California is one of the most iconic of America’s 50 states. Its film industry has shaped world culture and ensured that one of the most enduring images of America is the golden sands and rolling waves of its Pacific coastline. But what if America had been thwarted in its westward expansion? Could California, Oregon and Washington have become the 11th Canadian province of New Albion?
In summer 1579, English sea captain Frances Drake explored the Pacific coastline of North America. Whilst it is uncertain exactly where Drake landed, it is clear that the Elizabethan explorer claimed a vast tract of land to the north of New Spain as Nova Albion – New Albion.
British interest in this remote, rugged and, in places, hostile region was limited – imperial energies were being spent in the more immediately lucrative Caribbean, in the trading riches of India and Asia and in New England – the much closer set of colonies strung along the eastern seaboard of North America.
Britain’s next flirtation with the Pacific coastline would come over land as well as sea, as its territorial claims in modern-day Canada expanded ever eastwards. In 1789, Britain and Spain would clash in the Pacific northwest with both powers making claims based on historic exploration by Drake and Cook for Britain and Balboa, Cabrillo and Vizcaíno for Spain.
Escalating tensions over what would become British Columbia developed first into the Nootka Crisis, which threatened war between Britain and Spain, and then into the Nootka Conventions, which brought peace and greatly extended the scope of British claims to the Pacific coastline.
The United States was not a party to the Convention, despite having an interest in the results. It was busy developing its own theory of expansion – a ‘manifest destiny’ that would see the country turn its back on the Atlantic and stretch from coast to coast.
British energy and attention was diverted for much of the following two decades by the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. Meanwhile, American settlers were pushing ever westwards and the government sanctioned exploration and expansion.
All of this would come to a head in the 1840s, as the unsettled boundary between the USA (which had assumed Spain’s claims to the Pacific coast territories as far north as Alaska) and Great Britain (which claimed land to extend its Canadian territories that would take in modern day Washington, Oregon and northern California) sparked conflict.
In what became known as the Oregon Dispute, British interests sized up against American public opinion and pride. In an era of imperialism, nationalism and great power rivalries, the American people were soon stoked up and ready to fight. The shouts of ‘manifest destiny’ and the slogan “Fifty-Four Forty or Fight” referred to the claim up to the 54°40′ parallel.
In the end, conflict was avoided when the two powers settled for negotiation and compromise over war. The result was the Oregon Treaty and a boundary between Britain (and later Canada) and the USA on the 49th parallel north. Although Britain gained certainty over its claims to British Columbia, and Canada would be assured of an extensive Pacific coastline, it lost its historic claims to territory further south.
In some ways, the timing of the compromise was terrible for Britain. On 24 January 1848, less tha-n two years after the signing of the Oregon Treaty, the Californian Gold Rush started. James W. Marshall’s find at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, California sparked a furious search for riches and placed San Francisco and California firmly on the map and on the path to economic and population growth.
Two of the richest and most concentrated gold deposits were found in the Sierra Nevada and Northern California goldfields, both within the boundaries of England’s historic New Albion claim.
Some 400 years after his landing, Drake’s achievement (but not his territorial claim) were officially recognized by the U.S. Department of the Interior. Although still disputed, many now believe the site of his landing was in northern California, near modern day San Francisco. Just north of the Golden Gate bridge, you can Drake’s Cove, in Drakes Bay.
If you cross the Golden Gate Bridge, head north to Point Reyes and then take a left along Sir Frances Drake Boulevard, a winding road will take you through the Tomales Bay State Park and eventually down to some spectacular views of the Pacific. Here, you can imagine a very different California perhaps becomming part of a very different Canada.
It wasn’t only Britain that lost out on a Californian empire. Russia had extended so far eastwards that it had leapt the Baring Straits and colonised Alaska. Russian claims to territory further south had also to be considered – this post by Daniel Hannon puts forward a counterfactual history based on Russia’s successful colonisation of California.