The US-Canadian Border
This June 15 marks the 175th anniversary of the establishment of the United States-Canada international border. The Oregon Treaty formalized the 49th parallel as the official boundary between the two countries, running from Lake of the Woods, Minnesota westward to the Strait of Georgia in the Pacific, with Canada keeping Vancouver Island. Since then, the two countries have enjoyed a mostly close and friendly relationship, enabling a fruitful level of trade and interaction. Although the rugged mountains and canyons covered in the Oregon Treaty were once considered too remote and wild to be worth a formal boundary survey, in the 21st century around 400,000 people cross the border every day and the ongoing flow of goods and services crossing the boundary accounts for $2 billion dollars a day.
The 49th Parallel
The United States has two international borders and the difference between them could not be more stark. In a nation currently locked in debates about immigration policy, the conversation is almost completely focused on the southern border. The U.S.- Mexico border (est. 1854 by the Gadsen Purchase/Treaty of Mesilla) is 1,942 miles long, touches four American states, and is the most frequently crossed border in the world.
The U.S.- Canada border (est. primarily in the Oregon Treaty of 1846), however, is more than twice that length, stretching 5,355 miles from the Atlantic to the Pacific, yet it is frequently described as an undefended border, in contrast with the full-time surveillance of the U.S. - Mexico border by United States.Border and Customs officials.
Thanks to the good political relationship between Canada and the United States, this “undefended” border can be mistaken for a bureaucratic relic. But this is not quite accurate. While the Oregon Treaty established the 49th parallel as the border extending through the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Coast 175 years ago this month, various quirks and oversights have continued to cause headaches for both countries over time. There is also the issue of indigenous people’s land rights along the borderline; the original government surveys and division of the land took no account of the native peoples already living and in possession of the land there when Europeans first arrived.
Considering how thorny land right disputes can be, it’s amazing to think that when the 49th boundary was established much of the territory, which runs through vast tracts of wilderness, mountains, lakes, and oceans, was not exactly surveyed precisely. The United States regarded the idea of equipping and maintaining a serious survey too expensive… until 1897, when gold was discovered in Canada’s Yukon Territory. As many as 100,000 gold-seekers flooded northward into the area, crossing the international border as they did.
But where was the border? A popular travel route for aspiring miners took them to Canada by sea, passing through a strait of water still known as Dixon’s Entrance, a 50-mile-wide, 30-mile-long passage dividing northern British Columbia from the Alaskan panhandle, originally the home of the Haida, Tlingit and Tsimshian indigenous peoples. When the gold rush began, the Canadians and Americans had different opinions about where the border through Dixon’s Entrance should be. Should it end where the land meets the sea? Should international maritime law set the boundary? Or was there some other solution? The issue was supposedly settled by an international panel in 1903… but nothing was really settled. Even after the heady days of the Yukon gold rush Dixon’s Entrance has remained a highly prized piece of real estate. These days it’s mostly an issue of salmon. The Pacific Salmon Treaty of 1985 was supposed to settle the issue. But today American, Canadian, and indigenous tribes continue to fight over the management of this abundant fishing territory. The issue is so volatile, the Canadian government operates a 24-hour hotline just for reporting salmon-related violations.
Poor surveying and changing political priorities have created other quirks of the U.S. - Canada border. The southernmost tip of British Columbia, a community known as Point Roberts, is in fact a 5-mile square territory of the United States, so claimed because it lies south of the 49th Parallel. About 20 miles south of Vancouver, British Columbia, people in Washington state can only reach Point Roberts by first passing through the Canadian border, then passing again through the United States border to enter Point Roberts.
While the passport controls can be a headache for locals, they are also the reason some of Point Roberts’ residents purportedly seek it out. Rumors persist that Point Roberts is one of the more popular homes for residents of the U.S. Federal Witness Protection Program as well as a haven for anyone seeking a high level of personal security, such as crime victims. “That border works like a charm,” said one local resident to a reporter from Bloomberg.com. “Restraining orders and things don’t hold up. But if they can’t get a passport, the border works real good.”
There are a few other so-called American exclaves created by similar cartographical quirks. The Northwest Angle of Minnesota is one of the largest at almost 600 square miles, much of which is designated as part of the Red Lake Indian Reservation (Ojibwe). Most of the territory is either underwater as part of the Lake of the Woods, or consists of dense forest. The uninhabited cape of nearby Elm Point is another exclave. More exist in Vermont and Alaska, each one representing a compromise between the science of surveying and political diplomacy.
Recent advances in digital and satellite mapping technology have revealed that the supposedly straight borderline is physically demarcated by a line of seriously zigzagging markers ranging up to 750 feet to the south or north of the 49th Parallel. For now, the two countries seem content to let the current borderline be, another bureaucratic detail that may suddenly become urgent when whatever the next gold rush begins.
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The North American Fur Trade
The fur trading industry was one of most important and formative industries in the history of North America, playing a major role in the evolution of commerce for Canada and the United States.The trading began in the 16th century between Europeans and the indigenous peoples of North America. The French and Scottish were the dominant operators in the fur trade, establishing and managing many of the fur trading companies, including the North West Company, the American Fur Company and the Hudson Bay Company.
The indigenous, or First Nations, peoples began intermingling with the French fur traders. It began with the natives aiding the Europeans with learning the local languages, lay of the land and ways of survival in North America. Relationships between the French traders and the First Nations women resulted in offspring of mixed heritage. Over the years, these descendants developed a culture, language and traditions that were distinctly different from those of European heritage or that of the First Nations and began forming communities of their own. This group of individuals became known as the Métis, which is French for “mixed.”
Though the European fur traders, the indigenous peoples and the Métis were on the hunt throughout Canada and the United States, it was common for those near the border to move back and forth, creating records in both countries. Therefore, it would not be uncommon to locate records documenting the lives of these individuals in both the archives of Canada and the United States. Various records exist for researching ancestors who were involved in the fur trades, including those for the companies themselves, such as Hudson’s Bay, or those of the “voyageurs,” the men that did the actual fur trading. Records documenting the individual men included recruitment records, contracts, bonds and licenses, many of which are available through the Library and Archives of Canada.
In addition to the fur trading records, documentation does exist that is helpful in identifying Métis ancestors. The 1901 Canada Census returns recorded each person’s ethnic origin. For example, Indian, French, Swedish, Irish, Scottish, and the like. It also included a column to record the race of the enumerated. In this field the terms “breed” and “half-breed” were used to indicate a person of indigenous heritage mixed with another race. If your ancestors lived in Canada into the early 20th century, it is one of the simplest ways to identify potential for Métis heritage in your ancestral lines. The Métis Scrip records can provide an abundance of biographical detail and they include affidavits and applications, land and money scrip notes, scrip certificates, receipts, letters, among others. Another great source is the Voyaguer Contracts database, which includes almost 36,000 fur trade contracts signed between 1714 and 1830.
Identifying fur traders who may have crossed borders between Canada and the United States could add many new interesting stories to your family tree. Happy searching!
Learn more about the history of and researching in Canadian records with the article O Canada!
Live Event: The Basics of DNA Testing
Are you interested in taking a DNA test, but aren’t sure which test is right for you or how it applies to your genealogy research? Have you taken a DNA test and wondered, “What do I do now?” Join us for a free webinar where we will discuss the basics of DNA, ethnicity estimates, types of DNA tests and which tests are appropriate for your specific genealogical question. In addition, you will learn what your test results mean, with accompanying worksheets and tutorials to help you to begin organizing your matches and identify commonalities.
📅 Saturday June 12th at 8am PST (tomorrow)
The webinar will be recorded and available after the event for all those who are registered. If you have unanswered DNA questions about the fundamentals, this webinar is for you.
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Nate Berg, Bloomberg CityLab (http://www.bloomberg.com : accessed 10 June 2021), 17 February 2012, “The Off Existence of Point Roberts, Washington.”
Degree Confluence Project (http://www.confluence.org : accessed 10 June 2021), “Canada.”
Frank Jacobs, The New York Times (http://www.opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com : accessed 10 June 2021), 28 November 2011, “A Not-So-Straight Story.”
Library and Archives Canada (http://www.bac-lac.gc.ca : accessed 10 June 2021), “Métis genealogy.”
Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs, digital images, Library of Congress (https://www.loc.gov/: accessed 6 May 2021), digital image from photographic print, “Alaska - Yukon boundary,” ca. 1900, digital id ppmsc-01615.
Carol McGinnis, Michigan Genealogy: Sources & Resources (Baltimore, MD : Genealogical Publishing Company, 2005), p.195; digitized book, Google Books (http://www.google.com : accessed 10 June 2021).
Pacific Salmon Commission (http://www.psc.org : accessed 10 June 2021), “The Pacific Salmon Treaty.”
Reuters, VOA News (http://www.voanews.com : accessed 10 June 2021), 24 April 2021, “Canada Top Court Rules US-based First Nation has Cross-border Rights.”
Diane Selkirk, BBC Travel (http://www.bbc.com : accessed 10 June 2021), 13 December 2019, “The little-known US-Canada border war.”
Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org), "File:Canada US pipeline border.jpg," rev. 18:01, 2 November 2020.
Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org), "File:Fur traders in canada 1777.jpg," rev. 19:46, 13 October 2020.