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Running Away Together for a Weekend

Posted by on September 27, 2014

The Pig War

Day 2 1/2


We set off from Friday Harbor to explore the rest of San Juan Island. Mish really wanted to visit the American and English camps from the not so great Pig War at either side of the island. Ok, the Pig War isn’t exactly mentioned in most American or British history books to be honest, but it did really happen. So, a little history lesson is probably in order.

Most of the Pacific Northwest was first explored by the Spanish. To this day, many landmarks still bear Spanish names, like the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the San Juan Islands, and Mount Diablo. By the early 1800’s however, Spain abandoned its claims in the region. The Anglo-American agreement in 1818 provided for joint occupation of the region by the United States and Great Britain. Although treaties were in place, tensions mounted among those living in the then Oregon Territory. Americans considered the British presence an affront to their “manifest destiny.” In turn, the British believed they had a legal right to lands guaranteed by earlier treaties, explorations and commercial activities of the Hudson’s Bay Company.


In June 1846 the Treaty of Oregon was signed in London, setting the boundary at the 49th parallel, from the Rocky Mountains “to the middle of the channel which separates the continent from Vancouver’s Island” then south through the channel to the Strait of Juan de Fuca and west to the Pacific Ocean.

Difficulty arose over the vague language of the treaty. The “channel” described in the treaty was actually two channels: the Haro Strait, nearest Vancouver Island, and the Rosario Strait, nearer the mainland. The San Juan Islands lay between, and both sides claimed the entire island group.

The Hudson’s Bay Company claimed all of San Juan Island for Great Britain. Concurrently, the islands were claimed as U.S. possessions in the newly created Washington Territory. Settlers from both countries soon established commercial ventures on San Juan Island. By spring 1859, 18 Americans had settled on claims staked on British prime sheep grazing lands. They expected the U.S. Government to recognize them as valid, but the British considered the claims illegal. Tempers grew shorter by the day.


The American Camp on San Juan Island

The inevitable crisis came on June 15, 1859, when Lyman Cutlar, an American, shot and killed a British pig rooting in his garden, thus starting the Pig War. When British authorities threatened to arrest Cutlar and evict all his countrymen from the island as trespassers, a delegation sought military protection from General William S. Harney, the American commander in the region. Harney responded by ordering Company D, 9th U.S. Infantry under Captain George E. Pickett (of later Civil War fame) to San Juan.

The British responded by dispatching Captain Geoffrey Phipps Hornby, commanding the 31-gun steam frigate HMS Tribune, to dislodge Pickett. Hornby was soon joined by two more warships, the HMS Satellite and the HMS Plumper. Pickett refused to withdraw and wrote Harney for help.

Throughout the summer, both sides amassed small armies on the island. By August 31, 461 Americans were encamped on the south side of the island, protected by 14 field cannons. In addition, 8 more naval guns were removed from the USS Massachusetts and installed in a redoubt excavated under the direction of 2nd Lieutenant Henry M. Robert (future author of Robert’s Rules of Order). On the north side of the island, the British established their camp, complete with a proper English garden.


The English Camp on San Juan Island

While the Americans dug in, the British conducted drills with their 52 total guns, alternately hurling cannon balls into the bluffs and rocks along Griffin Bay. It was all great fun for tourists arriving on excursion boats from Victoria, not to mention the officers from both sides who attended church serves together aboard the Satellite and shared whisky and cigars in Charles Griffin’s tidy English home.

When word of the escalating crisis reached Washington, officials from both nations were shocked that a pig murder had grown into a potentially explosive international incident. Alarmed by the prospect of all out real war, President James Buchanan sent General Winfield Scott to solve the issue faster than a greased pig (sorry).

Scott proposed a joint military occupation until a final settlement could be reached, which both nations approved in November. San Juan Island remained under joint military occupation for the next 12 years. In 1871, when Great Britain and the United States signed the Treaty of Washington, the San Juan question was referred to Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany for settlement. Why the German Kaiser is unclear. Perhaps because the German are fond of pork?

The Kaiser referred the issue to a three-man arbitration commission who met for nearly a year in Geneva. On October 21, 1872, the commission ruled in favor of the United States, establishing the boundary line through Haro Strait. Thus, the San Juan Islands became American possessions and the final boundary between Canada and the United States was set. On November 25, 1872, the British withdrew from English Camp. By July 1874, the last of the U.S. troops left American Camp. Peace had finally come to the 49th parallel and San Juan Island would be long remembered for the “war” in which the only casualty was a pig.

The National Park Service maintains both camps in beautiful condition with an interpretive center. So, we learned a lot of mostly forgotten history. To be fair, we visited both camps. Mish and I both agreed that the British camp was far more comfortable than the American counterpart. Only the British would plant roses in the middle of a military compound.

After our history lesson, we left wars and pigs behind and headed for Roche Harbor. More on that next week.

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