Determine Who Owns Pembina | Community


August 5, 2021 – In 1816, Congress passed a law stating that “Licenses to trade with Indians within the territorial limits of the United States will be granted only to citizens of the United States, except on the express direction of the President.” “

The law did not apply to traders in the northern and eastern sections of what is now North Dakota, as at that time it was owned by Great Britain. Two years later, however, England signed a treaty with the United States which determined that all land south of the 49th parallel would now be in American ownership. The question was … what, exactly, now belonged to the states?

The government put in a quarter of a million dollars for what was called the Yellowstone Expedition, which was planned by Secretary of War John Calhoun. Its stated objective was “to extend and protect our commerce with the Indians”. They would also find the 49th parallel and try a steamboat route that could provide “safe and easy communication with China.”

Colonel Henry Atkinson was responsible for the 800 to 1,000 troops accompanying the expedition, and Major Stephen H. Long headed the scientific corps. It was the first time that steamboats were used on the Missouri River, and it turned out to be a mistake; sailing steamboats on the Big Muddy was much more difficult than using keelboats. Of the five steamboats they used, only one – the Western Engineer – was designed for shallow water, and they were not launched from St. Louis until June 21, 1819, after the spring runoff subsided and the lower river.

Only three of the steamers managed to maneuver upstream. Even the Western Engineer was striving to reach a top speed of three miles an hour, and sandbanks were a constant problem. Huge amounts of wood were needed for fuel, and the muddy river water clogged the boilers. It has been said, “A man can grow corn in his stomach if he drinks Missouri water.”

The expedition only reached Council Bluffs, where they had to stop and prepare for winter. The government severely cut credits and the expedition was ultimately considered a failure. Major Long returned east, calling the plains “the great American desert.”

Four years later, however, Major Long headed north again to find the 49th parallel. This time he arrived through the valley of the Minnesota River with a small infantry escort. The expedition was treated to a dog feast by the Dakotas of Wahpeton, but further north a different group was not so welcoming. Long had to push his men with forced marches that covered nearly 25 miles a day.

It was on this date in 1823 that Long and his men arrived in Pembina. The village was a thriving fur trading post at the time, but men found it almost deserted. James Calhoun, who had planned the previous expedition, mapped the stars that night, determined the 49th parallel, and erected an oak pole with GB engraved on the north side and US on the south side.

Pembina, who everyone assumed was still British, was more in the United States.

The next day, the townspeople returned with 115 Red River carts, each loaded with about 800 pounds of buffalo meat and skins. When Long informed them that they were no longer British, they weren’t at all impressed. The Hudson’s Bay Company had conducted its own investigation earlier this year and came to the same conclusion. The citizens of Pembina who wanted to remain British had already left the city, and Métis families had settled in to take their place.

“Dakota Datebook” is a Prairie Public radio series in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota and with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council. See all Dakota Agendas at, subscribe to the “Dakota Datebook” podcast or purchase the Dakota Datebook at

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