Columbia River Treaty -- Historical Background

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 7/31/2013
  • Essay 10437

The Columbia River Treaty, signed in 1961 and ratified in 1964, was a landmark event in the joint U.S.-Canadian possession of the Columbia River. Yet for most of the river's vast history, the notion of a country's "possession" of the waterway was irrelevant. Not until 1792 did European explorers finally stumble upon the 1,243-mile-long Columbia. It immediately became an object of contention between rival powers. The American merchant Captain Robert Gray (1755-1806) was the first non-Indian to enter the mouth of the river in 1792 and he named it after his ship, the Columbia Rediviva. Several months later, British Captain George Vancouver (1758-1798) entered the mouth and his men rowed a dory 100 miles upstream, where they formally took possession for Britain. For the next 54 years, both countries vied for possession of the river and its vast inland drainage. The question was finally settled with the signing of the Treaty of Oregon in 1846, which cut the river in two at the 49th parallel. British Canada acquired the upper two-fifths of the river, while the U.S. acquired the lower three-fifths. Joint ownership of this giant resource created questions and conflicts, and in 1909 the Boundary Waters Treaty created an International Joint Commission to resolve such questions. After the completion of the Grand Coulee Dam in 1941, the commission launched studies which would eventually result in the Columbia River Treaty, dealing with complex questions of water storage, flood control, and power generation on the newly tamed river.

River of the West

From a strictly logical perspective, the entire Columbia River basin should have remained intact, in one country or the other. The reason it was chopped in two in 1846 has little do to with logic, and everything to do with politics, power, and shifting national interests.

For at least 11,000 years, the Columbia had been shared by thousands of people from dozens of different Indian tribes, who fished, canoed, camped, and roamed its banks, all the way from its sources on the slopes of the Canadian Rockies to its broad mouth at the Pacific. Three imperial powers -- Spain, Britain, and Russia -- had explored the region. Yet Europeans discovered the river remarkably late for a waterway of such immensity.

Early geographers had long deduced that a huge river must certainly drain the western part of the continent. Tribal accounts from the east side of the Rocky Mountains seemed to confirm this, and geographers gave this hypothetical river the name "River of the West" or the Ourigan, Oregan, or Oregon River. Sometimes geographers placed this mythical river on fanciful maps, although they generally showed the river flowing straight west from the Rockies to the Pacific. Sometimes they even showed it entering the Strait of Juan de Fuca or Nootka Sound. Yet by 1790, no white explorers had actually located this mysterious river.

Numerous European captains, including Spain's Juan Perez and England's famed James Cook (1728-1779), had already sailed right past its mouth without even suspecting it was there. In 1775, Spanish captain Bruno Hezeta (also spelled Heceta, 1743-1807) sailed right up to what he surmised, from the "current and seething of the waters," to be "the mouth of some great river or some great passage to another sea" (Hayes, 38). Yet he was unable to investigate further due to the notoriously difficult sandbars and treacherous currents at the Columbia's mouth. He guessed incorrectly that it was the Strait of Juan de Fuca, but actually he had made the first European sighting of the mouth of the Columbia. It was later listed on maps as the Entrada de Hezeta. British trading captain John Meares (1756?-1809) was so thoroughly convinced that this same spot was certainly not the entrance to the long-sought River of the West that he sailed away after naming the "bay" Deception Bay and the northern cape, Cape Disappointment.

Columbia Rediviva

Then, in 1792, British Captain George Vancouver surveyed his way up the California and Oregon coasts, and came upon an odd-colored stretch of water issuing from the "bay." He surmised correctly that it was from freshwater flowing into the bay, but, incorrectly, that the stream was small and of little consequence. He wrote, "Not considering this opening worthy of our attention, I continued our pursuit to the N.W." (Hayes, 85). Yet he soon came across American merchant Robert Gray, in the ship Columbia Rediviva, who told Vancouver that he had, in fact, discovered that this was a great river entrance and that he intended to go back and enter it. Gray and the Columbia Rediviva crossed the river's bar on May 12, 1792, and the captain proceeded to name it the Columbia River after his ship.

This marked the beginning of Euro-American exploration of the Columbia River and the beginning of an often tense competition between England and its rebel offspring, the United States, for possession of the Columbia and its vast drainage. Gray claimed the river for the United States, but five months later, when Captain Vancouver returned to the opening, he sent Lieutenant William Broughton (1762-1821) over the bar in a smaller boat. Broughton rowed upstream in a dory for 100 miles to a place he named Point Vancouver, past the future sites of the cities of Portland and Vancouver and near the entrance to the Columbia Gorge. There he stopped because of rapids. He took formal possession for Britain on another nearby point, which he named Possession Point.

From Mountains to Sea

Possession of the Columbia seemed vital to both countries, since it was clear that this was the fabled River of the West and a highway into a vast portion of the interior. These competing claims were soon complicated by further discoveries from the landward side. In 1801 French Canadian trappers came upon a large river at the western base of the Canadian Rockies, and in 1807 Scottish-born Canadian fur trader David Thompson (1770-1857) camped near the headwaters of that same river. Thompson was far north of the latitude of the mouth of the Columbia, and the river was flowing the wrong way: north. Yet Thompson suspected that he might be on the fledgling Columbia. Local chiefs had assured him that he could get to "sea and back again" in the length of one "summer moon" (Nisbet, 99).

Various frustrating delays ensued. Finally, in 1811, Thompson was able to canoe and portage the entire length of the Columbia. When he arrived at the confluence of the Snake and Columbia rivers, not far from today's Tri-Cities, he erected a small pole with "a half a sheet of paper tied around it, claiming the territory for the British Crown" (Nisbet, 202). However, when he arrived at the mouth, his canoe flying a British flag, members of John Jacob Astor's (1763-1848) American fur-trading company were already there. They had arrived months before by ship from New York and established a fur-trading post they named Astoria.

The Americans still believed that, because of Gray's discovery, they had the prior claim to the Columbia and its vast drainage. So the Astorians were not amused when they followed Thompson on his journey back upstream and saw something alarming at the confluence of the Snake and Columbia. Thompson had made another symbolic display on his return trip.

"What did we see waving triumphantly in the air, at the confluence of the two great branches, but a British flag, hoisted in the middle of the Indian camp, planted there by Mr. Thompson as he passed," wrote Alexander Ross (1783-1856), the head of the Astorian party (Nisbet, 226).

Thompson's expedition had definitively proved that his small north-flowing river made a sweeping U-turn, headed south and then rolled west to the Pacific. However, Thompson had also proved that the Great River of the West was no tranquil, Mississippi-like river highway. It was "a river of disappointing course, terrifying rapids and unpredictable flows" (Dietrich, 57).

Joint Occupancy

Yet both countries still coveted the river and its immense drainage. The tension ratcheted up during the War of 1812 between Britain and America. A British warship, HMS Raccoon, arrived at Astoria and discovered that the Astorians had already sold out to the British-led North West Company. The captain, however, "decided to hold a formal ceremony and establish conquest rather than simply a sale; in a dramatic gesture he smashed a bottle of Madeira against the flagpole and claimed Astoria by right of wartime conquest" (Hayes, 103).

Yet the Oregon Country (as the entire region was called) was too remote and too sparsely inhabited by citizens of either power to become a serious matter of contention for the warring parties. In practice, both American and British trappers and traders roamed freely, although there was tense competition between fur companies. This state of joint occupancy was formalized in an 1818 border agreement between the U.S. and Britain, which gave free entry to both countries' citizens in the Oregon Country, including the entire Columbia drainage. This agreement also established the 49-degree north latitude line as the border between the U.S. and Canada east of the Rockies -- a decision that would have significance three decades later for the land west of the Rockies.

Maneuvering for Position

The governments of both countries were well aware that a true border between British-ruled Canada and the United States must be established in the Northwest at some point. Two other early claimants, Spain and Russia, had already been knocked out of contention by treaties. For the next two decades, Britain and the U.S. maneuvered for position. Some of this maneuvering was diplomatic, with the U.S. attempting to establish that it had priority over the entire Columbia drainage because of Gray's first entry. The U.S. increasingly coveted the Northwest because Puget Sound and the lower Columbia were two of the largest harbors on a Pacific coast with a scarcity of good harbors. The British, who were mainly trying to protect their Hudson Bay Company trading posts, argued that Gray had not penetrated deep enough into the estuary to truly claim the entire river. They staked their claim on the fact that Vancouver's men had explored 100 miles upstream and that Thompson had explored the rest.

The U.S. countered that even the British must have known that the Columbia was originally American territory -- otherwise, how else could the HMS Raccoon have claimed to have "conquered" Fort Astoria during the War of 1812? Also, under the long-established Monroe Doctrine, the U.S. was flatly opposed to any colonization in the Americas by European powers,

In 1825, the governor of the Hudson's Bay Company proposed that the boundary start at the 49th parallel in Montana, then go south along the Rockies divide, and then turn west to the Clearwater and the Snake rivers, then along the south bank of the Columbia, and on to the sea. This would have given Canada the entire Columbia River, as well as a great chunk of Montana, Idaho and most of present-day Washington. The Americans showed no enthusiasm for this idea. The British floated the same plan 12 years later, with no better results.

Meanwhile, American officials decided to engage in some practical, on-the-ground maneuvering. They encouraged Americans to go forth and settle the Oregon Country. An 1843 U.S. Senate committee report clearly stated the government's goals: "The occupation and settlement of Oregon by American citizens will of itself operate to repel all European intruders, except those who come to enjoy the blessing of our laws; this would secure us more powerful arguments than any diplomacy ..." (Hayes, 132).

Treaty of Oregon

Immigrants began to pour in over the Oregon Trail. In 1844, talks opened up between British and American negotiators. The British believed they had the more valid historical claim, but the Americans were more "vociferous" and even belligerent (Hayes, 133). James K. Polk (1795-1849) had just been elected U.S. president and his supporters adopted the slogan "Fifty Four Forty or Fight!" (Johansen and Gates, 205). Polk's platform asserted that America's title to the entire Northwest was "clear and unquestionable" (Hayes, 133). One senator declared that the U.S. intended to "occupy the land we are entitled to; and if war follows our doing so, why, let it come" (Johansen and Gates, 202). This claimed north latitude line of 54 degrees, 40 minutes, included all of the Columbia River system and plenty more: The Columbia River stays below the 53 degree latitude line even at its northernmost point. If the U.S. had indeed been willing to fight for and win that 54-40 border, the U.S. would own Vancouver Island; the Queen Charlotte Islands; the sites of Vancouver, Victoria, Prince George, and Prince Rupert; and nearly the entire Fraser River drainage. American expansionists chose that particular line, latitude 54-40, because it was already established as the southern boundary of Russian Alaska.

However, the U.S. was not truly willing to fight Britain over that 54-40 border. The U.S. Senate at the time was far more concerned with the Mexican border, so Polk was open to compromise. The British first suggested that the 49-degree line be extended all the way to the Columbia and then along the river to the sea. This was a long-established British position, which would have given Britain the entire river. American negotiators rejected it. The Americans countered by suggesting a simple straight line, clear across the continent -- the 49-degree line, right through Vancouver Island.

The British government apparently valued Vancouver Island and the Hudson Bay Company's new Fort Victoria there more than it valued the company's Fort Vancouver at what became Vancouver, Washington, on the Columbia. So they compromised by offering the 49-degree line straight across the continent -- with a curve south through the channel around Vancouver Island. This compromise was accepted by Polk and the U.S. Senate in 1846 and became known as the Treaty of Oregon or Oregon Treaty. Most of the attention was on the coastal settlements, islands, and trading posts -- nobody seemed concerned that the West's greatest river system had just been sliced up between two countries. The first 498 miles of river belonged to Canada, the final 745 belonged to the U.S.

International Joint Commission

For many decades, this did not appear to be a problem. The upper and lower Columbia were separated by such a wide gulf -- and so much brown sageland -- that they appeared to be practically unrelated. This proved to be an illusion.

As the nineteenth century faded into the twentieth, it was becoming clear that a number of boundary waters issues all along the border required cooperation by both countries. In 1896, the Canadian government requested that an international commission be formed to regulate shared waterways for irrigation purposes. The U.S. then proposed talks to "investigate and report upon the conditions and uses of the waters adjacent to the boundary lines between the United States and Canada" ("Origins"). This commission, the International Waterways Commission, led to the creation of a U.S.-Canada treaty, the Boundary Waters Treaty, negotiated from 1907 to 1909, signed in 1909, and ratified in 1910. The specific issues addressed in the treaty were not on the Columbia River -- they were in the Great Lakes and in eastern Montana. Yet the treaty established a permanent International Joint Commission, which would have jurisdiction "over all cases involving the use or obstruction of waters" shared along the border (Treaty). In other words, it would govern issues involving dams.

The International Joint Commission also had jurisdiction over pollution complaints involving river operations near the boundary. One of its most important early cases dealt with the massive environmental damage caused by a giant ore smelter on the Columbia River at Trail, British Columbia, just a mile upstream from the border. In 1928, the commission began investigating American complaints that fumes from the smelter's immense smokestacks were drifting over the border and causing damage in the U.S. They were certainly causing damage in Trail itself; trees in the Trail Valley "were largely dead by the 1920s" (Dietrich, 361). The town's newspaper, the Trail Creek News, had long before dismissed as irrelevant claims that the smoke was injurious to health. The smoke, said the paper, signified progress, jobs and money. "Every man," it asserted, will greet the smoke as "balm to the nostrils" (Dietrich, 361).

Not every man. In 1928, the U.S. claimed that the fumes had caused considerable damage on its side of the border, and the International Joint Commission, in a report issued on February 28, 1931, agreed. It called for the Consolidated Mining and Smelting Company of Canada to pay an indemnity of $350,000 to the U.S. for damages from the sulfurous fumes and to reduce those fumes. The case "set the precedent in international law that a country is responsible for the environmental damage it causes to another country" ("Historical Highlights").

Dealing with Dams

At about this time, the Columbia River was being transformed in a profound way. The first Columbia River dam, the Rock Island Dam a dozen miles downstream from Wenatchee, was completed in 1932. The Bonneville Dam on the lower Columbia, the first built by the federal government, was finished in 1938.

When the immense Grand Coulee Dam on the upper Columbia in Central Washington was completed in 1941, it backed up water almost to the Canadian border. In fact, there was some question about whether it might, occasionally, raise water levels across the border at Trail, B.C. For that reason, the U.S. asked the International Joint Commission in 1941 -- after the dam was finished but a few months before the big turbines would start spinning -- to approve the Grand Coulee project. This was strictly a formality: The dam was there, and not going away. Even in its application, the U.S. acknowledged that "securing the approval" of the commission was not strictly necessary, but it requested such approval so that "the matter may be beyond controversy" (Harrison, "International Joint Commission").

The commission held hearings in Trail and in Spokane. U.S. officials assured Canadians that water would not back up across the border, because they were blasting rock at Little Dalles, 15 miles south of the border, to increase the size of the pool. Citizens also queried officials about the impact on salmon runs upriver into Canada -- and were told that rainbow trout, from new hatcheries, would replace the salmon. After the hearings, the International Joint Commission approved the Grand Coulee project, as expected.

However, the Grand Coulee and other dams on the Columbia would prove to create complex issues of water storage, flood control, and power generation that would affect both countries. In 1944, the International Joint Commission began more in-depth studies into Columbia River dam issues, which would eventually lead to the ratification of the Columbia River Treaty in 1964, in which Canada and the U.S. agreed to a complex system of dams and water management on their shared river.

This bifurcated and tamed river was far different from the river known by Robert Gray, David Thompson, and hundreds of generations of Indian salmon fishers. Both the U.S. and Canada had vied for sovereignty over the entire river; both had failed to win it; and now both would have to manage the river together.


Dorothy O. Johansen and Charles M. Gates, Empire of the Columbia: A History of the Pacific Northwest (New York: Harper & Row, second edition, 1967); Derek Hayes, Historical Atlas of the Pacific Northwest (Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 1999, revised 2000); Jack Nisbet, Sources of the River: Tracking David Thompson Across Western North America (Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 1994); William Dietrich, Northwest Passage: The Great Columbia River (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995); Blaine Harden, A River Lost: The Life and Death of the Columbia (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996); William L. Lang and Robert C. Carriker, Great River of the West: Essays on the Columbia River (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999); Boundary Waters Treaty, January 11, 1909, full text available on International Joint Commission (IJC) website accessed July 9, 2013 (; "Report of the International Joint Commission in the Trail Smelter Reference," February 28, 1931, IJC website accessed July 9, 2013 (; "Origins of the Boundary Waters Treaty," IJC website accessed July 9, 2013 (; "Historical Highlights," IJC website accessed July 9, 2013 (; John Harrison, "International Joint Commission," Northwest Power and Conservation Council website accessed July 11, 2013 (; Harrison, "Boundary Waters Treaty," Northwest Power and Conservation Council website accessed July 11, 2013 (

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