The Acting Secretary of State to the Ambassador in Great Britain ( Harvey )

No. 643

Sir: With reference to the Department’s instruction No. 466 of April 19 and your despatch No. 1343 of May 24, 1922,11 it is desired that you should now make formal inquiry of the Foreign Office respecting the views of the British Government on the subject of Wrangell Island, leaving with the Foreign Office a memorandum of your inquiry. The memorandum should bring out the facts and considerations set forth below.

Wrangell Island (or Wrangell Land), which lies in the Arctic regions about one hundred miles north of the coast of Siberia, seems first to have been heard of, but not sighted, in 1823 by Baron von Wrangell, a Russian naval officer. Captain Kellett, of the British ship Herald, caught a glimpse of the island in 1849, but did not land thereon. In 1867 Captain Long, of the American whaler Nile, approached within fifteen miles of the island and gave it the name of Wrangell Land in honor of the Russian explorer above mentioned.

The first landing of which there is record was made in 1881 by officers of the United States revenue cutter Corwin. The officers of the Corwin raised the United States flag, took possession of the territory in the name of the United States, and deposited a record on the island. A few weeks later the U. S. S. Rogers anchored in a [Page 282] harbor of Wrangell Island. The officers of this naval vessel found the United States flag and the record left by the officers of the Corwin. They made an extensive survey of the island.

From that time there appears to have been no landing until March, 1914, when the crew of the Canadian ship Karluk was forced to land on the island because of the wreck of its vessel. The crew of the Karluk was rescued the next September by an American vessel from Nome, Alaska.

One more landing has taken place since then. According to a report published in the New York Times of March 20, 1922, and in other newspapers at about the same time, a party of men, operating under the direction of Mr. Vilhjalmur Stefansson, arrived at Wrangell Island September 21, 1921, on the American sloop Silver Wave. So far as is known this party is still on the island. The party is reported to consist of a Canadian leader and three American citizens. It is reported that the Canadian leader immediately upon landing took possession of the island in the name of Great Britain or of Canada.

The facts set forth above indicate that the question of the status of Wrangell Island may require consideration at this time, especially in view of a statement reported to have been made by the Canadian Minister of Militia and Defense in the Canadian House of Commons on May 12, 1922, indicating a possible intention on the part of the Canadian Government to assert ownership thereof.

In addition to possible claims by the United States or by Great Britain (for itself or on behalf of the Canadian Government), a claim to the island has been put forward by Russia. The Government of the United States received from the Imperial Russian Ambassador at Washington under date of November 13, 1916,12 a communication asserting that the Imperial Russian Government considered as forming part and parcel of the Empire Wrangell and other islands lying near the Siberian coast. It is presumed that a similar communication was made to the Government of Great Britain at the same time.

It is desired that you should set forth the above facts in the memorandum to be left with the Foreign Office, and, making special reference to the statement of the Canadian Minister of Militia and Defense in the Canadian House of Commons of May 12 last, inquire what purposes the British or Canadian Government may have in mind with respect to Wrangell Island and what are their views with respect to its present status.

It may be added, for your own information and guidance, that the Department feels that the public statement of the Canadian Minister of Militia and Defense justifies an official inquiry as to the purposes of [Page 283] Great Britain or Canada. The policy of this Government does not go at present beyond a reservation of all American rights in respect of the island and a readiness to discuss its status with the British Government.

I am [etc.]

William Phillips
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