By Mike Vouri
San Juan Island National Historical Park

When, on July 30, 1859, U.S. Army Captain George E. Pickett looked down the gun ports of two British warships from his camp on Griffin Bay, San Juan Island, he fired off a quick note to his superior at Fort Steilacoom:
From the threatening attitude of affairs at present, I deem it my duty to request the Massachusetts may be sent at once to this point. I do not know that any actual collision will take place, but it is not comfortable to be lying within range of a couple of war steamers. The Tribune, a 30-gun frigate, is lying broadside to our camp, and from present indications everything leads me to suppose that they will attempt to prevent my carrying out my instructions.
Officers' quarters   Captain George Pickett had the officers’ quarters built in 1860 on San Juan Island. Captain Pickett shared the quarters with 1st Lieutenant James W. Forsyth. This building is the only remaining structure from the original camp.

Courtesy Mike Vouri, National Park Service

Pickett’s Company D, 9th Infantry had arrived on San Juan Island from Fort Bellingham on July 27 to protect United States citizens from the British. The reason? An American settler had shot a pig belonging to the Hudson’s Bay Company. Before it was all over, two nations would slide to the brink of war, only to be pulled back by the coolness and restraint of men on both sides — but especially two Royal Navy officers.

More was involved than just a dead pig. For nearly 50 years, the two nations had been contending over possession of the Oregon Country — today’s Washington, Oregon, Idaho, British Columbia and portions of Montana and Wyoming—which had been jointly occupied by the two nations since 1818. The Oregon Treaty, signed in 1846, should have resolved the problem when it divided the Oregon Country along the 49th parallel. The border would run from the Rocky Mountains through today’s Blaine, Washington, down the middle of the Strait of Georgia, which divides Vancouver Island from the mainland, and out the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the Pacific Ocean.

However, the treaty makers in London failed to notice that the San Juan Islands bisect the Strait of Georgia into two channels, the Haro Strait running west of the islands, the Rosario Strait east. The Americans insisted on the former, the British the latter. In a hurry to sign the treaty, the nations agreed to hold the islands “in dispute” until a boundary agreeable to both nations could be divined. Unfortunately, no one thought to address the issue of jurisdiction over the islands — British or U.S., military or civil—which would be handled in a desultory and at times flammable manner.

Hoping to solidify the British claim to the island, the British-owned Hudson’s Bay Company established a sheep farm on the island in 1853. Local U.S. officials responded by sending a procession of tax collectors and law enforcement officers to harass the operation, until called off by the President of the United States two years later. Then gold was discovered along the Fraser River in British Columbia, drawing thousands of prospectors to the area, the majority of them from the United States. Several drifted onto San Juan Island in the winter of 1859 and by June one of them, Lyman Cutlar, shot a Company pig for rooting his garden. This generated a number of threats, imagined and otherwise, which resulted in Department of Oregon commander, Brigadier General William S. Harney on July 18, 1859, ordering Pickett’s company to the island to prevent the British government from “assuming jurisdiction” over U.S. citizens.

This watercolor of George Pickett’s first camp on the shore of Griffin Bay (center right, July 27 1859) was done by a British midshipman aboard the HMS Satellite.

Courtesy Beinicke Library, Yale University

While Harney’s orders were en route to Fort Bellingham, British Governor James Douglas was retaining a stipendiary magistrate — or paid law enforcement officer—to not only deal with Cutlar, but to expel all American settlers from the island. On landing at San Juan on July 27, the magistrate, armed with only a revolving pistol, approached Pickett and ordered him to leave the island or face arrest for “trespassing.” With 60 soldiers behind him, not to mention two 12-pound mountain Howitzers and a six-pound Napoleon, Pickett refused stating he was under orders to protect American citizens on the island — all 18 of them.

That’s when Governor Douglas next dispatched the H.M.S. Tribune and the survey ship H.M.S. Plumper. The Tribune, Capt. Geoffrey Phipps Hornby commanding, was an auxiliary screw frigate with 31 guns and 330 men, while the HMS Plumper, a screw surveying ship, mounted 21 guns and carried a company of Royal Marines. The H.M.S. Satellite, a 21-gun screw corvette, joined them two days later. All three ships were part of the Royal Navy’s Pacific Station force, in the process of moving from its headquarters in Valparaiso, Chile to Esquimalt to contend with the Americans.

Hornby was ordered by British Governor James Douglas to prevent the Americans from erecting fortifications and bringing in reinforcements, “but not to risk a collision.” Once on scene, Hornby decided he could not enforce these orders without more men, ships and guns. Only with overwhelming force, he believed, could he force Pickett off the island without firing a shot. But Douglas sent fresh orders the next day. Now Hornby was not to prevent additional Americans from landing, but to instead land an equal number of British Royal Marines on the island.

Meanwhile, following a brief visit by Pickett aboard the Tribune, Hornby viewed the Virginian as “more quiet than most of his countrymen, but he seems to have just the notion they all have of getting a name by some audacious act.” Hornby also thought Pickett sounded more like “a Devonshire man than a Yankee.”

As painfully polite as the encounter may have been, Pickett refused to leave. However, the frigate’s gun drills — which included firing solid shot into a bluff about a half-mile from Pickett’s camp—unnerved the Virginian enough that he pulled up stakes and moved his force across the neck of the peninsula to a new encampment on South Beach.

In a letter to Pacific Station commander Rear Admiral R. Lambert Baynes, Hornby puzzled over the move: The Americans “do not seem enclined (sic) to strengthen nor have any preparations for intrenching or other defence been made by them, though the camp has been shifted from its first site to one close to the sea on the other side of the island and equally exposed to the fire of Ships, as was their original one.”

On August 3, Hornby — accompanied by the other two captains — met with Pickett at South Beach and told the Virginian that he had been ordered to land British troops on the island. Pickett stated that if the British landed he would “seize a small force; attack an equal one” and go down fighting if outnumbered. Hornby replied that he would land the minute he thought the “honor of the flag” or protection of British rights was at stake. At this, Pickett asked for 48 hours to consult with his superiors. Hornby replied, “Not one minute more.”

However, being fully aware of the British government’s policy of no confrontation — especially with the rising industrial might of the United States — Hornby determined not to follow Douglas’ orders and land troops. He knew Pickett was not bluffing, so he sat tight and waited for his superior, Admiral Baynes.

Meanwhile, everyone on Griffin Bay — British, American, civilian and military — breathed a sigh of relief. Officers and men on both sides began to mingle on board the ships and in the camps, swapping British cigars for Oregon whiskey. Tourists came from Victoria to gawk at the Yankee soldiers and share with them the Victoria newspapers that screamed for Douglas’ and Hornby’s heads for “giving in.”

  American Camp on San Juan Island during the late 1860’s. The officers’ quarters is the building at the far left.

Courtesy San Juan Island Historical Archives

When Baynes returned on August 5, he held an altogether different view than the newspapers. When told of the crisis, and the igniter of it — the dead Hudson’s Bay Company pig — Baynes replied, “Tut, tut, no, no, the damned fools.” And he supported Hornby’s decision before the sputtering governor. As far as Baynes was concerned the British were not going to become enmeshed in another costly land war in North America — not on his watch.

On August 10, Lieutenant Colonel Silas Casey, the 9th Infantry Regiment's deputy commander, arrived from Olympia with more troops and artillery, including all eight 32-pound naval guns from the war steamer U.S. S. Massachusetts. The guns were manhandled to the top of the rise overlooking the Bellevue Farm, where a redoubt was begun under the direction of Second Lieutenant Henry Martyn Robert, head of a detachment of army engineers.

Meanwhile, back in Washington, D.C., a horrified President James Buchanan, upon learning of the incident, immediately dispatched U.S. Army commander Lieutenant General Winfield Scott to mediate the affair. By the end of October, Scott had arrived and proposed as a solution Douglas’s second order to Hornby: a joint occupation of the island by British and American troops until the issue of ownership could be resolved. The governor had since changed his mind about a joint military occupation, but he did accede to a joint stand down, whereupon all reinforcements, British and U.S., were removed from the island. One company of U.S. soldiers would remain to protect the settlers from Indian raids.

On November 9, 1859, at the direction of Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, Pickett was ordered back to Fort Bellingham because Douglas considered the Southerner, "...of somewhat hasty temperament, punctilious and exacting." Scott also advised Harney to resign his command before he was fired.

Pickett moved back to Fort Bellingham in December, leaving his buildings and most of his stores behind. Then bad luck hit in the form of a squall that beached his chartered ship on the Griffin Bay shoreline. Managing to salvage about 60 percent of the stores—though his cannon and most of the new Harpers Ferry rifles were gone—Pickett and his men persevered at the considerably smaller Bellingham Bay fort throughout the winter, just a shade above starvation. None of the soldiers had been paid in nearly six months and they were making do with about 40 ancient smoothbore muskets.

American camp on San Juan Island. Photograph courtesy San Juan Island Historical Archives

In December 1860 the two governments agreed to a joint military occupation of the island and by March 1861, the Royal Marines landed on the northern end of San Juan, where they established the camp they would occupy for the next 12 years. That spring Scott finally fired Harney after Harney had the temerity to remove Captain Lewis Cass Hunt (Scott’s man) and replace him with Pickett, the very officer the British did not want to see!

Pickett returned to San Juan Island anyway, where he remained until the outbreak of the Civil War. With the final departure of Company D, Fort Bellingham was closed for good. In 1867, Pickett's successors at Camp Pickett on San Juan Island—being desperate for improved shelter—would venture over to the bay site and dismantle the remainder of the buildings.

During his second tour on San Juan Island, Pickett restored civil authority and used diplomacy to settle a potentially dangerous incident with the northern Indians. He also established warm relations with the company of British Royal Marine Light Infantry stationed on the northern end of the island; a relationship that would continue over 12 years. He also was prospering. The 1860 Census lists his personal assets at $25,000, most of it real estate, while the camp's assets were valued at $60,000, most in livestock and produce.

A year later, Fort Sumter was fired upon.

As with 313 other Southern officers, 184 of them West Pointers, serving in western commands, Pickett chose to serve his home state rather than the federal government. He tendered his resignation in June. But it wasn't until July 24, 1861 that he left his post at San Juan Island—three days after the first Battle of Bull Run.

Traveling incognito, Pickett took a steamer to Panama City, and crossed the isthmus by rail to Aspenwall (now Colon). He caught another steamer there for New York City and by September found his way to Richmond, into the Confederate Army and the bloodiest war in U.S. history.

The British and American military forces, meanwhile, would peacefully remain on San Juan until Kaiser Wilhelm I of Imperial Germany decided the question of ownership in binding arbitration in November 1872.

Michael Vouri is Chief Park Interpreter at the San Juan Island National Historic Park. He is the author of the book “The Pig War, Standoff at Griffin Bay” as well as numerous articles for historical publications. He is an experienced newspaper reporter, editor and museum curator and has appeared on the History Channel. In addition, Mike wrote a play, “The Life and Times of General George Pickett” in which he portrays the General. His play has toured the northwest for eight years.

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