The Pig War Of
San Juan Island

Article and Photos by Todd Matthews

It is easy to believe that ghosts of nineteenth century American soldiers moving through the prairie are responsible for the swaying grasslands at San Juan Island's historic American Camp. It was on this island—80 miles northwest of Seattle, and tucked amid the Haro and Rosario Straits—that America and Great Britain readied for war over the death of a farm animal. Visitors to San Juan Island soon become curious of this historic tale.

How could two nations prepare to battle over the death of a pig?

An idyllic, white picket fence surrounding the Officers' Quarters at San Juan Island's American Camp
(Photograph by Todd Matthews)

The answer is clear after touring the island, as I did last November. The conflict had nothing to do with a pig. Rather, it had to do with territorial issues. Nearly 150 years ago, San Juan Island enamored America and Great Britain, two nations that eyed its blissfully remote and natural landscapes. The San Juan archipelago consisted of 172 recognizable islands (in actuality, there are more than 786 at low tide and 457 at high tide). San Juan Island is the largest and most popular. When I visited the island last fall, I had the good fortune of arriving in Friday Harbor (the only incorporated town in the San Juan Island chain) under amenable weather. The sky was a rich blue. The air was crisp. I hiked a trail to the camp redoubt (earthen gun emplacement), where the grassy remains of five gun turrets lingered as reminders of this curiously peculiar war. Though historians claim the feud was over the swine (even the National Park Service plays to this oddity), the real quarrel between America and Great Britain was over territorial ownership of the island. When American settler Lyman Cutlar shot and killed a trespassing pig owned by the British backed Hudson's Bay Company in 1859, British authorities threatened to arrest Cutlar. American citizens drew up a petition requesting U.S. military protection. Twelve years of British and American posing followed. The "Pig War," as historians call it, is an event long remembered for a military confrontation where the only casualty was a single farm animal.

The beauty of San Juan Island renders the Pig War completely rational. If you don't believe that's possible, then you probably haven't visited the San Juan Islands. The pastoral setting of the islands—namely Lopez, Shaw, Orcas, and San Juan—is a menagerie of fields, forests, lakes, and pastures. San Juan Island is particularly appealing, especially American Camp: honey-and-oatmeal-colored prairies are home to thousands of wild rabbits brought to the area by ranchers in the late 19th century (in some places there are 500 rabbits per acre—the National Park Service warns visitors to use caution as rabbits have excavated warrens throughout the prairie; stepping in a hole can cause injuries); several hundred species of birds live in or around the adjacent grove of fir trees. More important than its wildlife and terrain (including a large central plateau, small farms, dairies, and lakes) is its location. From American Camp, looking west, visitors spot Haro Strait—a body of water representing the United States / Canadian border. The tip of Vancouver Island, less than a dozen miles away, is a wooded and green slice in the distance—with the buildings of downtown Victoria, B.C. shimmering in the distance. Lopez and Shaw Islands are crowded to the northwest, beyond the grove of firs. To the south, a tiny strip of beach—the first American town site on the island, aptly named San Juan. Overhead, raptors circle in search of rodents, accompanied by the occasional whine from the engine of a seaplane departing nearby Friday Harbor.

The laundress building
(Photograph by Todd Matthews)

Before the Pig War, the British were determined to resist the tide of American migration sweeping across the Rocky Mountains. They 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 to overspread the continent" and rejected the idea that the land west of the Rockies should remain under foreign influence. 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." However, the treaty 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 British-owned Vancouver Island from the mainland. Actually, there were two channels: Haro Strait (nearest Vancouver Island) and Rosario Strait (nearer the mainland). San Juan Island lay between the two. Britain insisted that the boundary ran through Rosario Strait; the Americans claimed it lay through Haro Strait. Thus, both sides considered San Juan theirs for settlement.

By 1859, there were about 25 American settlers 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. Amazingly, this conflict occurred on an island only 20 miles long and seven miles wide, covering 55 square miles

When Cutlar shot and killed the Hudson's Bay Company's marauding pig, the feud between nation's came to blows. British authorities threatened to arrest him. American citizens requested military protection. Brig. Gen. William S. Harney, the commander of the Department of Oregon and anti-British to boot, responded by sending a company of the 9th U.S. Infantry under Capt. George E. Pickett to San Juan. James Douglas, governor of the Crown Colony of British Columbia, was angered at the presence of American soldiers on San Juan. He had three British warships under Capt. Geoffrey Hornby sent to dislodge Pickett but with instructions to avoid an armed clash if possible. By August 1861, five British warships mounting 167 guns and carrying 2,140 troops opposed 461 Americans, protected by an earthen redoubt and 14 cannons. 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. 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. On October 21, 1872, the emperor ruled in favor of the United States, establishing the boundary line through Haro Strait. Thus San Juan became an American possession 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.

It is peace that makes American Camp such a rewarding visit. The national park is located on the southern tip of the island, about six miles southeast of Friday Harbor. I purchased a cheap walking guide at the visitor information center in Friday Harbor, then headed down to American Camp for a one-mile hike of the area.

Two notable and original buildings of the camp still exist: the laundress house and the Officers' Quarters. The laundress building—a white, clapboard style house more 'New England' in appearance than 'Pacific Northwest'—is one of the highlights of the park. The building once housed as many as three post laundress families during American Camp's heyday, from 1859 to 1872. Laundresses were officially attached to the post and, like soldiers, were subject to the Articles of War. They normally earned a dollar per head per month doing wash for about 20 soldiers. A laundress had to be married. If she lost her husband, the laundress had 60 days to find another or find herself escorted off the post. While some laundresses ran through several husbands, more typically they were married to sergeants and maintained stable households.

The Officers' Quarters
(Photograph by Todd Matthews)

The Officers' Quarters was built in 1860 by George Pickett during his second tour on San Juan Island. Some of the lumber for the structure was salvaged from Fort Bellingham, which had been condemned in April 1860.

The park also has many peculiarities. A fitting feature considering it was home to one of the strangest conflicts in American / British history. First, there is the strangely named Grandma's Cove. I made the quarter-mile trek off the main trail to Grandma's Cove, where I found a sliver of beach guarded by a steep bluff. The remains of hundreds of petrified logs littered the beach, scattered about like whalebones. Chords of seaweed and kelp covered the inlet of water. The other curiosity is an enormous boulder wedged into the side of the redoubt. I hiked back uphill to inspect the massive stone, only to find that it had been named after an engineering officer named Henry Martyn Robert ("Robert's Rock"). I was sure if it was an accolade or insult to have one's name preserved for generations in the form of a giant rock. In addition to the laundress building and Officers' Quarters, the remains of the Hudson's Bay Company farm, the old town of San Juan and the American Camp cemetery still exist.

Grandma's Cove
(Photograph by Todd Matthews)

Perhaps the most telling part of the Pig War is its lack of actual combat. Rather, the feud had more to do with macho threats and territorial squabbling. A pissing match, if you will, over a small slice of Pacific Northwest Eden. Posted at the American Camp trailhead, the following message: "The area is a reminder that senseless wars over insignificant causes do not need to happen." I wonder if the British feel the same way, considering they lost claim of San Juan Island. Upon leaving the park, I recalled a piece of historical fact that I had written down at the visitors' center. Between 1859 and 1872—the duration of the Pig War—there was no combat, which meant there wasn't anything for soldiers to do. According to the National Parks Service, the only threat to the peace during the war's 13 years was an extravagant supply of liquor.

For many of those soldiers, I thought, war had never tasted so good.

This article originally appeared, in slightly different form, in The Tablet.


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