Varying claims in Southeast Alaska before arbitration in 1903. In blue is the border claimed by the United States, in red is the border claimed by Canada and the United Kingdom. Green is the boundary asserted by British Columbia insofar as it differed from the British and federal Canadian claim. Yellow indicates the modern border.

Varying claims in Southeast Alaska before arbitration in 1903. In blue is the border claimed by the United States, in red is the border claimed by Canada and the United Kingdom. Green is the boundary asserted by British Columbia insofar as it differed from the British and federal Canadian claim. Yellow indicates the modern border.
Photo Credit: WR Shepherd- Rudyologist-AnonMoos- wiki

History: October 20, 1903- Britain betrays Canada

At least that’s how most Canadians felt when a special Commission handed down it’s decision on the Alaska panhandle dispute.

On October 20 1903, the Commission of three Americans, two Canadians, and one Briton, handed down it’s decision on the long-standing border dispute between Canada and the US regarding the actual border between Alaska and British Columbia.

In the early 1800’s Alaska belonged to Russia, and Canada belonged to Britain, and America was already threatening to expand northward.

A portion of a map published in 1926 showing the various claims to land along the west Coast. The final decision prevented Canada from having access to the ocean.
A portion of a map published in 1926 showing the various claims to land along the west Coast. The final decision prevented Canada from having access to the ocean. © ANADA ALaska-Historical Atlas by William R. Shepherd, New York, Henry Holt and Company, 1926.jpg

In 1824 the Russo American agreement stated that no American colony would be established along the west coast or island north of 54°40′, and no Russian colony south of that point.

Then the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1825 chose that same point to vaguely define Russian possession along the coast although it was more of a trading agreement between a Russian company and the Hudsons Bay Company (HBC) and made no reference to sovereignty.

In the US, there was a strong movement to expand into what was still HBC controlled territory, up to 54-40  and the slogan “54-40 or fight” was often heard.

To protect it’s own interests against American expansion pressure, and an influx of Americans’ into small gold rushes, the colony of British Columbia was created in 1858.  By 1867 however, it was faced with remaining as a British colony, joining Canada, or being annexed by the US. In Britain, the feeling  to that point was not very strong to have it remain as a part of the Empire “The Times” and one point stating, “ British Columbia is a long way off. . . . With the exception of a limited official class it receives few immigrants from England, and a large proportion of its inhabitants consists of citizens of the United States who have entered it from the south”

However when the US bought Alaska from Russia in 1867, Britain realized that having B.C within its sphere of influence would be beneficial to its interests in the Pacific.

B.C. also had its own verision of its territory as related to the Alaska panhandle, when it joined Canadian Confederation in 1871 and pushed for a survey as Russian maps of 1825 showed the Russians and now Americans having more territory than it would seem according to the treaties.

In 1872 the US rejected surveys as being too expensive and the US-Canada/BC dispute simmered.

Teddy Roosevelt, US President, apparently told his negotiators to
Teddy Roosevelt, US President, apparently told his negotiators to “make the correct decision or I wll send in the marines to protect US interests”. © Pach Brothers- wiki commons

In 1898, the Klondike gold rush was at its height, with thousands of mostly American miners turning the region from a remote almost uninhabited wilderness without importance into a bustling hive of activity and commercial importance.  That year a joint high-commission worked out a boundary compromise, but American interests objected so strongly the compromise was dropped.

In 1901, the US under President Teddy Roosevelt began applying his policy of “speak softly but carry a big stick”.  Canadian shipments were being held up, and Canadians in Alaska began experiencing harassment and denial of certain rights.

In 1903 the Hay/Hebert Treaty called for a panel to determine the border. Roosevelt had instructed the three US members to make the “right” decision or he would have to send in the US military, leaving rather clear doubt as to the impartiality of the US side.

The two Canadian members, (and all Canadians) meanwhile presumed they would get British support in return for Canada’s contribution in Britain’s Boer War.

Britain however was more concerned about creating good relations with the US, and the British member sided with the US in a decision handed down October 20, 1903.

Richard Everard Webster, 1st Viscount Alverstone cast his vote in favour of the Americans, as part of Britains desire to promote better relations with the US. Canada saw this as a betrayal.
Richard Everard Webster, 1st Viscount Alverstone cast his vote in favour of the Americans, as part of Britains desire to promote better relations with the US. Canada saw this as a betrayal. © Russel- wiki commons

The British position shocked and angered Canadians who considered this a betrayal.

It was also another major step towards a sentiment of Canadian identity separate from that of Britian.

In the end, the final decision was more of a compromise between the two original positions, but that didn’t assuage Canadian opinion.

One part of the decision involved the fact that Canada had not asserted Canadian sovereignty in the region whereas the Americans had established a presence.

As a result Canada sent the Northwest Mounted Police to other areas the might face similar challenges such as Herschel Island in the Arctic.

It also resulted in a perception that Canada could not rely on Britain to protect its interests and thus led eventually to the creation of Canada’s Department of External Affairs in 1909

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9 comments on “History: October 20, 1903- Britain betrays Canada
  1. Avatar Richard Becker says:

    Canadians do lament that they have now a very small maritime west coast, with only about half of BC having direct access to the water. But Canada won on getting all of Vancouver Island, some of which falls below the 49th parallel. As my friends in the Canadian an U.S. military note, America’s massive military presence in Alaska and Washington State are a comfort for Canadians who have not amassed a large defensive military as the U.S. It also seems more people live in Alaska and it is more economically developed than Yukon or Northwest Territories, so I suspect the Americans have probably done a better job with it than Canada would have.

  2. Avatar John Vichy says:

    Canada should have purchased Alaska from Russia to prevent this in the first place.

    • Avatar Laine Frajberg says:

      Canada didn’t exist yet.And the Tsar wasn’t going to sell it to the UK because of the bad blood between the UK+Russia stemmming from the Crimean War.

  3. Avatar Laine Frajberg says:

    Actually Canada was saved from a very dangerous war with the US-a war Canada would almost certainly have lost,even with British support.So yes we lost Skagway but we kept Montreal,Toronto,Winnipeg,and Vancouver.In the long run does it really matter to whom Skagway belongs to anyway?The Innuit can have it back for all I care.

  4. Avatar Laine Frajberg says:

    It should have been obvious by then (1903) that Canada could not rely on the “mother country” to support its position.In 1871,when the Treaty of Washington,was being negotiated Britain did NOT support Canada’s request for the Fenian raids-even though these raids had originated in US territory.

    • Avatar Laine Frajberg says:

      Actually,I don’t blame the Brits. for abandoning us in either 1871 or 1903.All countries look out for their own best interests.Britain felt-both times-that avoiding war with the US was more important than keeping Canada happy-or even keeping Canada altogether.And from their point of view they were undoubtedly right.Canada,incidentally,repaid the favour in 1922 when Britain threatened Turkey with war.Canada did not offer Britain support.(King was PM at the time.)

  5. Avatar Don Antoine says:

    Why is everybody fighting over First Nations land?? .. must be for money huh

  6. Avatar William Nelsen says:

    I am an American in WA state.

    It’s interesting to see that if British Columbia would have had its way and not either the US’s or Canada’s then Juneau would not be the capitol of Alaska today it probably would have been Anchorage. But not Juneau. Even with the Canadian claim Juneau would have been a stones throw from the border.