "Boots on the Ground" would be required to physically survey and mark it precisely to enforce its effectiveness. For the British Canadians, the ambiguity of the boundary presented an immediate concern after the Fraser River Gold Rush in 1857 when thousands of "potentially unruly" American miners began flooding the interior regions north of the 49th parallel, creating the potential for confusion or even conflict over disputes involving mineral claims, territorial rights or illegal squatting. Their concerns were exacerbated by subsequent discoveries of gold in the Cariboo in 1858, Rock Creek in 1859, and the Similkameen in 1860. All that aside, the colonial government could in reality benefit from customs duties, and the taxation and licensing of gold and mineral claims, and it was therefore important to clarify a precise definition of British territory. From the British Colonial Office perspective in London, a clear border was also deemed essential. Hopeful that their fledgling colonies might become economically self-sufficient as quickly as possible, the Brits encouraged them to implement a land settlement strategy to survey and sell crown lands and town site properties as a means of generating revenue. This couldn't be achieved without a clearly marked international boundary as a reference base line.

Joint British and American Boundary Commissions were tasked to ultimately survey and mark the complete 49th Parallel Boundary stretching all the way across the Pacific Northwest and eastward across the prairies to the Lake of the Woods. The Northwest Commission began its survey in 1857, 10 years after the Oregon Treaty, while the prairie Northern Boundary Commission, as it turned out, was not to begin its survey across the prairies until 1871, (Link) after the Americans had sufficiently recovered from their costly civil war.

The Americans appointed Archibald Campbell as their single Northwest Boundary Commissioner. The British appointed separate Commissioners for the maritime and land surveys; British Royal Navy officers, Capt. Prevost and Capt. Richards for the survey of the Strait of San Juan and the Puget Sound, and Col. J. S. Hawkins, Capt. R.W. Haig and Lieut. C. Wilson for the overland survey to the crest of the Rockies. Their instructions were to first locate the 49th parallel by astronomical observation, then to mark it on the ground by slashing swaths of forest and physically placing iron posts or stone cairns along a daunting 400 mile stretch of difficult terrain. The Americans and British parties were to periodically meet along the way to co-ordinate their survey strategy and cross-check the accuracy of their results.

The actual "Boots on the Ground" on the British side were those of the British Royal Engineers, a team of professional military civil engineers, astronomers, surveyors, sappers, photographers, cartographers, teamsters, axe-men, cooks and other support workers sent from England for the task. Sailing around the Cape of Good Hope, they arrived at Esquimalt near Fort Victoria on Vancouver Island in 1857 and one team began working on the boundary eastward the following year, under the supervision of Col. Hawkins, from Point Roberts toward the Cascade Mountains. A second team, under the oversight of Captains Haig and Darrah was organized to survey and map the remote BC interior. Rather than trekking inland across the Cascades, this group sailed south to Astoria and Fort Vancouver, then followed the Columbia River route north to Fort Colville where the team built their own barracks to serve as their interior headquarters. With the assistance of Lieut. Anderson, Captains Haig and Darrah and their teams worked northward into the West Kootenay Boundary region in 1858, and by late 1861 completed the survey between the Cascades and the Rockies.

In all, 28 astronomical stations marked some 400 miles of territory from Point Roberts on the coast to the crest of the Rockies. The first 45 miles were marked at 42 points with iron markers; the next 108 miles to the Similkameen River with 19 stone cairns; the next 95 miles to the Columbia River with 69 stone cairns and a single earth mound, and from the Columbia to the crest of the Rockies, another 27 cairns. Ironically, on examination of their accuracy during the course of the survey, the majority of discrepancies to be found were precisely on the stretch between the Similkameen and the Statapoostin Station at Cascade near Christina Lake.


The technical aspects of the survey and the logistics involved in maintaining the comfort, safety and welfare of the Royal Engineers and their American counterparts in the field are a remarkable story. Fortunately their experiences and "footprints" across our southern interior have been well documented in various collections of historic maps, photographs, colonial dispatches, letters and journals, all available today in public archives, our local libraries and museums for us to find.

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