Anglo-American agreement of 1818 had provided for joint occupation of
the Oregon Country, but by 1845 both parties had grown discontented with
this arrangement. The British, determined to resist the tide of American
migration sweeping across the Rocky Mountains, argued that the Americans
were trespassing on land guaranteed to Britain by earlier treaties and
explorations and through trading activities of the long-established
Hudson's Bay Company.
Americans considered the British presence an affront to their "manifest
destiny" and rejected the idea that the great land west of the Rockies
should remain under foreign influence. Both nations blustered and threatened,
but wiser counsels eventually prevailed and in June 1846 the Oregon question
was resolved peacefully.
The Oregon Treaty of 1846 gave the United States undisputed possession
of the Pacific Northwest south of the 49th parallel, extending the boundary
"to the middle of the channel which separates the continent from
Vancouver's Island; and thence southerly through the middle of the said
channel, and of Fuca's straits to the Pacific Ocean." But while the
treaty settled the larger boundary question, it created additional problems
because its wording left unclear who owned San Juan Island.
The difficulty arose over that portion of the boundary described as the
"middle of the channel" separating the British colony of Vancouver's Island
from the mainland. There were actually two channels: one, Haro Strait,
nearest Vancouver Island, and another, Rosario Strait, nearer the mainland
(see map). San
Juan Island lay between the two. Britain insisted that the boundary ran
through Rosario Strait; the Americans proclaimed it lay through Haro Strait.
Thus both sides considered San Juan theirs for settlement.
As early as 1845 the Hudson's Bay Company, based at
Fort Victoria, had posted a notice of possession on San Juan Island.
In 1851 it established a salmon-curing station there and, two years later,
a sheep ranch called Belle Vue Farm. About the same time, the Territorial
Legislature of Oregon (which then included the present State of Washington)
declared San Juan Island to be within its territorial limits, and in January
1853 incorporated it into Island County. In March 1853, Washington Territory
having been created, San Juan Island was attached to Whatcom, its northernmost
By 1859 there were about 18 Americans on San Juan Island. They were settled
on redemption claims which they expected the U.S. Government to recognize
as valid, but which the British considered illegal. Neither side recognized
the authority of the other. Tempers were short and it would take little
to produce a crisis.
That crisis came on June 15, 1859, when an American settler named Lyman
Cutlar shot and killed a pig belonging to the Hudson's Bay Company because
it was rooting in his garden. When British authorities threatened to arrest
Cutlar, American citizens drew up a petition requesting U.S. military
Brigadier General William S. Harney, the anti-British commander of
the Department of Oregon, responded by sending a company of the 9th U.S.
Infantry under Captain George E. Pickett
(of later Civil War fame) to San Juan. Pickett's 66-man unit landed on
July 27 and occupied a commanding spot near the Hudson's Bay Company wharf,
just north of Belle Vue Farm.
Douglas, governor of the new Crown Colony of British Columbia, was
angered at the presence of American soldiers on San Juan. He had three
British warships under Captain Geoffrey Hornby sent to dislodge Pickett
but with instructions to avoid an armed clash if possible. Pickett, though
overwhelmingly outnumbered, refused to withdraw.
the remaining days of July and well into August, the British force in
Griffin Bay (then San Juan Harbor) continued to grow. Captain Hornby,
however, wisely refused to take any action against the Americans until
the arrival of Rear Admiral Robert L. Baynes, commander of British naval
forces in the Pacific. Baynes, appalled at the situation, advised Douglas
that he would not "involve two great nations in a war over a squabble
about a pig."
Meanwhile, Pickett had been reinforced on August 10, by 171 men under
Lieutenant Colonel Silas Casey, who now assumed active command. This meager
force still seemed inadequate to face the growing concentration of British
vessels and men, so Harney ordered in additional reinforcements. By August
31, 461 Americans, protected by 14 cannons and an earthen redoubt, were
opposed by three British warships mounting 70 guns and carrying 2,140
men, including bluejackets (sailors), Royal Marines, artillerymen and
sappers. The general did not realize that the more than 1,500 sailors
were not armed to fight on land except in extreme circumstances; that
this chore was reserved for the 400 Royal Marines and Royal Engineers
scattered throughout Vancouver Island and British Columbia.
When word of the crisis reached Washington, officials there were shocked
that the simple action of an irate farmer had grown into an explosive
international incident. Alarmed by the prospects, President James Buchanan
Winfield Scott, commanding general of the U.S. Army, to investigate
and try to contain the affair.
correspondence with Governor Douglas, Scott arranged for each nation to
withdraw its reinforcements, leaving the island with a single company
of U.S. soldiers and a British warship anchored in Griffin Bay. Scott
proposed a joint military occupation until a final settlement could be
reached, which both nations approved in November. Harney was officially
rebuked and afterwards reassigned for allowing the situation to get so
out of hand. Casey's reinforcements were withdrawn, save for one company
under the command of Captain Lewis Cass Hunt. Hunt would be replaced in
command by Pickett the following April. Meantime, on March 21, 1860, British
Royal Marines landed on the island's northwest coast and established on
Garrison Bay what is now known as "English Camp."
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. 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, through the kaiser, 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 Royal
Marines withdrew from English Camp. By July 1874, the last of the U.S.
troops had 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.