San Juan Island Pig War -- Part 2

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 9/16/2004
  • Essay 5725
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The military confrontation between the United States and Great Britain over the San Juan Islands known as the "Pig War" lasted for 13 years from the shooting of the pig in 1859 until its belated but peaceful resolution in 1872.  This file, Part 2 of a two-part essay, describes events following the August 3, 1859, decision by Royal Navy Captain Geoffrey Phipps Hornby (1825-1895) not to confront the American troops under Captain George Pickett (1825-1875) that had landed on San Juan Island the previous week.  Although General William S. Harney (1800-1889) initially sent more American troops to the island, as soon as news that Harney and Pickett had nearly started a war with England reached Washington, D.C., Winfield Scott (1786-1866), the commanding general of the U.S. Army, was dispatched to remedy things.  Scott overruled Harney and negotiated an agreement with British Columbia Governor James Douglas (1803-1877) for joint occupancy of the island until the dispute was settled.  Eventually arbitrator Kaiser Wilhem I of Germany ruled in favor of America, opening the way for the disputed islands to become Washington's San Juan County.

Reinforcements Arrive

Captain Hornby’s decision not to land Royal Marines on San Juan Island after Pickett insisted he would fight any landing, although contrary to Governor Douglas’s orders, was endorsed by Pacific Station commander Rear Admiral Lambert Baynes when he returned to Victoria on August 5, 1859. The admiral, disgusted that a minor dispute had gotten so out of hand, commended Hornby for avoiding the potential disaster that a battle with Pickett’s troops would have brought and officially cancelled the governor’s orders to land marines.

Despite the Royal Navy’s restraint, his August 3 meeting with the Royal Navy captains left Pickett uncertain of his position and aware of his vulnerability to the three British warships in San Juan Harbor. He spent the evening writing to General Harney describing the force arrayed against him, explaining he had rejected the suggestion of a joint military occupation, and seeking instructions and reinforcements.

Harney responded immediately by confirming that Pickett should not allow the British to land and dispatching Lt. Colonel Silas Casey with several more infantry companies to San Juan, delighting Washington Territory officials and citizens who were clamoring for the United States to aggressively assert its claim to the islands. Isaac Stevens, governor during the earlier stages of the dispute and now the territory’s delegate to Congress, visited Pickett’s camp around the time of the meeting with Hornby. According to James G. Swan (1818-1900), the early settler and chronicler who among his many roles served for a time as Stevens’s private secretary, on August 4 Stevens carried dispatches from Pickett on the steamer Julia to Olympia, sending them on to Harney at Fort Vancouver by express messenger. Harney’s orders came back to Olympia, and the Julia carried them down the Sound to Casey at Fort Steilacoom on August 8. Leaving a single detachment to mind the fort, Casey embarked troops, field guns, and supplies aboard the Julia and reached San Juan Island on the 10th, just six days after Pickett requested help. Praising the rapid (for those pre-telegraph days) communication, Swan wrote "This is the quickest dispatch ever made between the two posts" (Swan).

Because the island was fogged in when he arrived and perhaps also because Pickett still thought the British ships would resist an American landing, Casey had his troops landed on South Beach below Pickett’s camp before steaming around Cattle Point and into the harbor. There the supplies were unloaded in full view of the British ships, which made no response. As the ranking officer, Casey took command from Pickett. Over the next week, more troops arrived, including several artillery companies. By August 17, Casey had a force of 424 enlisted men and 15 officers, along with 50 civilian workers to build the camp. As Harney had directed, Casey had the eight 32-pound guns removed from the Massachusetts and hauled up to the ridge top.

American Camp and San Juan Town

Casey also decided that Pickett’s exposed camp would not do, and he selected a new, more sheltered site near the ridge crest. This became American Camp, home of American troops on the island for the next 15 years. The men began erecting tents along with wood frame buildings that Pickett had brought with him from Fort Bellingham. On the high ground east of the camp, a team of combat engineers prepared an earthen redoubt where the heavy guns would command the harbor below. The redoubt was designed by Second Lieutenant Henry Martyn Robert (1837-1923), a recent West Point graduate who went on to a distinguished career in the Army Corps of Engineers and also gained lasting fame for authoring Robert’s Rules of Order, the guide to parliamentary procedure.

The additional American troops were not the only newcomers flocking to San Juan Island in the days and weeks following Pickett’s landing. The occupation was frontpage news in both British Columbia and Washington from the day Pickett landed, and almost immediately swarms of civilian "tourists" from both sides began showing up at the scene of the action.  Many came for the long term and a whole new settlement, known as San Juan Town, sprang up on the shore of the bay, where makeshift liquor establishments and brothels were soon attracting soldiers and civilians.

In addition to the growing number of customers, entrepreneurs of vice were attracted to San Juan Town because the international dispute meant there was no clear-cut civil authority. Both Governments had sent civil magistrates to the island but neither side recognized the other’s authority. Faced with the growing lawlessness, the two magistrates acted together in an attempt to ban liquor sales, but despite their efforts and those of the American military officers, soldiers who were willing to risk harsh military discipline had little trouble finding liquor and women.

By the end of the summer, tensions on the island had died down. The Americans continued to build their camp and fortification while the British watched from their ships. Officers and men from both sides visited on friendly terms.

General Scott Negotiates

Because of the distance involved, it was not until September that the American and British governments learned they had almost gone to war on San Juan Island. (The telegraph was in use locally on the East Coast and in England, but wires were not yet strung across the continent, much less the ocean.) The British authorities privately approved Admiral Baynes’s restraint and demanded an explanation from the Americans for landing troops on the island before the boundary dispute was resolved. President James Buchanan (1791-1868) and Secretary of State Lewis Cass were in the awkward position of trying to explain Harney’s actions that they had neither known of nor approved.

Buchanan turned to Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, commanding general of the U.S. Army, to rectify things. The acclaimed hero of the Mexican War had twice before, in the 1830s, successfully mediated disputes over the U.S.-Canadian border (at Niagara Falls and near Aroostook, Maine). The president instructed him to reduce the number of American troops and to permit the landing of British troops that Harney and Pickett had refused. Scott left New York on September 20 by steamer for Panama, crossed the isthmus and sailed to San Francisco and then to Fort Vancouver, which he reached on October 20, 1859. There he took temporary command of the Department of Oregon from Harney before proceeding to Puget Sound.

General Scott apparently never went ashore during his time in the Northwest. He was 73 years old and nearly immobile, being overweight and suffering from gout and injuries received in a recent riding accident. Arriving at Port Townsend on October 26, he transferred to the Massachusetts and negotiated with Governor Douglas and Admiral Baynes by mail while sailing the nearby waters. The two sides quickly reached an agreement. Scott proposed that each country station one infantry company -- about 100 men -- on the island, withdrawing all other forces. Baynes and Douglas could not agree to a British occupation without consulting their superiors, but offered to withdraw all but one ship if Scott removed the troops that had arrived with Casey. Scott agreed, and further accommodated Douglas by replacing Pickett, whose proclamation and attitude irritated the governor. Each promised that there would be no attempt to exercise authority over citizens of the other country.

Scott sailed into San Juan Harbor on November 7, 1859, but disappointed both Americans and British by remaining on board, sending aides ashore with his orders -- almost all the troops including Pickett and his company were to return to their previous posts; Captain Lewis Cass Hunt would remain in charge of a single company at American Camp. The ridge-top battery fired a 13-gun salute to the commanding general; it was the first and last time artillery was fired from the redoubt. The soldiers engaged in the cold and back-breaking work on the fortification cheered the order to stop work.

Washington Territory officials and citizens were much less pleased. Governor Charles Gholson, already miffed that Scott had not left his ship to meet him in Olympia, was outraged that the general would not allow the Territorial government to exercise jurisdiction over British subjects in the San Juans. Washington newspapers were equally incensed at the "recent deserting of our rights to the island" (Vouri, 180-81). Scott further ruffled feathers in the Territory by writing to Harney, as he sailed back to New York, suggesting that in light of his missteps Harney consider stepping down from command of the Department of Oregon. Harney vigorously declined the suggestion, and the Territorial legislature made its position clear in resolutions praising Harney and Pickett.

English Camp

Although neither Baynes nor Douglas was eager to place British troops on the island, the authorities in London decided that as long as U.S. troops were present there should be an equal number of Royal Marines. When Admiral Baynes received confirmation of this decision in February 1860, he had Capt. Prevost, the boundary commissioner, select a site for the Marine camp. Prevost chose a location on a nearly enclosed inlet that came to be known as Garrison Bay, located near the northern end of the island about 15 miles from American Camp. Prevost and the crew of the Satellite had explored Garrison Bay two years earlier during surveys for the boundary commission. There were Indian cedar plank houses and a huge shell midden -- 10 feet high, 35 to 40 feet across, and 120 yards long -- on the shore of the bay, evidence that the site had been inhabited for many generations. On March 21, 1860, some 80 marines under the command of Captain George Bazalgette landed and began constructing English Camp.

Not long after the marines arrived, Harney, seeking to reassert his authority after being shunted aside by Scott, dismissed Lewis Hunt and placed George Pickett back in charge of American forces on San Juan Island. While this move pleased local officials it was the final straw for Winfield Scott. Scott complained to Washington, D.C., as did the British, and on June 8, 1860, Harney was replaced as Department of Oregon commander by General George Wright.

Pickett remained at American Camp despite Harney’s recall. Except for their stormy initial meeting, Pickett had maintained cordial relations with the Royal Navy captains, and he did so from the start with Bazalgette. The two commanders cooperated in dealing with the liquor sellers who continued to plague the island, attracting increasing numbers of lawless whites as well as Indians from around the Sound. Before long Pickett and Bazalgette were traveling together to Victoria, where they were known to have a drink or two of their own at the Colonial House.

Joint Occupation

No one expected the joint occupation to last for years, but the American Civil War, which broke out in the spring of 1861, soon put the San Juan dispute to the side. No further attempt was made to resolve the underlying boundary dispute until the late 1860s. By that time, the Hudson’s Bay Company, which had staked the first claim on San Juan Island, had left the picture. Charles Griffin left Belle Vue Farm in 1862, nine years after founding it. In 1863, the Company leased the farm to Robert Firth, who had replaced Griffin as manager. The Hudson's Bay Company departed altogether before the end of the decade.

George Pickett, a Virginian, like many fellow officers from southern states, resigned his commission in 1861 to join the Confederate forces, although he dutifully remained at his post until his replacement, Captain Tom English, arrived. Pickett left his young son James, whose mother was a Northern Indian woman Pickett lived with while in Washington, behind with friends in Olympia. James Pickett remained in the Northwest, becoming a newspaper illustrator before his death from typhoid fever at age 30. George Pickett went on to lasting fame when he led the ill-fated assault that became known as Pickett’s Charge at the battle of Gettysburg.

In contrast to the carnage engulfing much of the country, life on the "front lines" of the pig war remained peaceful. Soldiers at American and English camps, in between drilling and maintaining their posts, visited regularly and entertained each other at feasts and sporting events. When Captain William A. Delacombe, who succeeded Bazalgette, arrived at English Camp with his wife and children in 1867, he built an elegant Victorian house for his family on the hillside above the parade ground and barracks and planted a formal English garden near the beach and dock.

The conflicts facing the American commanders came not from the British but from the citizens and officials of Washington Territory. Although these were the very people who had called for troops to land, they began chafe under what they saw as military rule. Periodic disputes erupted between civilian authorities and the military commanders, and the Legislature several times petitioned Congress to end military rule of the islands.

The lack of civil law on the islands continued to provide an attraction to some settlers. Old Town kept its reputation for rowdiness. Neither taxes nor import duties were collected and smugglers seeking to evade duties on products such as wool made use of the island. Historian Edmond Meany noted that San Juan sheep soon became notorious for "producing" as much as 150 pounds of wool each per season.

Arbitration Settles the Boundary

Negotiations over the boundary issue began again after the Civil War ended, but progressed slowly. By 1869, negotiators agreed to arbitrate the dispute, but the U.S. Senate rejected that agreement because it would have allowed the arbitrator to draw a compromise boundary. Finally, in the Treaty of Washington, signed on May 8, 1871 (which also resolved other pending British-American disputes), the countries again agreed to arbitration. This time, at the insistence of American Secretary of State Hamilton Fish, the arbitrator was limited to choosing between the respective boundaries claimed by the two sides, without authority to impose a compromise, and the Senate ratified the treaty.

Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany was designated the arbitrator by the Treaty, in large part because George Bancroft, an American diplomat who participated in negotiating the 1846 Treaty of Oregon and who would present the American case at arbitration, was the American ambassador to Germany. The Kaiser appointed a commission of three experts (geographer Heinrich Kiepert, Councillor Levin Goldschmidt, and Dr. Ferdinand Grimm of the Imperial High Court of Commerce) to review the evidence presented by each side and decide whether Haro or Rosario Strait should be the boundary referenced in the 1846 treaty. Bancroft presented the American case and Royal Navy Captain Prevost presented the British case.

The German commissioners studied the case for over a year and ended up in disagreement. Goldschmidt felt that the requirement to choose between Haro and Rosario straits was fundamentally flawed since the channel he considered obviously correct -- President and San Juan Channels between San Juan and Orcas Islands -- was not included. Ultimately the other two commissioners voted in favor of Haro Strait, thus awarding the islands to the United States, with Goldschmidt writing a dissenting opinion. The Kaiser adopted the majority award in a ruling issued on October 21, 1872. After 54 years of official joint occupation with Britain dating from the 1818 treaty, the San Juan Islands were exclusively American territory.

With the islands' international status resolved, the Territorial Legislature on October 31, 1873, removed them from Whatcom County and created San Juan County as a separate new county. The Royal Marines had left English Camp in November 1872, shortly after the Kaiser’s decision was announced, but a few American troops remained on the island. The last soldiers departed American Camp in July 1874.

San Juan Island National Historical Park

The Army auctioned off buildings at both former camps and opened the land to homestead claims. British immigrant William Crook and his wife Mary claimed the former English Camp site in 1876. Some of their children continued to live there until their deaths in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and played a central role in preserving the site.

In 1966, Congress authorized creation of San Juan Island National Historical Park to "commemorate the final settlement by arbitration of the Oregon boundary dispute and the peaceful relationship which has existed between the United States and Canada for generations" (Pub. L. No. 89-565, sec. 2). The Park consists of separate locations at the two former military camps. The American Camp location also encompasses the sites of Belle Vue Farm and the long-vanished Old Town.

Well over a century after the last soldiers departed, the story of San Juan Island’s Pig War continues to captivate park visitors and others. On one level it stands as an amusing, even faintly ridiculous, anecdote -- two great powers nearly coming to blows over a pig in a potato patch. But as Congress recognized, the "war" whose only casualty was the pig also embodies a deeper meaning. This time, at least, another way was found: An impassioned and deeply rooted international conflict was resolved not by guns and force, but through negotiation and compromise.

To go to Part 1, click "Previous Feature"


Edmond S. Meany, History of the State of Washington (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1909), 218, 240-54; William Farrand Prosser, History of the Puget Sound Country (New York: The Lewis Publishing Company, 1903); James G. Swan, Diaries, Notebook 1, entry for August 12, 1859, James G. Swan Papers, Manuscripts, Special Collections, University Archives, University of Washington Libraries, Seattle, Washington; Mike Vouri, The Pig War: Standoff at Griffin Bay (Friday Harbor: Griffin Bay Bookstore, 1999), revised and expanded edition (Seattle: Discover Your Northwest/University of Washington Press, 2013); Vouri, English Camp: A Guided Historical Walk (National Park Service, 2004); National Park Service, San Juan Island National Historical Park Official Map and Guide (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1997); "The Pig War," San Juan Island National Historical Park Website accessed June 12, 2013 (; "American Camp," Ibid.; "English Camp," Ibid.; "Civil War Connections," Ibid.; Pub. L. No. 89-565, 80 Stat. 737 (codified at 16 U.S.C. sections 282-282b).
Note: This essay was corrected on October 15, 2005, and sources were updated on June 12, 2013.

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