Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
April 2007

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Treaty of Washington



This was a treaty signed in 1871 in Washington, District of Columbia, between the United States and Great Britain, whereby the differences between the two countries arising from the period of the American Civil War were settled. Because several of the points at issue affected Canada, Sir John Macdonald, then prime minister of Canada, was appointed one of the five British commissioners. The chief points at issue were the following: (1) the indemnity to be paid by Great Britain for damages done to United States commerce by the Alabama and other confederate cruisers built in British ports; (2) the free navigation of the St. Lawrence by American ships; (3) the possession of the island of San Juan, in the Portland channel, on the Pacific coast; (4) the rights of American fishermen in Canadian waters; and (5) the indemnity to be paid to Canada for the damage done during the Fenian raids. The Alabama question, which did not concern Canada, was referred to an international tribunal, which met in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1872, and awarded the United States damages amounting to $15,500,000. The Canadian fisheries were opened to United States fishermen for a term of twelve years; and a commission which sat later at Halifax awarded Canada $5,500,000 as compensation for this concession. The San Juan dispute was referred to the German Emperor for arbitration; and his award was in favour of the United States. The United States was granted free navigation of the St. Lawrence; though Canada was granted free navigation of lake Michigan, of the Yukon river, and some of the rivers in the extreme north-west of the United States. The question of compensation for the Fenian raids was dropped altogether; although Canada had at least as good a claim to damages for the Fenian raids as the United States had to damages done by the Alabama. Macdonald, who was placed in a difficult position, complained bitterly in private that the British commissioners had sacrificed Canadian interests, "no matter what the cost to Canada"; but he signed the treaty, and defended it as necessary "for the sake of peace, and for the sake of the great Empire of which we form a part". For Macdonald's own account of the negotiations, see J. Pope, Memoirs of the Right Hon. Sir John Alexander Macdonald (2 vols., Ottawa, 1894).

Source: W. Stewart WALLACE, ed., The Encyclopedia of Canada, Vol. VI, Toronto, University Associates of Canada, 1948, 398p., pp. 259-260.

© 2007 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College