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Camp Semiahmoo 1857–59

Source: Papers of W.W. Hastings

The Oregon Boundary Treaty, signed on June 15, 1846, created the present Canada/USA international boundary by granting the territory north of the 49th parallel and the whole of Vancouver Island to the British. The American claim extended from the 49th parallel southward to the Mexican possessions.

It would be another 12 years before the boundary was actually marked out on the ground. A British Party under the command of British Commissioner Captain John Summerfield Hawkins of the Royal Engineers, in co-operation with a similar party from the United States, under the command of US Commissioner Archibald Campbell, met Aug 13, 1858 at Semiahmoo Bay to work out the protocol for the Survey to establish the 49th parallel.

Local contractors had arrived earlier in 1858 and established a camp and improved the beach berm which became the basis of Beach Road to give access to the international boundary. The Boundary Commission erected their camp, among the remnants of the earlier camp, on a little strip of open land near the mouth of the little Campbell River close to one of the Semiahmoo winter camps. The site was just north of the forty-ninth parallel; contained a fresh water supply, and the Campbell River channel provided water access over the tidal flats. While at this site the troops constructed about a mile and three-quarters of good road along the shore of Semiahmoo Bay between the boundary and Camp Semiahmoo. This base was later used while the boundary was slashed and marked from Semiahmoo Bay to the Sumas Flats.

Boundary Commission Camp

The American section of the Commission was headed by Archibald Campbell, with General John G. Parke as his chief surveyor. When they arrived in Victoria on June 22nd, 1857, members of the British Commission were not there. So Campbell discussed the survey in a general way with Capt. James Prevost, R.N., Commander of H.M.S. Satellite, but decided not to wait longer but commenced work on his own which gave him a year's start on Hawkins.

The practical result of this was that the British and Americans would work independently and each would make their own surveys working from a different camp. In this way they could, and did, confer but neither would get in the way of the other.

Campbell, and the Americans, started at the extreme western point of the mainland portion of the 49th parallel which was the top of the cliff on Zero Avenue, Point Roberts, where the land drops sharply into the water. He erected an obelisk there and returned to Camp Semiahmoo which was already established across Semiahmoo Bay, at White Rock at the mouth of the Campbell River, the same camp which had been built by the Royal Engineers before they left for duty at Sumas. They had been at Semiahmoo earlier for a different reason altogether.

The American camp was therefore on Canadian soil. Campbell knew this of course, but as it was the most convenient place and there were already some buildings there he used what he found and reported to his superior, Inspector General J.K.F. Mansfield, that he was aware that his camp was in British territory but he thought, it was a very unimportant matter as it is but a temporary position.

Map of Camp Semiahmoo 1897

This is a map of the Municipality of Surrey in 1897. It was produced by Albert J. Hill, M.A. a civil engineer with the Provincial Land Survey and based in New Westminster. The map shows the roads and railways of the day, and the location of Camp Semiahmoo near the mouth of the Campbell River. The Semiahmoo Wagon Road was constructed in 1873-74 and ran beside the former site of Camp Semiahmoo and the road used part of Beach Road which was also used by the American Boundary Commission.

For those wishing to see the place, it is on the Semiahmoo Reserve in the location of the Semiahmoo Ball Park. The trail to the boundary led along the line of the Burlington Northern Railway but crossed the mouth of the Campbell River to follow, in part, the present Beach Road. Many people walk past the ball park not knowing that it is such an historic site.

It was here on August 13th, 1858 that Campbell and Hawkins met face to face for the first time. When Hawkins arrived he was met by an official salute followed by a banquet which was returned the next day by the British. After that they got down to the business of marking the boundary. The British Boundary Survey party consisted of about 100 men, including men of the Royal Engineers as well as civilian axemen.

A picture of Semiahmoo Bay

United States Boundary Commission Picture; A view of Semiahmoo Bay looking east towards Drayton Harbour with Mount Baker in the background. This view was painted in 1858 by James Alden, an artist attached to the US Boundary Commission survey party. The canoes are manned by members of the Semiahmoo People. Source: Historical Atlas of Vancouver and the Lower Fraser Valley - Derek Hayes

In December 1858 , an American Assist Major Irvin McDowell Adjutant General visited Camp Semiahmoo and reported on its organization and activities.

Report of the Inspection of the Escort of the Boundary Commission at Semiahmoo 10th, 11th, and 12th Dec. 1858.

Sir: I have the honor to report to the Gen–in–chief that I left Fort Bellingham on the 8th in the Revenue Cutter Jefferson Davis for Semi–ah–moo, and after much cold and bad weather, with rain and snow, reached that place on the 10th, and immediately commenced my inspection and have submit the following result.
Semi–ah–moo is a locality on the beach situated on the north side of a little bay of that name in latitude 49–00–43 and in longitude 122–47–19. It seems to be well selected for the object of the Commissioner Archibald Campbell, and his astronomers: and is found to be on British soil, a very unimportant matter as it is but a temporary position. It is 2 � miles by trail from Semi–ah–moo City, a little village growing up on our Territory on the south side of the Bay, where there is good anchorage. There is deep water in front of this position, being about a mile from the shore. It is about 55 miles from Port Townsend, 14 miles from Point Roberts, a Promontory directly to the westward across the water, which is United States soil for about two miles north and south (70 miles from Victoria) 17 from Fort Langley on Fraser's River and the seat of Government of New Columbia (77 miles from Fort Hope, 90 miles from Fort Yale, 22 miles from the mouth of Fraser's River). The whole country in this neighborhood is covered with a thick growth of fir, spruce and cedar.

Map of BC Trails

This map, drawn by the United States Boundary Commission in 1858, shows the route taken in 1824 by the McMillan Expedition. The Expedition, to establish a site for a future Fort Langley, paddled up the Nicomekl from Mud Bay. They came up the Nicomekl River and across a portage (Langley Prairie) to the Salmon River, and descended it to the Fraser River. An alternate route, from Semiahmoo Bay to Fort Langley, was built by local contractors in 1858 during the period of the BC Gold Rush.

There is a little creek convenient for boats harbour and a good spring of water: and it is convenient to receive supplies by water: and the mail steamer makes from Olympia her regular trips to this place.
Mr. Campbell, and his principal astronomer Lieut. I.G. Parke of the Topographical Engineers, with the numerous citizen employees of that commission, were comfortably quartered in temporary buildings. Lieut. Parke is the only Army officer attached to the commission. He is well supplied with excellent instruments and has established an observatory, and was at this time engaged in bringing up his work of the past season, which extended for some 60 miles eastward. He appears to have the confidence of Mr. Campbell and is well qualified for the position in every respect. He is not only talented, but industrious, and systematic, and an ornament to his particular Corps. He informed me they should probably next winter be quartered over the Cascade Mountains, not far from Colville. Hence the necessity of establishing a post in that quarter the next summer, in connection with other considerations.


Company F 9th infantry, forms his escort, Capt. D. Woodruff commanding: L Lieut. H. Douglass on duty at the Military Academy by official orders Nov. 07, Adjutant Generals Office, 25 July 1857: 1, 2nd Lieut; 4, sergeants; 3, corporals; 2, buglers; 63, privates, of which 5 were sick; 1 sergeant and 6 privates confined, 8 on extra duty, 1 sergeant, 1 Corporal, 8 privates at the temporary detached depot (chi-lu-whe-uck) on Fraser's River about 35 miles above Fort Langley guarding the supplies of the Commission. Attached to this command were acting Assistant Surgeon I. H. Berrian and Lieut. A.V. Kantz of the 4th infantry acting quartermaster and commissary.
It was cold, stormy and freezing weather when I was here. There was 6 inches of snow on the ground, and it was impracticable to turn out the men and I contented myself by inspecting the quarter etc.!!
This company is armed with harpers' ferry rifles, etc. old, and soon to be replaced by the new rifled musket, 7576 suitable ball cartridges, 1220 blank cartridges and 2530 expanding balls, and 3 laundresses.


The sketch herewith shows the quarters for both the Commission and Employees, and the troops; which are mere rough sheds of rough boards etc, put up the answer the immediate purpose; and are all sufficient, and answer a very good purpose, and a cost to the Government of $5500 for the troops, inclusive of other expenditures of the Assistant quartermaster. The cost of those for the commission not included. There are two block houses, on occupied by the Guard.

Camp Semiahmoo


The soldiers had no bunks, but had a mess room and kitchen with a cooking stove and good bakery.


A small apartment in one end of a shed, used for quarter-master supplies, constituting; wardroom, dispensary and kitchen with a cooking stove. Medicines are ample with a steward and all well managed by Acting Surgeon Berrien.


The strength of the guard: 6 privates, and two non-com officers in the block house. The 2nd story is occupied by the prisoners. There were 7 prisoners; 4 for desertion and 3 minor offences. The prisoners were restless. One told me he should desert again for he had been badly treated.

Quartermasters Department

Lieut. A.V. Kautz has had charge of this duty since the 7th Nov. 1858. At the close of the month $470.50 had been expended. He receives his funds from the Chief Quartermaster in San Francisco. He keeps 7 horses, 6 mules, 1 cart, two whale boats and one scow all of which are necessary. He obtains forage from Steilacoom. The stable is a new shelter and had very little forage in hand. There is a deficiency of underclothing and shoes of nos. 7, 8, and 9.

Commissary Department

Lieut. Kautz has been commissary. His monthly papers to the close of November show there was due U.S. $3491.50 and expended since $32.50, leaving a balance of $3449.00, $2170 of which is in the Treasury of San Francisco, and the balance of $1288.20 in cash. He obtains his funds and supplies from the chief commissary at San Francisco. Beef cost here 12 cents on the hoof and it cost 15 dollars a head to be transported to the place in addition.


The Indians in this immediate neighborhood consist of about 50 in lodges a hundred yards off, harmless and peaceable. There are about 100 on Point Roberts, a drunken set, disposed to mischief. The worst and most numerous tribes of Indians in this quarter are on the British Possessions say 17,600 on the eastern shore of Vancouver's Island and etc. and 5,000 on Fraser's River from Fort hope down, including Harrison's River. This can only be visited by a steamer.
I am very respectfully,
Your obedient servant
Jos. K.F. Mansfield
Col. and Inspector General

Picture of Camp Semiahmoo

United States Boundary Commission Picture; A view of the Northwest Boundary Commissioners' Camp at Camp Semiahmoo painted from Semiahmoo Bay. The picture is attributed to William Birch McMurtrie (1816-1872), an American Artist, by the Bancroft Library. Rather, it might have been painted by James Alden, an artist attached to the US Boundary Commission survey party. This photograph is a contribution of the Bancroft Library.

Setch of Camp Semiahmoo

United States Boundary Commission Sketch; A view of the same Northwest Boundary Commissioners' Camp at Semiahmoo. This is a pencil sketch showing a slightly different perspective of the camp. The picture is also attributed to William Birch McMurtrie (1816–1872), an American Artist, by the Bancroft Library. Rather, it might have been painted by James Alden, an artist attached to the US Boundary Commission survey party. This photograph is a contribution of the Bancroft Library.

Colonel Moody's concerns for security

By a Proclamation dated January 4, 1860, Governor James Douglas opened up unsurveyed land in British Columbia for settlement by pre–emption. A settler could register a claim of up to 160 acres. When the lot came to be surveyed, he needed only to show he had occupied and improved the land, and pay 10 shillings an acre to complete the purchase. A large section of land had already been surveyed under contract by Joseph William Trutch in preparation for opening up the region to settlers, but as yet not a section had been sold between the Fraser River and the international boundary at the 49th parallel. A further proclamation stipulated that these surveyed parcels must be offered first at a public auction, with unsold lots afterward thrown open to purchase at the upset price of 10 shillings per acre.

On January 20th 1860, Moody wrote to Magistrate Warner Reeve Spalding at New Westminster, requesting that he refrain, for the time being, from accepting pre–emption claims for land on the frontier side of the river, "on account of Military considerations of grave importance."

Moody outlined his own strategy of land occupation to Governor Douglas.

I have the honor to inform you that persons are seeking to obtain Preemption claims to land on the bank of the river opposite this town, and that I have deemed it right to request Mr Spalding not to accede to any of them without a previous reference to me, reserving the country from two miles above the junction of the Pitt with the Fraser rivers, to six miles below New Westminster, and from that line across to the American Frontier. . . The land immediately opposite the City should not on any account be parted with except by lease on reasonable terms with power of resumption on the part of Government; the Government reimbursing the lessees for outlay at an appraised value . . . the occupation of the whole of that district should be subject to the important military consideration of the defence of the Frontier.

Early in 1860, tensions over the presence of American soldiers on the Frontier were exacerbated once more by the arrest of some deserters by Lieutenant McKibben of the United States military Escort to the Boundary Commission. The men had absconded to Langley over the trail from Semiahmoo, and there they were tracked down and captured by McKibben and his company. It was a contretemps that quickly blew over. British officers understood the necessity to curb desertion. However, the quick reaction of the American forces and the ease by which they marched into Langley unchallenged, must have given Colonel Moody some pause. Judge Begbie would gripe and grumble that the American forces stationed at Camp Semiahmoo "now affect to treat as their own territory not only that camp, but all British Columbia, as far north at least as the Fraser's River."

Begbie had been more than miffed the past June when the shooting of John Shaw at Camp Semiahmoo, located in British Territory, was deemed outside the jurisdiction of British law – and American civil law too, as it turned out. A second shooting at Semiahmoo again provoked international interest. On March 9th, 1860 an affidavit was sworn before Magistrate Spalding of New Westminster by WH Orr, an employee of the American Commissioner, alleging he was fired upon by Sgt Leonard of the Military Escort –the same soldier who had fatally shot John Shaw. Once again British sovereignty over an incident that took place on British soil proved ineffective. Military protection was Moody's trump card, and he made sure this was understood by the Governor, by requesting his letter prohibiting land occupation be also forwarded to Her Majesty's Secretary of State in London.

Breakup of Camp Semiahmoo

The first week of June 1860 advertisements under the authority of Archibald Campbell appeared in newspapers of the northwest announcing: "United States Property for Sale at Camp Semiahmoo – The Quarters occupied by the U.S. Boundary Commission." At the end of June, American Commissioner Campbell would call at the Queenborough Camp to bid a farewell to Colonel Moody. The Colonel not being home, he was received by Mrs Moody and left with her a gift of some books for her husband. Campbell was on his way to Victoria and thence to the Rockies. The Boundary camp at Semiahmoo would be abandoned. "From Semiahmoo – The Boundary Commission – The Port Townsend Register says that the U.S. steamer Massachusetts, Capt. Fauntleroy, arrived at Port Townsend on 18th July, from Semiahmoo, via Camp Pickett, on her way to Steilacoom, having on board Lieut. McKibben and the escort of the U.S. Boundary Commission, which has been encamped at Semiahmoo." An American military force never returned to Camp Semiahmoo and Colonel Moody could breathe a little easier. The departure of American Commissioner Campbell was followed by the leaving of HMS Satellite with Captain JC Prevost, after three years duty as Commissioner for the settlement of the water boundary. The Satellite departed Esquimalt July 30, 1860, having served extra duty during the exciting months of the Gold Rush to Fraser River, the birth of the new colony of British Columbia, and the cold war of the San Juan Island crisis.

Opening settlement south of the Fraser

Under pressure to open land for settlement, Governor Douglas agreed to release land that Colonel Moody had reserved for military purposes on the left bank.

At the beginning of July, 1860, Moody, somewhat more relaxed with the departure of the American force at Semiahmoo, wrote to the Governor.
"Your Excellency sometime since determined that the surveyed Rural Lands opposite New Westminster should no longer be reserved and I do not therefore oppose their occupation. Two or three persons holding Scrip . . . have selected the land to which they are entitled by such scrip, on that side."

Suveyor's sketch of Camp Semiahmoo

This sketch of Semiahmoo Village was made in 1879 by G.M. Sroat, the Indian Commissioner for BC. The map shows the route of the Semiahmoo Road a few years after it had been built.

Some interesting features on the map are:

The American section of the Commission headed by Archibald Campbell was almost a year ahead in the boundary survey when British Commissioner Captain John Hawkins began their sections' survey. Both parties worked independently with plans to compare and adjust their findings later.

When the Boundary survey was finished, the members of the British Commission were back in England by May 4, 1862, but knowing that there might be some delay in correlating the results, Hawkins had made a detour on his way home to see Campbell and urged him to gather his finding promptly so that the results could be compared and adjusted where necessary. Campbell was in no hurry but a report agreed to by Hawkins was signed May 7th 1866. When the British and American Government officials finally got around to formalizing the Commissions findings, the original records of both nations had been misplaced. When the original papers, signed by both Hawkins and Campbell, were eventually found they were published in 1899, thirty-three years after the original report, which was dated May 7th 1866. The publications revealed that at those infrequent times when Campbell and Hawkins had met to compare notes, minor variations had been discovered which could easily have been adjusted on the spot by taking new and accurate readings but this was not done, instead they chose a much more friendly, but grossly improper, method of adjustment. They struck a mean between the two lines which they both accepted as the official Boundary, thus perpetuating whatever errors existed.

The publication of the British and American papers, and the compromises that followed, so disturbed authorities that; they ordered an entirely new survey. This was done between 1901 and 1907. As a result, in 1908 an entirely new treaty was signed after special Boundary Commissioners had been appointed by both countries. By the 1908 treaty both nations agreed that the boundary should be the 49th parallel as surveyed and attested to. This was accepted by both nations.

Canada-USA border posts


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