Academic journal article Michigan Historical Review

The Search for the Canadian-American Boundary along the Michigan Frontier, 1819-1827: The Boundary Commissions under Articles Six and Seven of the Treaty of Ghent

Academic journal article Michigan Historical Review

The Search for the Canadian-American Boundary along the Michigan Frontier, 1819-1827: The Boundary Commissions under Articles Six and Seven of the Treaty of Ghent

Article excerpt

The international boundary between the United States and Canada, or specifically Michigan and Ontario, was a product of the negotiations in Paris in 1782 and 1783 leading to the treaty that ended the Revolutionary War. We recognize that boundary as basically the water courses between Lake Erie and Lake Huron and between Lake Huron and Lake Superior. In retrospect, that boundary using the Great Lakes and their waterways seems like the obvious and simplest solution to dividing the central part of the continent between the new United States and British North America. The reality was more complicated. The diplomats in Paris had first to agree on the nature of the boundary, and that was not an easy or straightforward task. Then it took the explorers, surveyors, and diplomats of both the United States and Britain another sixty years to agree on what the Treaty of Paris meant and where the boundary should be placed. (1)

Maps have a commanding presence. They shape our perceptions of both topography and the political landscape. In a discussion of the international boundary of Michigan one is conscious of the outlines of the Lower Peninsula in the south and the Upper Peninsula in the north, familiar to us from countless maps. However, it would be well to keep in mind that in the negotiations in Paris in 1782 the question of how to end the American War of Independence included several propositions that would have steered this discussion away from a Great Lakes boundary and reduced the salience of the two peninsulas as an American coastline. To begin with, Benjamin Franklin, the American envoy in Paris, suggested that amicable relations between the United States and Great Britain could be most effectively restored, and countless future frictions avoided, if Britain were to turn all of its North American holdings over to the new United States. This intriguing proposition was eventually dropped in the complicated circumstances surrounding the early negotiations. If all the British holdings in North America had been retained by the United States, there would be no international boundary, whatever shape a subsequent Michigan might have taken. (2)

The allies of the United States, France and particularly Spain, also had interests in the boundaries of the new republic in its western regions. In late June 1782, John Jay, one of the American peace negotiators, began discussions in Paris with Count Pedro d'Aranda of Spain about Spanish aspirations in the war. Spain had lost both East and West Florida to the British in the Seven Years' War, although France had ceded Louisiana to Spain at the end of that conflict. In the Revolutionary War the Spanish had retaken both East and West Florida, and they wanted to reassert themselves all along the eastern watershed of the Mississippi River to consolidate their control of the central portions of the continent. To that end d'Aranda, while discussing Florida, claimed territory south of Lake Superior and west of a line running along the western shore of Lake Huron to Lake Erie, then south across country to the Ohio River, and then southeast to the headwaters of the Flint River and on into the St. Marys River and East Florida. In short, this included the western Great Lakes and almost the entire eastern watershed of the Mississippi River. Jay insisted that the Mississippi River must be the western boundary of the United States and broke off the talks with d'Aranda. D'Aranda consulted with the French foreign minister's secretary, Joseph-Matthias Gerard de Reyneval, to devise a compromise boundary. Several propositions were brought forward that attempted to mediate the claims of the Spanish and the United States to territory in the Ohio River Valley. A final proposal was presented to Jay on September 6, 1782. Spanish claims on the east bank of the Mississippi River would extend only as far north as the Ohio River, east to the Cumberland River, and then south by a series of lines to the Apalachicola River in West Florida. …

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