Epilogue “The Gallant Champions of British Influence”
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203 . . . . . . Epilogue “The Gallant Champions of British Influence” S amuel R. Thurston, the delegate from Oregon Territory, presented a memorial of fifty-six U.S. colonists to the U.S. House of Representatives on December 26, 1850, praying that Congress would confirm their land titles in Oregon City. The Donation Land Claim Act passed by Congress the previous September had set aside portions of Oregon City to help provide revenue to establish a university in the territory. The memorial ’s subscribers had all purchased lots in Oregon City before Congress had reserved them for the use of the territorial legislature, and they were naturally worried that they would lose their homes and investments. Thurston, however, believed that sinister forces meant to manipulate this memorial to further the imperial ambitions of the British Hudson’s Bay Company. More specifically, he accused the “chief fugleman,” Dr. John McLoughlin, and his “pimps,” Jesse Quinn Thornton and Aaron E. Waite, of forming a “paltry British clique” to “reinstate the supremacy of the Hudson ’s Bay Company, and bring Oregon again into bondage.” These “gallant champions of British influence,” Thurston claimed, had manipulated the meaning of the memorial from providing relief for U.S. citizens holding lands in Oregon City to confirming the vast land claims of McLoughlin, who was in cahoots with the Hudson’s Bay Company and the British government .1 McLoughlin was a force to be reckoned with. Standing over six feet four inches tall, and with a shock of long white hair, he was a physically imposing figure who had largely governed the Columbia River Valley as a personal fiefdom for over forty years. Born in the province of Quebec in 1784 of Irish and Canadien parents, McLoughlin entered the service of the North West Company, which merged with the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1821. He arrived in the Columbia River Valley in 1824, overseeing the move of Hudson ’sBayCompany’smaintradingpostfromFortGeorgetoFortVancouver in 1825. McLoughlin served as the company’s chief factor in the Columbia Department until 1846. His early biographer Frederick V. Holman wrote citizens of con venience 204 that McLoughlin “lived and ruled in the manner befitting that of an old English Baron in feudal times.”2 The Oregon City memorialists of 1850 had all bought land from McLoughlin, who possessed vast claims in the territory , which Thurston believed the former chief factor meant to hand over to the Hudson’s Bay Company. While the delegate welcomed relief for U.S. citizenswhohad“innocentlypurchased”landinOregonCity,Thurstonwas determined to ensure that Congress should deny the claims of McLoughlin, whom Thurston denounced as “a British subject, who never was invited to the country, who is a possessor of a princely fortune, and who has striven to prevent the settlement of the country and to procure the whole of it for the British monarchy!”3 The public battle between Thurston and McLoughlin that played out in territorial and national politics in the 1850s took place because of ambiguities in the border settlement framed by the Oregon Treaty of 1846. The election of the aggressive imperialist James K. Polk as president of the United States in 1844 threatened to ignite long-simmering British-American tensions over the “Oregon Question” into open warfare. Unable to agree on theiroverlappingterritorialclaimswestoftheRockyMountains,theBritish and American governments had reached a compromise in 1818 to allow the joint occupation of Oregon Territory by British subjects and American citizens . Dissatisfied with the status quo, Polk reaffirmed American sovereign claims over the entirety of the territory, while Congress moved to abrogate the most recent joint occupancy agreement with the British Empire.4 Riding into office on a wave of public enthusiasm for American imperial expansion , Polk’s audacious claims in Oregon threatened to bring the British and American Empires to blows. Despite Polk’s belligerent campaign slogan of “Fifty-four Forty or fight,” alluding to the line of latitude which he intended to force the British government to accept as the U.S.-Canadian border, he hadnodesiretofighttheBritishEmpireatthesametimeasAmericanforces were invading Mexico. U.S. secretary of state James Buchanan and British minister Richard Packenham managed to reach a compromise in June 1846 that established the westward running of the U.S.-Canadian border along the 49th parallel, with the exception of Vancouver Island, which became a whollyBritishpossession.Thetreaty’ssecondarticlepromisedthatthenavigation of the Columbia River would be “free and open” to British subjects, while the third article protected the property of British subjects south of the 49th parallel.5 The agreement made no provision for determining the...


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