When The Wild Northern Boundary Stretched To The Sea, A Government Artist Recorded The Rugged Surveying Job

July 2017

Out beyond the land which Mr. Stegner describes, the Forty-ninth Parallel climbs through even more primitive country to the crest of the Rockies, or “Stony Mountains.” Here the line ended, by the Treaty of 1818. The rest, a high, cold mountain wilderness, lay in the Oregon country, jointly occupied by Britain and the United States. Americans and Britons nearly came to blows over this undrawn boundary, amid cries of “Fifty-four Forty or fight!” until a treaty was signed in 1846, carrying the Forty-ninth Parallel from the Rockies to the sea. Even then a few hotheads, quarreling over exactly how the last part of the line should pass through the islands in the Straits of Juan de Fuca, below Vancouver Island, tried hard to start something. On the eve of the Civil War they produced the so-called Pig War, touched off by a British porker rooting in an American garden on contested San Juan Island, but the poor pig was the only casualty.

It was the treaty settlement for the western portion of the Forty-ninth Parallel that was first surveyed. While the noisy wrangle over islands was going on, an American land survey team went quietly to work in 1857, to be joined most amicably by a British group the following year. The terrain was so difficult that the commissioners jointly decided they wouldn’t try to clear or even mark the whole boundary. Here and there, instead, they would pin down astronomical points and cut a swath twenty feet wide for a mile on either side. They would do the same at every sizable stream, trail, settlement, or striking natural feature.

This was no job for tenderfeet, for the area was densely wooded, and in the higher reaches of the Cascades and the Rockies perpetual snow covered the ground. Along the way someone struck gold. It was hard to keep the men on the job, and the wonder of it is that the survey was completed when it was, in 1861.

Thanks to a young artist named James M. Alden (1834–1922), who served the commission as a field sketcher for eight months in 1860, a fine water color record of its work survives. But since no American report was ever published, for reasons of economy, the intended illustrations never appeared. Two of them make their first appearance here, recalling the rugged men who forged, by the indisputable argument of the stars, the great peaceable frontier.