History Comes To The Plains


It took two years and a half, political action being what it is, for agreement to be reached between the United States and Great Britain. An American Boundary Commission was authorized, with a customarily inadequate appropriation, by an act of March 19, 1872; the British commission, composed of a commissioner and five officers and forty-four men of the Royal Engineers, augmented by a Canadian party made up of a geologist, surgeon, veterinarian, and a group of surveyors, was organized in June. By September they had made their way to Duluth and thence across Minnesota by rail to St. Paul.

On September 18 they met at Pembina an American party made up of the commissioner, four officers from the Corps of Engineers, a body of civilian surveyors, and Company K of the 20th Infantry as escort. There, their first act was to determine just where the Red River did cross the Forty-ninth Parallel; the disputed Hudson’s Bay post was demonstrated to be 250 yards inside Canada. When American and British surveyors came up with a discrepancy of thirty-two feet in locating the line, the Joint Commission set a precedent in international relations by amicably halving it.

Not all problems could be solved by dichotomy. After being baptized by an equinoctial snowstorm immediately on arrival, they had a month of fine Indian summer weather in which to survey the almost impossible terrain from the northwest corner of Lake of the Woods, where the 1826 survey had ended, to the Forty-ninth Parallel. Any land that was not soggy with water was under water; Indian axmen labored in water above their knees, surveyors floundered across bogs whose mossy surface gave way to let them down in cold slime, supplies came in on men’s backs, camps were dreary quagmires. The northwest corner of Lake of the Woods, once marked by a pyramid of logs, turned out to be in a marsh under three or four feet of water. Their due-south sighting line ran through continuous swamp, heavily wooded with birch and tamarack, for sixteen miles and then for ten miles more across the open lake.

They located the Forty-ninth Parallel on the ice, where soundings showed thirty feet of water, turned the corner straight west, and marked the first station on solid ground just at the west shore of Lake of the Woods in November. Again the instruments could not agree as readily as the commissioners: an overlap of twenty-nine feet in the observations was halved. As for the direction of their survey, once they turned the corner on the ice they would not need to deviate again: straight west would serve them all the way. They were almost at the eastern edge of the Plains; across that oceanic land a boundary line could run straight as an equator or a tropic, serene, almost abstract.

With the establishment of the joint astronomical station on the shore of Lake of the Woods the American party was forced by its inadequate budget to retire to St. Paul and fold up for the winter. It left the hewing of a thirty-foot swath through ninety miles of swamps, timber, and prairie to the direction of the British on a shared-cost basis. The British crews, finding the work much easier after the freeze-up, decided to go on with astronomical and survey work through the winter; the American party would not finish its share of that stretch until 1874.

The experiences of the British party in 1872–73, and that of the American party a year later, differ only in degree, though it seems likely that no American officer ever served his country under more severe conditions or with more selfless devotion and endurance than Lieutenant Greene of the Corps of Engineers when he completed the United States work between Lake of the Woods and Red River. If he was not an explorer, he had all the discomforts, difficulties, and dangers of one, and his report deserves republication as one of the great stories of hardship and adventure.

The life of the British party, however, was comparable. All of them, here at the boundary between woods and plains, were in the process of becoming plainsmen while having to retain many of the skills of the woods; they were, with modifications, in the position occupied by Sioux and Ojibwa and Cree, and the machinery of their lives was a bizarre mixture of two cultures. They alternated between mules and dog teams, carts and sleds, skin lodges and brush shelters. Broken up into small parties for maximum efficiency, they were caught out in blizzards that neither horse nor dog would drive against and came in after days of almost constant traveling, half starved, half frozen, and undismayed.

Along with the boundaries of their countries they surveyed the limits of endurance. Sometimes in the still cold the spirit thermometers dropped to forty, forty-five, fifty, fifty-one below. In their icy camps they lay and heard the gunshot reports of willows bursting as the sap froze, and on those nights of windless cold they saw the Northern Lights in their greatest splendor, “vapour-like and yet perfectly transparent, so that even the small stars could be distinctly seen through the illuminated mist,” or spreading in bands and streamers so bright they lighted the sky like dawn.