York Island, Wales Passage

York Island, Wales Passage

by | Nov 13, 2021

York Island is situated at the entrance to Manzanita Cove in Wales Passage, which separates Wales Island from Pearse Island at the head of Dixon Entrance, about 63 miles (101 km) southeast of Ketchikan and 32 miles (51 km) north of Prince Rupert, British Columbia. Dixon Entrance is a strait about 100 miles (161 km) long and 40 miles (64 km) wide that forms part of the Inside Passage shipping route and represents the international border between Canada and Alaska, although the exact location of that boundary is disputed. Dixon Entrance lies between Clarence Strait in the Alexander Archipelago in Alaska to the north, and Hecate Strait and the islands known as Haida Gwaii in British Columbia, to the south. The strait was called ‘Kaygany’ by the Haida people who crossed frequently between Haida Gwaii and Prince of Wales Island. The first European to discover the strait was probably the Spanish Captain Juan José Pérez Hernández in 1774 who called it ‘Entrada de Perez’ or Perez Entrance. At about the same time, Captain John Meares named it ‘Douglass Entrance’, after Captain William Douglas. In 1853, the Russian-American Company named it ‘Proliv Granitsy’ meaning ‘boundary strait’. The current name was given by Sir Joseph Banks for Captain George Dixon who explored this coast and called it ‘Dixons Straits’ in 1787.

Wales Island is 22,400 acres (9,065 ha) and situated at the entrance to Portland Inlet, bounded on the northwest by Pearse Canal, on the northeast by Wales Passage, on the southwest by Tongass Passage, and on the southeast by Portland Inlet. In August 1793, during his exploration of the west coast of North America on HMS Discovery, Captain George Vancouver named Wales Point, at the southern tip of Wales Island on Portland Inlet, after William Wales, master of the Royal Mathematical School at Christ’s Hospital, London. In 1772-1775, both Wales and Vancouver had accompanied Captain James Cook on his second circumnavigation of the globe on HMS Resolution. 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 in the 1790s. In 1871, the British Hydrographic Office named Wales Island in association with the point of land. Pearse Island is 51,840 acres (20,979 ha) and lies between Pearse Canal and Portland Inlet. The island was first charted in 1793 by Vancouver and was named around 1860 by Captain George Henry Richards on HMS Plumper, in honor of Captain William A.R. Pearse who commanded HMS Alert. Pearse Island, Wales Island, and many of the neighboring islands figured in one of the territorial and marine-boundary quarrels between Canada and the U.S. over the Alaska boundary.

The territorial boundary dispute had existed between the Russian Empire and Britain since 1821 and was inherited by the U.S. as a consequence of the Alaska Purchase in 1867 that transferred the territory from Russia to the United States. In 1825, Russia and Britain signed the Treaty of Saint Petersburg to define the borders of their respective colonial possessions in North America. However, the wording was based only on general principles for establishing a boundary in the area in the future, rather than an exact demarcation line. In 1871, British Columbia united with the new Canadian Confederation and the Canadian government requested a survey of the boundary, but the United States rejected it as too costly since the border area was very remote, sparsely settled, and without economic or strategic interest. However, on August 17, 1896, Captain David DuBose Gaillard of the U.S. Army received orders to build four masonry ‘storehouses’ along Portland Canal to mark territory claimed by the United States. He traveled to Portland, Oregon, requisitioned the lighthouse tender Manzanita, hired 22 workers, and with all supplies except masonry proceeded north to Portland Canal where four identical storehouses were built out of rubble rock at Hyder, Halibut Bay in Portland Canal, Pearse Island, and Manzanita Cove on Wales Island. In 1897–98, the Klondike Gold Rush increased the population of the general area as over 100,000 fortune seekers moved through British Columbia and Alaska to the Klondike. The presence of gold and a large new population greatly increased the strategic importance of the region and the need for fixing an exact boundary. Canada wanted an all-Canadian route from the goldfields to a seaport. 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. But the massive influx of American stampeders through Skagway 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. In 1898, the governments of the U.S., Canada, and Britain agreed on a compromise, but the provincial government of British Columbia rejected it because the compromise did include an all-Canadian outlet from the Yukon to the sea. In 1903, the Hay-Herbert Treaty between the United States and Britain entrusted the decision to an arbitration panel of judges with six members including three Americans, one Briton, and two Canadians. The British member Lord Alverstone sided with the U.S. position. This was one of several political concessions that Britain offered to the United States as part of the Great Rapprochement with the intention of ending the diplomatic chill between Britain and the United States. The Canadian judges refused to sign the award in protest over Lord Alverstone’s vote. The resulting disappointment and anger in Canada were directed less at the United States and more at the British government for betraying Canadian interests in favor of healthier Anglo-American relations and may have contributed to the Statute of Westminster in 1931. Read more here and here. Explore more of Wales Passage here:

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