Douglas & McIntyre
Arc of the Medicine Line

Book details:

September 2007
ISBN 978-1-55365-278-6
6" x 9"
384 pages
History / Canada HIS006000
$36.95 CAD


  • Winner of the Manitoba Historical Society's Margaret McWilliams Prize for Popular History

Douglas & McIntyre

Arc of the Medicine Line

Mapping the World's Longest Undefended Border Across the Western Plains Plains

Excerpt / Additional Content

It had taken more than two centuries of blood, bravado and barter, of grand imperial designs and even grander battles fought half a world away. But in the end, it had all come down to this one small moment.

The men who gathered on the grassy bank beside the Red River of the North on that bright, late summer day were British, American and Canadian. Together, over the next two years, they would arc a precise, pencil-thin line across nine hundred miles of forest, swamp and high plains desolation and, with it, draw the long course of empire in North America to a close. Over the following decade or so, the boundary would take on its popular name: the Medicine Line. It was probably the Sioux who first began to use the term in the late 1870s after Sitting Bull and his people crossed into Canada following the battle of the Little Bighorn. Although it was never more than a string of widely spaced markers with no continuous barrier between them, the line was said to have “strong medicine” since it seemed to have the power to stop the pursuing U.S. Cavalry in its tracks.

The members of the United States Northern Boundary Commission had been moving into camp at Fort Pembina, Dakota Territory, for more than a month. Their opposite numbers, the officers and men of the Royal Engineers, representing the British North American Boundary Commission, had only just arrived early that morning at the end of a voyage from their headquarters in Chatham, England. With their twenty tons of baggage unloaded and stacked beside an old Hudson’s Bay Company trading post, the British officers set off for their first official meeting with the Americans. At some point along the course of their half-mile walk to the south (though they could not have stated with any certainty exactly where) they crossed the 49th Parallel.

Leading the march was thirty-seven-year-old Captain Donald Roderick Cameron, chief commissioner of the British and Canadian contingent. Cameron differed from his fellow officers in two significant details: his career had been made in the Royal Artillery, rather than the Royal Engineers, and his appointment to the boundary commission was based not upon his field experience as a surveyor but on his political and social connections in Ottawa.

Born in Scotland and given his military education in France, Cameron was commissioned in 1856 and spent the first part of his career in India, distinguishing himself in the Bhutan campaign of 1864–65. He left India soon after and found himself posted to the British garrison at Halifax in Nova Scotia, which had just become one of the founding provinces of Canada in 1867. It was there he met and, in 1869, married Emma Tupper, daughter of Sir Charles Tupper, the long-time Nova Scotia politician then serving under Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald in Canada’s first national government.

While Britain seemed to view the surveying of the last gap in the boundary with the United States as unfinished business—a sort of “parting gift” to the new dominion—the Canadian government clearly saw it as an opportunity to assert its status as an independent nation. In addition to agreeing to pay half the cost of the commission, Canada asked that it might be given leave to recommend its own man for the position of chief commissioner. When the Foreign Office in London was unable to convince either of its own preferred choices to take the appointment, Britain agreed to the Canadians’ candidate, and Charles Tupper, by then president of the Privy Council, could tell his son-in-law that he had the job.

In fact, the boundary commission was Cameron’s second posting to the banks of the Red River, but he could hardly have been remembering his previous visit with any great warmth. In 1869 he had been aide-de-camp to the man who was supposed to become Manitoba’s first lieutenant governor, William McDougall, when the latter made an ill-fated attempt to assume his vice-regal seat during the height of Louis Riel’s Red River Rebellion. Cameron himself was said to have been stopped at a Metis barricade and provided great amusement to the defenders by pacing back and forth, closely examining the situation through a monocle and demanding the removal of what they remembered him calling “that blawsted fence.” It would not be surprising to discover that a somewhat aggrandized version of Cameron’s “previous experience” in the Red River valley, brief and foolish as it might have been, had been one of Ottawa’s selling points to secure his appointment to the boundary commission.

With a thin, full beard making his long face seem even longer, Cameron looked more Oxford don than artillery officer. Although the monocle had been replaced by a pair of wire-rimmed pince-nez, the man had retained his stiff formality. While both commissions would allow very relaxed rules for the wearing of uniforms, Cameron would rarely be seen without a full suit, collar and tie.

Accompanying Cameron were four senior officers. First among them was Chief Astronomer Samuel Anderson. Newly promoted to captain in acknowledgement of his appointment, Anderson was a young officer who had risen swiftly and surely to his position as second-in-command of the British North American Boundary Commission. Born in London in 1839, the son of a Scottish solicitor who was registrar of affidavits in the High Court of Chancery, Anderson was educated at the University of St. Andrew’s and the Edinburgh Military Academy before being selected for the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich in 1857. An award-winning student, he was gazetted a lieutenant in the Royal Engineers in December 1858. Thin-lipped and prematurely thin of hair, his customary moustache and long mutton chops had already begun to fill out to a full beard, perhaps longer and more luxurious than would have been permitted on the Engineers’ parade grounds. Where Cameron was distant, rigid and brittle, Anderson was relaxed and congenial, making him a popular and well-respected field officer. He could (and would) ask a great deal of the men under his command and they would rarely disappoint him.

On the Foreign Office’s putative list of candidates for chief commissioner, Anderson’s name would have been in third place, directly below two more senior men with whom he had already served in the field. First on that list was Royal Engineers Colonel (later General and Sir) John Summerfield Hawkins. He had been chief commissioner for the overland portion of the boundary survey of 1858–62, which had drawn the 49th Parallel from the Strait of Georgia eastward to the crest of the Continental Divide. Second choice was Captain Charles William Wilson, also of the Royal Engineers, who had served as secretary to the Pacific Boundary Commission. Anderson’s first overseas posting after graduating from Woolwich had been to that same commission, where he had successfully re-surveyed a long section of the line that had previously been badly mismeasured.

After returning to Britain from the Pacific Northwest in 1862, Anderson spent two years working on the commission’s reports and maps. He was then invited to join Wilson on assignment in Syria, where they were to survey and map the Holy Land on behalf of the Palestine Exploration Fund. After a year, Anderson was home again and beginning a five-year teaching stint at the School of Military Engineering in Chatham, Kent.

As it turned out, Hawkins was not interested in returning to the field, and Wilson had just been made chief of the topographical department at the War Office. Had the Canadians not pushed for their own choice, Anderson, despite his age and comparative lack of seniority, would certainly have had both Hawkins’s and Wilson’s support for the role of chief commissioner, given his irreplaceable experience on the Pacific survey.

Also teaching at Chatham when the call came for him to join the boundary commission was Lieutenant Albany Featherstonhaugh (he would probably have pronounced it “Fanshaw”). His appointment came with the title of assistant astronomer, and his promotion to captain that accompanied it was effective the same day as Anderson’s.

Featherstonhaugh was even younger than Anderson, celebrating his thirty-second birthday en route to Canada. Another top scholar, Featherstonhaugh had also attended the Royal Military Academy and was gazetted lieutenant in the Royal Engineers in 1859, when he was still just eighteen. His first overseas assignment was to Bermuda, followed by a posting to Halifax. It was in Halifax he met Cameron, and it was Cameron who initially thought Featherstonhaugh a good candidate for the position either of chief astronomer or commission secretary.

A quiet and reserved man, Featherstonhaugh had a close-trimmed beard and short, neatly parted hair that made him seem far more bookish than brash. More than once Anderson would note his colleague’s “irritable” manner, though he usually alloyed any criticism with praise for Featherstonhaugh’s tireless dedication and carefully executed work with the instruments.

Lieutenants Arthur Clitheroe Ward and William James Galwey were the commission’s junior officers and both were drawn from the large pool of young Royal Engineers who had spent at least a part of their careers at the Halifax garrison. Ward had been Cameron’s choice for the commission’s secretary, but that title does not convey the full breadth of his administrative responsibilities. Across Ward’s desk in Pembina would flow the river of requisitions, reports, bills, mail and correspondence that were required to keep more than a hundred men, nearly two hundred head of livestock and a huge inventory of equipment working smoothly in the field.

Irish-born Galwey was the junior assistant astronomer and, while he was the same age as Anderson, he had not graduated from Woolwich until 1862. Descended from a long line of Irish gentry that seems to have produced mostly doctors and lawyers, Galwey was recognized as a careful and able soldier, though his star was not rising at the same rate as his fellow officers’. Anderson found him withdrawn and somewhat taciturn, a man who required more looking after than the others.