The Oregon Territory was remote, barely explored and sparsely inhabited by Europeans. Yet it became a part of the United States' policy of Manifest Destiny and westward expansion. The territory was also subject to a conflict between America and Great Britain that nearly ended up in a war between the two countries.
Settlement in Oregon
Although Native Americans had been living in the area for millennia, both British and American citizens began settling in what is called Oregon Territory during the 19th century. British citizens, mostly fur traders who represented the Hudson Bay Company, settled in the territory and sold and traded with the Native Americans in the area. Americans, nearly all of them immigrant farmers from the East, settled in the fertile valleys and began to take up large tracts of land. Although the British and the Americans agreed to joint occupation of the territory in 1818, things were getting crowded and contentious by the 1840s, as the Americans outnumbered the British.
James K. Polk ran a presidential election campaign of manifest destiny -- the belief that it was the destiny and unique right of the American people to expand their borders to the limits of the North American continent -- that began to push the idea that the United States needed to push its boundaries, not only in Texas, but in Oregon as well. Polk appealed to both the North and the South that to maintain the balance in Congress, the United States needed to continue to expand its borders as far as possible.
Fifty-Four, Forty or Fight
Polk's rallying cry during the election was Fifty-four, Forty or Fight, which was the northern limit of the United States claim to the disputed Oregon Territory, just short of the Russian border of Alaska. The southern extreme of the British claim to the Oregon Territory was the 42nd parallel, which is now extreme northern California, but was then the northern Mexican border. President Polk was willing to negotiate, and his original negotiation called for the border between the United States and Canada to be drawn at the 42nd parallel, which bisected Vancouver Island. When the British disagreed, Polk reasserted his election rallying cry. In reality, neither side wanted to go to war over Oregon. So the Americans agreed to let the Brits have Vancouver Island, and the deal was done at the 42nd parallel.
The Oregon Territory conflict is significant for several reasons. First, the United States and Britain compromised through a series of treaties without going to war. Second, the Oregon conflict was a prelude to the United States going to war with another country, Mexico, over territory in the West. Third, although the idea of manifest destiny as a concept of westward expansion and imperialist tendency is no longer used as domestic policy in the United States, the idea that America is somehow unique or special lingers on in foreign policy decisions today.
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