Portland Canal, International Boundary

Portland Canal, International Boundary

by | Oct 17, 2021

Portland Canal is a deglaciated fjord that extends south-southwest for 65 miles (105 km) from the community of Stewart in the north to the head of Portland Inlet in the south, forming part of the boundary between Southeast Alaska and British Columbia, Canada. At Portland Inlet, Portland Canal connects with Pearse Canal that continues south-southwest for another 32 miles (52 km) to Tongass Passage at Dixon Entrance leaving Pearse Island and Wales Island in British Columbia. The use of the word ‘canal’ to name inlets on the Washington, British Columbia, and Alaska coasts is a legacy of the Spanish exploration of the Pacific Northwest in the 18th century. Portland Canal was first charted in 1793 by Captain George Vancouver and named in honor of William Cavendish-Bentinck, 3rd Duke of Portland. Pearse Canal was also charted by Vancouver but was named in 1868 by Captain Daniel Pender after Pearse Island. Pearse Island was named around 1860 by George Henry Richards, captain of HMS Plumper in honor of William Alfred Rombulow Pearse who had been commander of HMS Alert. Pearse Island is bounded on the northeast and southeast by Portland Inlet, on the northwest by Pearse Canal, and on the southwest by Wales Passage. Wales Passage separated Pearse Island from Wales Island which was named in 1871 after Wales Point by the British Hydrographic Office. Wales Point was named by Vancouver after William Wales, master of the Royal Mathematical School at Christ’s Hospital, London. Both Wales and Vancouver had accompanied Captain James Cook on his second circumnavigation of the globe in HMS Resolution in 1772–75. At that time, George Vancouver was a young midshipman, and William Wales was the ship’s astronomer. Vancouver later credited Wales with teaching him the necessary navigational skills which enabled his own explorations of the Pacific region in the early 1790s. The Nisga’a call the fjord Kʼalii Xkʼalaan meaning ‘at the back of (someplace)’. Today, the only permanent developments along the entire length of Portland Canal are the communities of Hyder and Stewart at the very northern end.

The Pacific Coast was home to large numbers of indigenous peoples prior to European colonization and an estimated one-third of the total indigenous population of Canada lived along the Pacific coast before the explorer and fur trader Alexander Mackenzie reached the region in 1793. Historians estimate that the pre-European contact indigenous population along the Pacific Coast was about 200,000, and between the 1780s and 1830s, this was reduced to 13,000 by measles and smallpox epidemics. The head of Portland Canal, particularly around the mouths of the Salmon and Bear Rivers, the present-day location of Hyder and Stewart respectively, was home to the Tsetsaut people who were an Athabaskan language tribe. Little is known about the Tsetsaut other than bits of their language collected from two Tsetsaut slaves of the Nisga’a interviewed by Franz Boas in 1894. The name T’set’sa’ut, meaning ‘those of the interior’, was used by the coastal Nisga’a and Gitxsan in reference to their origin as migrants into the region from somewhere farther inland. The Tsetsaut were Dene people who lived as nomadic hunters and gatherers and shared a common ancestry with the Nisga’a of the northwest Pacific Coast. All of these tribes had historically migrated to the coast from the interior plateau down the Skeena, Nass, and Stikine Rivers. In 1830, the Tsetsaut mostly lived in Behm Canal and their population numbered about 500 but they were forced to move after the Tlingit threatened to kill Tsetsaut men and enslave their women and children. During their migration to Portland Canal, the Tsetsaut were harassed and raided by another neighboring Tlingit band called Sa’nak’oan. In 1867, Robert Tomlinson, who was an Anglican missionary, visited the Tsetsaut at the head of Portland Canal and reported a thriving people with no canoes but many furs. Tomlinson traded canoes for furs with the Tsetsaut, who at that time were in a strong trading relationship with the Nisga’a. In the winter of 1894–95, German anthropologist Franz Boas lived with one band of the Tsetsaut studying and recording their language, history, customs, and myths. By that time, the Tsetsaut were on the brink of extinction with only 12 surviving members who came under the ‘protection’, most likely as slaves, of the Nisga’a Eagle clan chief named Sim’oogit.

In 1825, Russia and Britain signed the Anglo-Russian Convention, a treaty to define the borders of their respective colonial territories. However, the treaty language was an agreement on general principles for establishing a boundary in the area in the future, rather than any exact demarcated line. In 1839, the Russian-American Company and the British Hudson’s Bay Company signed an agreement that gave a fur trade monopoly to Hudson’s Bay Company in exchange for agricultural and pastoral products along with an annual amount of furs given to the Russian company. In 1867, the Alaska Purchase transferred Alaska from Russia to the United States, but the boundary terms were ambiguous. In 1871, British Columbia united with the new Canadian Confederation and requested a survey of the boundary, but the United States rejected it as too costly since the border area was very remote and sparsely settled, and without economic or strategic interest. In 1897–98, the Klondike Gold Rush in the Yukon dramatically increased the population of the area which reached 30,000, composed mostly of Americans, and about 100,000 fortune seekers moved through Alaska to the Klondike gold region. The presence of gold and a large new population increased the economic and strategic importance of the region which justified fixing an exact international boundary. The head of Lynn Canal was the main gateway to the Yukon, and the North-West Mounted Police sent a detachment to secure the location for Canada based on the 1825 boundary definition of its location. A massive influx of American stampeders came through Skagway and very quickly forced the Canadian police to retreat. They set up posts on the desolate summits of Chilkoot and White Passes, complete with a mounted Gatling gun at each post. This was still disputed territory, as many Americans believed that the head of Bennett Lake, another 12 miles (19 km) north, should be the location of the border. To back up the police in their sovereignty claim, the Canadian government also sent the Yukon Field Force, a 200-man Army unit, to the territory. The soldiers set up camp at Fort Selkirk so that they could be fairly quickly dispatched to deal with problems at either the coastal passes or the 141st meridian west. The placement of the international boundary along Portland Canal was also a major issue during the negotiations over the Alaska boundary Dispute. The Americans considered the clash as a serious challenge of their political strength, so seriously that President Theodore Roosevelt threatened war on Canada and Britain, should Canada win. In 1903, the issue was resolved through an arbitration tribunal. Since Canada was still a British colony at the time, British and American interests controlled the outcome. British tribunal member Lord Alvarstone voted with the Americans, keeping all the coastal ports in Alaska, and two of four islands at the mouth of Portland Canal were allotted to Canada. Infuriated at the British pronouncement to ignore a member of its colonial empire, the two Canadian members of the tribunal refused to sign the judgment. The boundary decision ignited patriotic passion for Canada and anti-British feelings. Gradually, Canada moved toward independence while remaining in the Commonwealth, and in 1982, the Constitution Act was enacted giving Canada control over its own decisions and no longer requiring British approval. Read more here and here. Explore more of Portland Canal here:

About the background graphic

This ‘warming stripe’ graphic is a visual representation of the change in global temperature from 1850 (top) to 2022 (bottom). Each stripe represents the average global temperature for one year. The average temperature from 1971-2000 is set as the boundary between blue and red. The color scale goes from -0.7°C to +0.7°C. The data are from the UK Met Office HadCRUT4.6 dataset. 

Credit: Professor Ed Hawkins (University of Reading). Click here for more information about the #warmingstripes.

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