By the Oregon Boundary Treaty, signed on June 15, 1846 the border was drawn along the forty–ninth parallel. The Treaty drew attention to the threat of the expansionist United States.
In 1859 the San Juan Island dispute erupted when a Hudson Bay Co. pig was shot after multiple invasions of an American farmer's garden patch. The incident became serious when the military commander of the Oregon Department ordered troops to occupy San Juan Island in order to protect the American squatters. The Pig War on the San Juan Island at the height of the Fraser River Gold Rush caused British officials grave concern about American intentions.
The first pre–emptions of land in Surrey were not until the 1860s. The flood of Americans in the 1858 Fraser Gold Rush resulted in Governor Douglas: Proclaiming the Colony of British Columbia, November 19, 1858; making the Pre–emption Proclamation; and ordering J.W. Trutch to begin a land survey of the Fraser Valley prior to settlement. The next year, 1860, James Kennedy was the first to pre–empt on the north side of Mud Bay. Samual Hardy, second, and Hugh McDougall, third, both on the south side of the Nicomekl River.
In 1871, when British Columbia joined Confederation, less than ten families had officially pre-empted land in Surrey. Much of that land was in the Nicomekl–Mud Bay area and accessible by water transport. In 1872 and 1873 J. Alex McDougall and his family pre–empted land on both sides of the Nicomekl River. He named the stopping point where the Semiahmoo Trail crossed the Nicomekl River, Elgin, after the place in Scotland where he was born.
Only a few settlers ventured into the heavily wooded glacial uplands of Surrey. Due to the great difficulty of clearing the land it appears that extensive settlement did not occur until the upland areas had been logged over. The many discarded logs and the massive stumps made the logged areas still very difficult one to clear, especially before the widespread use of dynamite and the introduction of the bulldozer in the 1940s. Difficulties of clearing combined with doubtful soil quality made upland agriculture largely unrewarding.
The lowlands were the favoured areas by the Pioneers. There was little clearing necessary in the lowlands. Hardback and other scrub bush was knocked over with team–drawn chains and then burned or plowed under with a thirty inch plow and left for two or three years to decompose. While clearing was relatively easy in the lowlands, diking and drainage were a different story. To protect the land from tidal overflow and high runoff, dikes were built in the Serpentine–Nicomekl lowlands, but were unnecessary in the Campbell lowlands. Initially this involved all hand labour and many an acre was safeguarded from the destructive sea water in this toilsome manner. Literally mile after mile of these handmade dikes, some three feet in height, existed to tell the tale of pioneer pluck and endurance. The first machine–made dikes were put in about 1898 around the mouths of the Serpentine and Nicomekl Rivers.
Drainage was necessary throughout both of the valley bottoms of the Surrey lowlands, and it was accomplished with under–drains. The under–drains were ditches sixteen inches wide and from eighteen to thirty inches deep leading to a drainage ditch or slough. In the bottom of this ditch a tile spade would be used to dig a four–inch–wide tongue, fourteen to sixteen inches deep. Over this tongue drain small blocks of cedar, sixteen inches long, were laid. Additional ten feet long cedar lengths might also be placed over top of the sixteen inch blocks. Later when sawed lumber was available, six or eight inch cedar boards were nailed together to form a triangular drain which was placed over the tongue ditch. The under–drains were established at intervals of three or four rods across the field. They emptied into ditches or sloughs which were in turn diverted to the river. There a dike gate was constructed which would open to allow the water to flow out at periods of low tide, but close to prevent inflow during high tide. These systems of under–drains and dike gates were common–place throughout the lowlands and were very successful in removing excess water and salt from the land.
A great deal of the labour in ditching and draining was undertaken by Chinese.
As one early settler put it:
The only ditching machine they knew in the early days was a Chinaman, and he was an artist. With a spade he could dig a ditch better and cheaper than any machine would do it. Why a Chinaman would dig an under–drain, we'd put the lumber in, and then he'd refill it, all at twelve cents a rod; and it would be as true as any machine would ever make it. They were such workers that they'd make a dollar a day.
The soil of the Serpentine–Nicomekl lowland was composed of a clay–silt along the banks of the sloughs and rivers, and peat in the lower sections away from the rivers. After diking, draining and cultivation over a period of years the land settled an average of twelve to eighteen inches. This settling of the land was due to the breaking down of humus, peat, seaweed and other organic materials as the land was drained and cultivated. The clay–silt banks did not settle as much as the peat land and thus a somewhat undulating landscape, which required grading, was created.
The soil of the Halls Prairie district differed from that of the northern lowlands in that the former did not have any extensive peat lands; while its soil being a heavier clay loam did not drain as readily, caking, when wet, and going to powder when dry. The differences not–withstanding, the soils of both the Serpentine–Nicomekl and Campbell lowlands were good soils capable of producing crops under moderately good management practice.