Spy book highlights tensions after War of 1812


By Randy Boswell, Postmedia News May 23, 2012



While the Canadian and U.S. governments have framed this year’s bicentennial of the War of 1812 as a celebration of two centuries of post-war friendship, a rare, 164-year-old book to be auctioned next month in Britain is a reminder of just how fragile the peace between the two countries has sometimes been.

The lavishly illustrated, 1848 volume by Henry James Warre – innocuously titled Sketches in North America and the Oregon Territory, and expected to fetch up to $40,000 at a Christie’s sale June 13 – was actually the product of an undercover recon-naissance mission by two British agents sent to scope out a territorial dispute encompassing parts of present-day B.C., Washington state and Oregon, which threatened to spark a sequel to the War of 1812.

After James Polk was elected U.S. president in 1844 – rallying voters with his “54’40 or Fight!” vow to push the U.S. border in the Pacific North-west all the way to Russian-controlled Alaska – Warre and fellow agent Mervin Vavasour were assigned to discreetly collect intelligence in the disputed region by posing as British tourists on a West Coast trek.

Military conflict was eventually averted with a deal that permanently set the 49th parallel as the border between the U.S. and Canada along North America’s western frontier. While territory around the mouth of the Columbia River would become part of the U.S., Britain retained the future site of Vancouver and its surrounds, along with all of Vancouver Island – despite the fact that its southern portion extended well south of the mainland boundary line.

The border agreement allowed Warre, a talented artist and erstwhile spy, to publish his sketches of about 20 strategic sites – the 19th-century equivalent to secret satellite photos – as one of Western Canada’s earliest travel books. A first edition of Warre’s Sketches is a coveted prize among collectors of early North American books; in 2007, a colour-plate version of the 1848 volume sold at Christie’s for more than $200,000.

Warre and Vavasour – who travelled through present-day Ottawa, Winnipeg and Edmonton before reaching their destination beyond the Rocky Mountains – were assisted in their arduous journey by aboriginal guides as well as French-Canadian voyageurs, who had become familiar with the western wilderness from trading furs in the region.

From Fort Edmonton to Fort Colville, just south of the present-day B.C.-Washington border, the party lost 33 of 60 horses due to starvation, sickness or fatal falls down steep mountain slopes.

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