Is there anything as immutable as the map of the USA in today’s political geography? Its shape is like a branding iron on the surface of North America — an indelible shape. Yet the accidents of history that brought it about — like all states — was revealed to me on a road trip around Washington State.
As I drove north through the state of Oregon, I came to a dramatic natural barrier — the vast Columbia River. It is the largest river in the Pacific Northwest, with a basin of 258,000 square miles, running from the Rockies out into the Pacific Ocean. It feels like a serious boundary line — and it nearly was.
As you cross a tall steel bridge over the river, you enter a town called Vancouver. But wait, surely too soon? Nope, this is Vancouver, Washington State. It is 300 miles almost due south of Vancouver, British Columbia, and is some 29 years older. It is the original Vancouver, and was very nearly the boundary between the USA and Canada.
The Oregon Question
It all came down to the Oregon boundary dispute between Britain (which owned Canada) and the USA. This was in the 1840s, by which time Russia and Mexico no longer laid any claim to the Pacific Northwest. The USA wanted everything north to Alaska, and Britain everything south to California, but soon the dispute focused in on one area: modern-day Washington State.
The two sides eventually agreed on the 49th Parallel, until the Strait of Georgia. The border was then to follow the channel south, making all of Vancouver Island Canadian, as it is today. But the San Juan Islands in the channel remained disputed until 1872, when German Kaiser Wilhelm I arbitrated on the dispute and gave the islands to — you guessed it — the USA.
A lovely postscript
Point Roberts, a tiny tip of the Tsawwassen Peninsula just south of Vancouver, BC, which lies below the 49th Parallel, but east of the Strait of Georgia, is American soil to this day, despite its population of a little over 1,000 having to travel 25 miles through Canada to reach the rest of the USA.
For more on how the borders of the USA were made, listen to Misha Glenny’s excellent episode The Borderlands, from the BBC Radio 4 series How to Invent a Country