Extra: San Juan Island, the Pig War of 1859 and the Civil War in the Pacific Northwest

Living in the Pacific Northwest, I don’t have easy access to Civil War battlefields, cemeteries and other historical odds and ends. Sometimes it seems that there’s not even history to be had out here. Fortunately, that just isn’t true. It takes some digging, but eventually I find it. Sometimes, it even pertains to the Civil War. Such was the case with San Juan Island, about 100 miles north of Seattle, where I live.

While England and the United States had settled upon the 49th parallel as the international boarder by 1846, there was a bit of gray area when it came to the San Juan Islands, located at the mouth of Puget Sound, just west of Victoria, British Columbia.

The treaty of 1846 declared that the boarder in that area would go “along the forty-ninth parallel of north latitude to the middle of the channel which separates the continent from Vancouver Island, and thence southerly through the middle of the said channel, and of Juan de Fuca Strait, to the Pacific Ocean.”

The continent and Vancouver Island, however, were separated by two channels: Haro and Rosario Straits. This wording relied upon maps of the day, many of which were made by our first tie to the Civil War, Charles Wilkes, who would later become famous for capturing John Mason and James Slidell, Confederate envoys to Europe, from the British mail packet Trent. Wilkes’ maps were unclear as to the boundaries.

Basically, the United States wanted the boundary to be Rosario Strait, giving the San Juan Islands to themselves, while England wanted the boundary to be Haro Strait for the same reason.

The British Hudson’s Bay Company established a sheep ranch on the southern end of San Juan Island in 1853. Because of the ambiguity, American settlers set up a village nearby in 1859. The southern end of the island provides both fertile soil for farming, prairies for raising sheep and easy access to the water.

On June 15, 1859, Lyman Cutlar, an American farmer, found a pig in his potato patch (it was not the first time he found it there) and shot it. This pig belonged to Charles Griffin, the man hired to run the Hudson’s Bay Company’s sheep ranch. He was less than happy about losing the pig. To make up for the loss, Cutlar offered Griffin $10 as compensation, but Griffin wanted $100. Cutlar, who apparently didn’t believe that $100 pigs existed, declined on principle.

Unable to get his money, Griffen contacted British authorities at Fort Victoria who threatened to place Cutlar under arrest.

If the San Juan Islands belonged to the United States, they would fall under the military jurisdiction of the Department of Oregon, commanded by General William S. Harney, who would serve at the Union’s first commander in Missouri during the war.

On a tour of the northwest Army posts, Harney was making his way through the Strait of Juan de Fuca, just off the south of the San Juan Islands, where he noticed an American flag flying on the island. Stopping to investigate just who these Americans might be, several met him at the shore and told him about the British authorities who threatened to arrest Lyman Cutlar.

Harney took it upon himself and decided that the British had no rights to claim San Juan Island or to arrest Cutlar. To put a stop to it, he ordered Company D, 9th US Infantry, commanded by Captain George Pickett to the south end of San Juan Island. This was, of course, the same Pickett who would later become famous for the charge at Gettysburg that bears his name.

On July 27, 1859, Pickett and his 66 men arrived on the island and began to set up camp. The next day, the British authorities threatened to arrest Pickett if he did not leave the island. Pickett refused and, on the 29th, the British sent a 31-gun steam frigate to drive the point home.

Pickett gathered his men and the settlers, and formed them for battle along a ridge as the British steamer trained its guns upon them. “We’ll make a Bunker hill of it!” swore Pickett.

After another British ship arrived, however, Pickett thought that he better move a bit farther away, to South Beach, on the other side of the ridge.

By August 3rd, the British determined to land an equal number of Royal Marines on the island and met with Pickett at the American Camp to work out an amicable way to do this. Pickett, however, was anything but friendly and openly threatened to resist the landing with force. Soon after, he backed off and decided to wait to hear the advice from General Harney before starting a way with England.

Over the next week or so, a few other British ships arrived, as did 180 more US soldiers under Lt. Col. Silas Casey. Casey and Pickett would battle each other at Seven Pines only three years later. After Casey arrived, another US steamer showed up, bringing the total United States force to 461. The British, by this time, had gathered well over 2,000.

By the end of August, Col. Casey moved the American Camp to the top of the ridge, just above the Hudson’s Bay sheep farm, where this mess all started. Before long, an earthen fort was constructed. This redoubt was supervised by Lt. Henry Martyn Robert, who, during the war, worked on the defenses of Washington, but is more remembered for his book, Robert’s Rules of Order.

Victoria’s Governor Douglas ordered the British troops to attack the Americans, but their commander declined, believing that a war over a pig was the height of foolishness. The crisis, however, was not yet over.

News had traveled back to Washington where President Buchanan, also not wanting a war with England, dispatched General Winfield Scott himself to sort it all out. The trip aboard the Star of the West (the same ship that would later attempt to resupply Fort Sumter) took six weeks, taking him through the Isthmus of Panama. He arrived at Port Townsend, 40 miles south of the San Juans, on October 25. There, he and Victoria’s Governor Douglas negotiated a settlement.

It was Scott who proposed a joint military occupation, while Douglas wanted a return to how it was before Pickett landed. In a compromise that took over a week to make, they decided that Scott would remove all of the reinforcements, as the British removed all but one warship from the harbor. Eventually, the British established their own camp thirteen miles north of the American camp, on the other side of the island.

Cold at first, the two side soon warmed to each other. A road was shortly made between the camps and social visits were quite popular.

On June 25th, 1861, Pickett submitted his resignation, deciding to go with the South. Because of the impending war, the Union occupation of San Juan Island was recalled, but due to the rumored threat of Indian attacks, they were allowed to remain, with Pickett still in command. There was a delay in the paperwork and, out of kindness, Pickett decided to stay on for a bit to see things through.

This also gave him the chance to be there for the big Forth of July celebration with a horse race against the British. On July 25th, Pickett left the island, arriving in Richmond via Panama and New York on September 13.

The joint military occupation lasted fourteen years. During that time, the United States basically forgot about their troops stationed on the island. Congress never once appropriated money for repairs or improvements to the American Camp. The British Camp, however, became quite nice, with many living quarters and even a proper English flower garden.

The British left the island in 1872; the Americans, two years later. It was a long, pointless coda to a war over a pig that was narrowly averted by swift diplomacy.

Creative Commons License
Extra: San Juan Island, the Pig War of 1859 and the Civil War in the Pacific Northwest by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


View all posts by

3 thoughts on “Extra: San Juan Island, the Pig War of 1859 and the Civil War in the Pacific Northwest

  1. This is quite excellent…best article of yours I’ve read…not that I’ve read them all…


  2. In counter point; one could say that due to the rapid actions of Lt. Pickett, the American government was given a stronger bargaining position. At any rate, an interesting tale with a memorable crew of characters.

    1. Hmm.. well, that’s one way of looking at it. I wish I could have delved into this more, but Harney was the one who really took things too far. If it wasn’t for the coolness of the Biritish commander, things would have ended very differently, I fear.

      Any book on the subject is (so far) a good one. Definitely worth the look-see.

Comments are closed.