North American Boundary Commission — fixing the U.S.-Canada border at 49th Parallel

by Bruce Cherney

A defining moment in Canadian history occurred when the North American Boundary Commission marked the western border between the United States and Canada.

The demarcation of the border is commemorated by a plaque erected in 2002 at Fort Dufferin National Historic Site near Emerson, Manitoba.

The British-Canadian contingent of the boundary commission established its base camp at Fort Dufferin near the 49th Parallel where it conducted its field work between 1872 and 1874. The commission surveyed and demarcated 1,384 kilometres of border between Lake of the Woods and the summit of the Rocky Mountains with remarkable accuracy, even by today’s standards.

“Making the international boundary a reality enabled the new Dominion of Canada to assert its sovereignty in the West,” said Shiela Copps, who was the federal minister of Canadian Heritage when the plaque was erected. “For the first time Canadians were included in the making of political boundaries which affected their lives. 

The work of the commission had long-term indirect effects on agriculture, settlement and resource development in Western Canada. The accuracy of the survey was essential to the success of the Canadian government’s implementation of the Dominion Land Survey, which established a rational, easily understood section-and-township grid which facilitated the settlement of Western Canada.

The commission also greatly enhanced Canadians’ knowledge of the newly-acquired land in the West, enabling a better understanding of the agricultural potential of the region.

Canada’s southern border was diplomatically negotiated between Britain and the U.S. over the course of many years. The Treaty of Paris (1783) established the Canadian-American border between the Bay of Fundy and Lake of the Woods. The Convention of 1818 clarified that the border should run straight south from Lake of the Woods to the 45th parallel and then west to the summit of the Rocky Mountains. The Treaty of Oregon (1846) extended the border along the 49th parallel to the Pacific Coast.

The Manitoban of August 31, 1871, reported the necessity for determining the border grew out of a survey conducted by Capt. D.P. Heaps of the U.S. Corps of Engineers, “who, in 1869, took many 

observations near Pembina ... His determination of latitude 49°, placed the boundary 4,600 feet north of a line run by Major Long in 1823, and by Captain Pope in 1850, and hitherto recognized by both countries. There is also grave territorial question at Lake of the Woods, in connection with the terminus of the Canadian waggon (sic) road (Dawson Trail).”

It was in 1823 that the community at Pembina was determined to be on the American side of the border. In the spring of 1823, Bishop Joseph-Norbert Provencher announced the Roman Catholic mission at Pembina would be abandoned and invited the Métis families to relocate to the Red Settlement when Pembina was temporarily transferred to the State of Minnesota until the border at the 49th parallel was confirmed. 

In 1869, American President Ulysses S. Grant proposed the establishment of a joint commission, which was later accepted by the British. A year later he said, “the true position of the parallel, would leave the fort of the Hudson’s Bay Company in the United States,” while adding that the line should remain as it then existed until “definitely fixed by a joint commission.”

Grant said the U.S. Corps of Engineers had discovered that the commonly accepted boundary between the United States and the “British possessions ... is about 5,700 feet south of the true zenith of the parallel ...”

The true stretch of border spanning the prairies between Lake of the Woods and the peak of the Rockies was not set until 1872-76, when both the U.S. and Britain sent parties to the West to conduct the survey.

The Americans, headed by Archibald Campbell, were a civilian group backed by a military contingent whose job was to protect the U.S. surveyors. It was feared by the Americans that they would be subject to attack by Sioux and other hostile tribes as they progressed westward. The U.S. military had fought the Sioux in Minnesota in 1862 and in Montana from 1866 to 1868.

The British party was headed by Capt. Donald Cameron of the Royal Artillery, who was neither an engineer nor a surveyor. His was a diplomatic appointment acknowledging that Canada had a stake in locating the exact boundary line with the U.S. Cameron’s party included capable British officers, Canadian scientists and locally-hired auxiliary support crews such as Métis outfitters who knew the land.

The Manitoba Free Press reported the “English party” was “100 strong,” and included astronomers, surveyors, axemen, teamsters, etc.”

According to the Millman diaries (The Canadian Veterinary Journal, October 1990), by June 12, 1873, the commission numbered 257 persons, 91 draft horses, 16 riding ponies, 32 draft ponies, seven pack ponies and 32 yoke of oxen, with local labour bringing another 15 ponies.

The Canadian commission had no military protection — on the Canadian side of the border, there had been no armed conflicts with aboriginal people — but sent scouts ahead to broadcast information about their work.

For two years, the group braved the hazards of living rough on the prairie. They endured paralyzing cold, prairie drought, hailstones, grasshopper plagues, swarms of mosquitoes and other natural phenomena that tested their mettle.

The Free Press on March 29, 1873, reported one individual attached to the commission, “who probably never was before out of the reach of his respected mama’s gentle voice” wrote a letter to the Ottawa Free Press from the Northwest Angle in October complaining about weather that only ranged from 44° to 55°F.

A more sympathetic report was released on March 29, 1873, when the newspaper said the thermometer had dipped to -41°F. “But in spite of this both men and horses have been kept busily at work. Although sleeping in tents, so dry has been the atmosphere that no great discomfort has been experienced by the men, and the horses have stood out all winter.”

By the autumn of 1874, they had surveyed and agreed upon a line and had marked it with mounds of earth, stone cairns and iron posts. Where the more permanent border markings were not erected, the Free Press on March 29, 1873, reported flags “of various colours, about four feet square” were erected on 36-foot-high poles every five miles.

Following their field work, there were another 20 months of compiling reports and drawing maps. In May 1876, the 

final protocol was signed in London, England, bringing an end to the North American Boundary Commission.

L.A. Russell of the Dominion Lands Survey accompanied the expedition and worked as did astronomer Capt. Samuel Anderson. George M. Dawson made detailed notes on flora, fauna and geological formations as the expedition progressed, which proved the area was not a desert as earlier believed, but had great agricultural potential. Dawson and 

Russell provided the reason and the means for the orderly development of Western Canada.



“Several months ago, a citizen of Dakota Territory ... known as Patrick Ryan, in some unlawful manner not specifically described in the official correspondence between the Governments of Great Britain and the United States, obtained possession of a horse theretofore in the possession of a Mr. (Walter George) Boswell, an attaché of Her Majesty’s Boundary Commission (actually, he was the veterinary surgeon for the North American Boundary Commission). The natural inference to be drawn from the information obtained in regard to this interesting horse is, that Patrick Ryan stole him.

“Mr. Boswell was naturally anxious to recover possession of his confiscated quadruped, and during the course of his investigation ascertained that the animal had somehow fallen into the hands of the Sheriff of Clay County, Minnesota.

“Boswell made a demand upon that official for the possession of his own horse, but the Sheriff wishing to be on the safe side of this equine controversy, yielded up the horse after obtaining bonds from its owner in the sum of $400, for the return into the Sheriff’s possession whenever Ryan or someone else showing entire or partial ownership called for him — this being the only condition upon which Boswell could recover possession or use.

“Criminal proceedings were instituted against Patrick Ryan, in the State of Minnesota, but the horse having been stolen or taken in Dakota Territory, the grand jury refused to find an indictment against him — so the thief was happy, and the rightful owner of the horse was the only one seriously embarrassed.

“Boswell laid the case before the British Minister at Washington, and Gov. Austin was informed concerning the trespass on Boswell’s rights. The Gov. applied to the Attorney-General of the United States, and a communication has just been received from that  distinguished officer, giving his several impressions in regard to this unusual horse case — He concludes that the horse was improperly taken, and on an application by the British Minister to Secretary Fish, the Attorney-general advises Governor Austin to request the Sheriff of Clay County to return the bond of $400 given by Boswell, or cancel it, as this is a matter in which the international relations of Great Britain and the United States are interested or compromi(s)ed.

“If any one can produce a horse which has passed through the hands of more eminent grooms, it will afford the public great pleasure to see him trotted out!”

— St. Paul Press, as reprinted in the Manitoba Free Press, August 16, 1873.