The Alaska Boundary by Elizabeth Robins

Published in Fortnightly Review (Vol. LXXIV New Series), November 2, 1903 (792-799). 
Pagination marked to conform to this printing and should be cited by original page.

Hypertext markup and editing: Joanne E. Gates.

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The passengers on the Alaska Commercial steamer were of half a dozen different nationalities, in the main "a hard lot."

Yet, since there were Americans from many States, and of nearly every trade and profession; since there were British, French-Canadians, a Russian priest, and a Jesuit, Gold-saving "Process" men, Indians, and half-white, half-Eskimo traders, it was a tolerably representative gathering of the kind of people who most commonly cross "the Line," and to whose business and bosoms the question of its settlement comes home.

In the two weeks we all spent together, covering that seventeen hundred miles on the Yukon river, the traveller least concerned about such matters could not fail to realise the important part the "Line" played in the minds of the more alert and practical of the ship's company. Men sat about in groups, discussing differences in the mining laws on the other side of the Boundary, and the injury done to the greatest gold camp the world had ever seen, in the levying of ruinous taxes, by a Government too far from the Klondyke to realise the peculiar conditions it presents.

That Americans should vaunt their own laws might not carry special weight, but as to the disastrous effect upon the Klondyke of legislation from a distance, the Canadian testimony was, without exception, unanimous.

Indeed, misgovernment had, at the time I speak of, so disheartened industry, and so diverted investment, that hundreds of Klondykers had crossed the Line into the less rich American goldfields, because, on the British side, the tax levied on the gross output involved a net loss.

It must be borne in mind that this was before Lord Minto's "great journey," as it was called, had carried him farther north than any representative of the English crown had ever been before; proving later that even a few days on the spot, even the cursory glance of an impartial, if inexpert eye, may result in bettering conditions remote and complex.

In general it seemed to be agreed, that if there was too much government on the British side, there was too little on the American, with the result that the one country was curbed and hampered, the other lawless and unsafe for enterprise. Alaska,

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lacking as yet the dignity of Statehood, was not allowed to govern herself, and was too many thousand miles from Washington for Washington to be able adequately to meet her needs. Yet the frequent miscarriage of justice in the self-constituted tribunals of Alaskan Mining Law was held to be less oppressive than the rule of corrupt officials coming from "the outside" to batten on the Klondyke; less damaging to general prosperity than the levy of a crushing tax emanating from the same source.

Since, as well as before the separation of the American colonies from the Mother-country, there has been no greater stumbling-block, apparently, in the way of successful government, than this insistence upon managing distant matters at arm's length. Indeed, no arm is long enough for such undertaking--it has to be eked out by a false arm, a wooden extension, utterly insensitive, unable to report truly that with which it comes in contact.

But one who, like the man in the Apocrypha, travels through strange countries, and tries the good and the evil among men, takes comfort, thinking it perhaps to the eternal credit of humanity that it cannot be wisely governed or even comprehended from afar; since every community must needs have its own problems, growing out of its own conditions, just as every soul has.

It would seem as if those troubles in the world, which the passion for expansion has emphasised, have arisen out of the illusion of centrality. It is the same old childish notion, moderns smile at Herodotus, who was sure that Greece enjoyed a climate more excellently tempered than that of any other country, "because of Greece's central location, equally distant from all the extremities of the earth"--the Hub of the Universe, in fact, just as lesser men have as devoutly believed of "lesser places."

Yet, in bondage still to the old limitation of outlook, men at Westminster and at Washington, ignorant of all but "hearsay" concerning the conditions they would meet, insular even at inland Ottawa, are making laws for lands and people, thousands of miles away, laws that oppress and depopulate the countries which the central government has undertaken to protect and serve.

The Home Rule of dependencies, the autonomy of Colonies, is still a right denied or a necessity grudgingly given in to, and in the old world, belief that matters of real importance begin or end in Capitals--this belief abides.

That there is a fountain-head of Honour; that Justice can be meted only in one place; that some one particular spot is "holy ground" where men must needs (metaphorically) put their shoes from off their feet, and walk reverent, receptive--these superstitions die as hard as though the world had not been taught that any spot is holy ground where men labour, suffer and die; honour

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is in any place where there is one to "hold up shaking hands in the fire, and humanly contend for glory."

Passing over the effectual spell cast upon the East by her Holy Cities, one finds the most striking instance of the old illusion presented by the French, for whom all the world is provincial, and Paris is The Capital. Art, Science, Law, Learning, Manners--they are here, and nowhere else.

Even the wider-minded English fall readily under the influence of an ancient metropolitan authority. It is one of the hall-marks of the old order. In the New World there will never be any such centralisation as went to the making of London, Paris, Rome--and the fact has its significance.

The noble-sounding phrase, that went so majestic once, "a man of the world," has come to ring ironic; for we know it may mean only one who frequents certain streets, belongs to certain clubs, takes part in certain games and ceremonies. Yet neither the clubmen of St. James's nor the wiseacres of Washington, nor those who sit in judgment at Westminster and Ottawa--if they stay in their Capital and merely talk about distant affairs--they are not men of the Great World that they presume to lay down laws for.

If any need be well understood, if any place be wisely governed, it will be done by men, a part of whose life the problem is.

The centre of the Universe is that spot whereon my feet are planted. If you would know what it is like, come stand beside me. 

So, in effect, the peoples everywhere are saying, and so on board the Yukon steamer.

Even to a traveller who should know nothing of the importance, or the difficulty of the question of the Alaska Boundary, the crude opinions expressed on the ship could not have been without interest. For here were men little concerned, you would say, for things other than entirely material and strictly personal; yet their ready subjection to the power of the Unseen was as complete as could be among that other class called educated. Hardly a man on the boat but was journeying in quest of a quite tangible good--a thing verifiable by eye and hand, a substance which men who disagree about everything else, have agreed the world over to count as Value.

Yet with the invisible "Line" that divides the territory of the United States from that of British North America, many of these Klondykers has been occupied ever since their ship had swung them inside the Arctic Circle. Why?

Why should Ike Craddock, whose chronic incredulity in the form of "Y've got to show me! I'm from Missouri," had sent 

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that saying, as crystallised shrewdness, on its long journey over the entire American continent--why should old Ike be concerned about this Line, that could by no possibility be shown, even to a hawk-eyed Missourian? It was not a question of duties, but a question as to whether that Line was in its right place. And there were grave doubts.

"It isn't about this part of the Boundary there'll be any trouble," said a Dominion surveyor, wagging his head wisely.

"Where does the trouble come in, then?"

"Why, anywhere, from Mount St. Elias to the 56th degree N. Latitude."

A Nebraska prospector got out his tattered map, and the men crowded round. For, in green, Rugg's Gold Fields gave the Official Boundary, as claimed by the United States, and in red the Canadian claim.

"Why is the Line more important when it goes crossin' glayshers and frozen bays, than up here, where it crosses gold?" the prospector demanded of the surveyor.

"A line over a bay crosses gold--if it's a good sea-port. We want Pyramid Harbour."

"The British? oh, ay! They're grahnd at wantin' things," said a naturalised son of America.

"Well, you don't need Pyramid. But we--why all the trade of the Great North-West depends on it. By George, we've got to have one port!"

"Oh, we'll let you into ourn--fur a consideration," said Ike.

Which really wasn't worth answering. The surveyor went on with magnanimity: "The Canadians don't want any row over the matter. We're willing to arbitrate. We've agreed to give up our claim to Skaguay and Dyea--"

A shout of laughter.

"Now, that's just chuckin' yer things round."

--"though they're really on British territ'ry."

"Well, m'son, I don't blame yer for givin' them ports up. yer wouldn't have found 'em healthy."

"-- on condition that we get Pyramid Harbour. And if you Americans won't arbitrate the question, it's only because you know that any fair tribunal will decide against you."

"Don' know 'bout that--but I kin see how the Klondyke set you all figurin' on what y' can make out of the frozen North."

"It's on record that the Canadians made the claim before the Klondyke was dreamed of."

"That's right!"

"You Americans only thought of contesting it, since the gold craze." 

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"That's right," repeated Judge Amos P. Churchill, of California.

His fellow-compatriots stared. Was it possible America was wrong about this? America wrong? Perish the thought!

"There's no doubt, the Boundary, down by the sea-ports, has been juggled with," the Judge went on. "It used to be nothing but a question of getting round both Governments with the Indian liquor trade. That was the 'principal industry' some years back, and it was convenient to everybody to shift the Customs House now and then. Both sides made money out of the duties by flim-flamming about the Boundary. The Canadians didn't mind so long as the Line was pushed towards the coast--"

"Right! if yer British bulldawg lets go, it's cause gittin' a bigger bite is a safe proposition."

"Nop! The dawg was Yankee every time."

"Oh, " said the peace-making Judge, "There weren't any of them so much Americans or Canadians, as just Whiskeymen. They didn't care a cuss where the Boundary was, just so it was--convenient."

"Gosh!" broke out with ecstasy an old-timer, silent until now, "Them's was days! Many's the bar'l of rum I seen started at the top of a hill, and rolled plumb to the bottom. Saved packin' it--and saved--other things. Yes, they moved the Line round right smart."

"Oh," laughed the Judge, "you helped, did you?"

"I don't take none o' th' credit m'self," said the old-timer, modestly. "I was only a prospector. My brother-in-law was Customs collector for twenty year."

"Where?" The Nebraska man presented the map.

"Round here," says the wary old-timer, smudging with a square finger the head waters of a great inlet. "I used to come back from time to time, and I got so's I didn't rightly know where to find my brother-in-law. The Boundary was that oncertain."

The young surveyor explained his views upon the Russian treaty, how it was never meant to carry the Boundary far round the head of Lynn Canal, but was plainly designed to cross the Canal from the mountain-tops on one side to the mountain-tops on the other, leaving--

"Look here, it's fellows like you that makes the trouble--drorin' lines on the air. When the Roossians wanted a line, they didn't leave it to no young nob with a spy-glass and a transit. They made it so plain, a blind man could feel it, seein' as he couldn't see."

"What makes you think the Russians marked that part of the Boundary?" asked Judge Amos P. Churchill.

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"Think? I seen it."

"Seen what?"

"Why, the piles o' stones--reg'lar intervals. Them stone-heaps is there to-day--sort o' fell down and growed over, but they're there, and they ain't anywhere near this yer British official Boundary."

"He's a Hatter," mocked the young surveyor, borrowing the Yukon charge of lunacy.

"Makes yer kind o' wonder who the Klondyke belongs to."

No, it don't," returned the surveyor very scornfully; "can't you understand this part of the Boundary up here isn't a matter of guess-work or of interpreting a Russian treaty, but of pure mathematics."

"Huh!" says old Ike, not to be intimidated. "Guess all measurin' sets out to be mathematics. But some of it's 'pure' and some's considerable adulterated."

"The 141st meridian is the Boundary up here," said the surveyor, conclusively.

"Then all I got to say is, the breed o' meridians up here is as oneasy as eels. Fifty year ago, this one you're so stuck on, wiggled itself into Alaska, and wiggled and wiggled till it got itself on the other side of Fort Yukon. Now, didn't it?"

The surveyor believed that was the case. There had been "an early error in the astronomical observation--"

A roar went up at what was considered elaborate euphemism.

"Well, them Hudson Bay fellers"--Ike stopped whittling long enough to see he had "nailed" his audience--"they was jest like this surveyin' chap. They'd a-follered a meridian anywheres! So they set up a tradin' post at Fort Yukon--in Roossian days--and went on fur clost on a quarter of a century doin' a roarin' business in furs."

"On our ground?" asked a horrified patriot, throwing out his thin American chest.

"Our'n by then. But Uncle Sam ain't to be hoo-dooed by no meridian. Wakes up one mornin', does the 'rithm'tic over, and does it different--finds the Britisher has jest natchrally hogged the best of the Indian trade, only it warn't his'n. So: 'Git a move on, will yer,' says Uncle Sam, 'and keep on yer own side.' Well, them Hudson Bay fellers, quite innercent, sets down to figure agin on that meridian, and fust thing they knew it wasn't nowhere near Fort Yukon, but up the Porkypine River. So they picked up their outfit and follered after the meridian. Built Rampart House up younder, and stayed there twenty year, till they'd cleaned up all the best furs. By that time Uncle Sam'd got round to another bout o' 'rithmi'tic, and found them Britishers

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was still on our ground! So he says, pretty loud this time:--'Git up an' git,' says 'e--and they got."

"It's a lot easier to laugh than to take a correct observation in the Arctic regions. Ogilvie 'd tell you the best he can say of your American surveyors is not that sometimes they're wrong, but that sometimes they're right."

"Who's Ogilvie?"

"Astronomer of the Department of the Interior, Dominion Land Surveyor and--"

But the others were saying to Ike: "Well, what did they do next, them Britishers?"

"Oh, they wasn't discouraged. They hung on to that there meridian. Yep! Carried it down past Seventy-mile Creek, and dropped it quite convenient, so's to leave the Forty-mile diggin's on their side."

"Yes, sir, yes, sir," said Mr. George Washington Perkins excitedly. "I heard--down in the States, that this present Line is just another of their dodges and the Klondyke really belongs to America."

"Well, if it does, our Senator from California is goin' to see about it. He was sayin' about this Pyramid Harbour question, sayin' he'd die sooner'n yield an inch of free American soil to Great Britain."

"Hear that?"


"That's the kind!"

"Oh, it'll come out all right," said another Californian. "Both sides have been having new surveys made, and the United States Government's goin' to send up a special Commission."

"Well, sir," says old Ike, solemnly, "when that Commission comes here we'll talk to it like a father."

"But if your Commission finds you're wrong?" demands the Dominion surveyor.

"But we're not wrong."

"But if you were would they say so?"

"Look here! You Canada folks ain't goin' to get no harbours out of us."

"Any man in public life," observes a lawyer from Ohio, "who'd agree to ceding to the British half-a-foot of American soil, well, sir, he'd find he'd committed official suicide."

There was silence for a time. Old Ike brushed the shavings off his knee. "You mark my words," says he, "if our side drives a stiff bargain in this Boundary business, it won't be because we hate the British, nor altogether because we're jest natchral-born hogs; it'll be because the British have known enough 'rithm'tic

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from way back to make all the mistakes on one side of the Line."

Out of the confusion of tongues a voice pitched shrill:

"The Canadians are just stavin' off the next 'rithm'tic party till the Klondyke gold's cleaned up; then they'll take up that there meridian and move on."

"Anyhow, we're goin' to help 'em with their cleanin'," said old Ike, cheerfully.

"Yes," growled the Nebraska man, "And help 'em turn over the lion's share to the Canadian Government, in their damned royalty tax."

"Seems to suit you!" laughed the Canadian. "Ninety percent of the people in the Klondyke at this minute are Americans--all keen as razors for a chance to do just that thing."

"Yes," sighed George Washington Perkins, "that's what I hear. American enterprise opens up the country, and the Britisher takes the gate-money."

"Well, sir," says the man from Missouri, "We'll take care of the gate-money at Pyramid Harbour." 

First available on line: 25 February 1999