The American army officer knew that the odds against him were overwhelming. The three warships set at anchor in the bay below his camp mounted a total of 61 guns and carried nearly a thousand men, including a contingent of Royal Marines. Manned by just 66 soldiers, his own recently occupied position was fortified by earthworks and protected only by a single six-pounder gun and two mountain howitzers. The orders that Captain George Edward Pickett of the U.S. Army had received from his commanding general had been clear, however, and he was determined to hold his position.
Pickett had served with valor in the Mexican War right after his graduation from the United States Military Academy at West Point, and he had subsequently seen duty at several frontier posts. Now, on August 3, 1859, the man whose name would be forever linked to the most famous of all Civil War charges was the American commander on the scene as the United States and Great Britain again stood on the brink of war. The issue dividing the two countries this time was the ownership of the often fog-shrouded San Juan Islands that dot the strait between what is today the state of Washington and British Columbia’s Vancouver Island.*
The San Juan Islands constituted the last bit of disputed territory along the border between the United States and the British colonies to the north–today’s Canada. An 1818 treaty had extended the international border westward along the forty-ninth parallel, from Lake of the Woods, at what is today the far western tip of the province of Ontario, as far as the Rocky Mountains. Beyond that lay a vast, little-explored region between Spanish California to the south and Russian Alaska to the north, which was vaguely referred to as the ‘Oregon Country.’
By failing to agree on the partitioning of the territory, the two countries had left it open to exploration and occupation by nationals of both. But on June 15, 1846, after many years of conflicting claims, the United States and Great Britain signed the Oregon Treaty, establishing the boundary at the forty-ninth parallel west from the Rocky Mountains ‘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.’
Remaining to be resolved was the exact location of the boundary through that channel, in the middle of which lay the San Juan Islands. The Haro Strait to their west separated the islands from Vancouver’s Island; it was this channel that the Americans claimed as the boundary. For its part, Britain insisted that the international boundary ran down the eastern, Rosario Strait, and that the San Juan Islands therefore belonged to the Crown.
Because its territory north of the forty-ninth parallel and west of the Rockies had not yet attracted an abundance of permanent settlers, the British government in 1849 leased all of Vancouver’s Island to the Hudson’s Bay Company for seven shillings a year, with the proviso that the company take over efforts at colonization. In 1851, James Douglas, formerly chief factor of the Hudson’s Bay Company on Vancouver’s Island, was appointed governor of that colony.
By the end of 1853, the British presence on the 24-mile-long and 8-mile-wide San Juan Island itself included a Hudson’s Bay Company’s fishing station and Bellevue Farm, a 4,500-head sheep ranch. The following year, a United States customs collector, Isaac N. Ebey, landed on San Juan Island with his deputy, Henry Webber, and attempted to collect duties from the farm manager, who swore out a warrant for the deputy’s arrest for trespassing on British soil. Nothing further came of this incident, and the dispute was allowed to simmer.
In March 1855, American sheriff Ellis Barnes of Whatcom County, the northernmost county in Washington Territory,* supported by a party of ten armed men, rounded up 35 sheep belonging to the Hudson’s Bay Company, intending to sell them as payment for back taxes. This action generated protests from Governor Douglas to his counterpart, Governor Isaac I. Stevens of Washington, and to the British Colonial Office and led to the submission of a claim for $15,000 in damages by the Hudson’s Bay Company.
* The mainland west of the Rocky Mountains, from the forty-ninth parallel to Alaska, was known as New Caledonia until 1858, when it became the colony of British Columbia. Vancouver Island–until 1861 known as ‘Vancouver’s Island’–was a separate British colony. The two former colonies together joined the Canadian confederation as the province of British Columbia in 1871.
The situation created enough concern in Washington, D.C., that Secretary of State William L. Marcy wrote to Governor Stevens to recommend that the officials of the Washington Territory do nothing that might provoke conflict in the area. He further urged that neither the Americans nor the British should attempt to exercise exclusive sovereign rights until the ownership of the islands could be settled. Marcy requested that the British Colonial Office send a similar message to Governor Douglas, which they did.
It appeared that officials in the seats of government in London and Washington, D.C., believed that the dispute over the ownership of the islands would be decided in due course. A Joint Boundary Commission, with Archibald Campbell as the head of the American delegation and Royal Navy Captain James C. Prevost leading the British, met in the disputed area several times during 1857 but settled nothing.
The matter rested uneasily through both the Indian uprising that threatened the Washington Territory in the mid- 1850s and the Fraser River gold rush of 1857-58 in the Hudson’s Bay Company’s territory of New Caledonia. The uprising brought a greatly increased American military presence to the Pacific Northwest, and the gold rush led Britain to establish New Caledonia as a formal colony, known as British Columbia, with James Douglas–already governor of Vancouver’s Island–as its governor.
By 1859, 18 Americans, unsuccessful in the gold fields of the Fraser River valley, had settled on San Juan Island. In June of that year, one of them, Lyman A. Cutlar, shot a pig that he saw rooting in his garden. Realizing that the animal was from the Hudson’s Bay Company farm, Cutlar offered to compensate the farm manager. But when informed that the pig was a prize breeder with a value of $100, Cutlar refused to pay. His stance occasioned a visit by A. G. Dallas, president of the board of the Hudson’s Bay Company and son-in-law of Governor Douglas, and several other gentlemen to Cutlar’s farm to inform him that he was trespassing on British soil and would be subject to arrest by British authorities if he did not pay what was owed.
This already volatile situation was exacerbated by the arrival on the scene of Brigadier General William Selby Harney, the recently appointed commander of the United States’ Military Department of Oregon. The 58-year-old Harney was well known in the army for his bravery in battle, his foul temper and vividly vulgar tongue, his frequent insubordination, and his disposition to overlook or avoid both the military chain of command and the prerogatives of other government departments in order to achieve what he considered necessary ends.
Based at Fort Vancouver, Washington Territory, General Harney sailed to San Juan Island in July 1859 aboard the USS Massachusetts. Upon his arrival, he met some of the American residents of the island and learned about Indian attacks on the settlement and the incident with the pig, as well as the American islanders’ fear and dislike of the British. Harney immediately pledged his support and suggested that they draft a petition–for which he provided the wording–requesting that he station a military force on the island.
Without consulting either civil territorial authorities or his superiors in the War Department, Harney then ordered Captain Pickett and Company D of the Ninth Infantry to proceed from Fort Bellingham on the mainland to San Juan Island and establish a post, ostensibly to protect the inhabitants from hostile Indians and ‘to resist all attempts at interference by the British authorities residing at Vancouver’s Island, by intimidation or force….’ Although he issued the order on July 11, Harney did not send a report of his action to the War Department in Washington, D.C., until July 19; that report did not arrive there until September.
When James Douglas heard of Harney’s action, he issued orders to Captain Geoffrey Phipps Hornby of the British man-of-war Tribune, which had been dispatched from Hong Kong to the Pacific coast of North America, to land a force of Royal Marines on the island. Although the governor was fully within his rights to issue these orders, he was approached on July 29 by British naval officers who advised him against this course of action because it was contrary to Royal Navy policy in the Pacific. Douglas then dispatched a second set of orders to Hornby, countermanding his original instructions. Nonetheless, Hornby decided to invite Pickett to parlay with him aboard the Tribune on August 3. The American officer suggested that they meet in the American camp instead.
Hornby acquiesced and came ashore accompanied by Captains James Prevost and G. H. Richards, the two British boundary commissioners. The meeting, held in Pickett’s tent, was polite, but not cordial. Hornby opened by producing an extract of Secretary of State Marcy’s communication of four years earlier, and Pickett countered by citing the age of the letter.
When Hornby asked on what terms Pickett had occupied the island, the American captain declared that he had done so on orders from the general commanding the territory in order to protect the lives of American citizens. Pickett added that he believed General Harney was acting under orders of the government in Washington. But such was not the case; news of General Harney’s orders to Pickett would not even reach the capital for more than a month.
Captain Hornby then handed Pickett a letter dated the previous day. It was a copy of a formal protest that Governor Douglas of British Columbia had filed with General Harney. Pickett responded that, as an officer in the United States Army, he would follow his general’s orders, not those of a British governor.
His patience nearly exhausted, Hornby stated that, as the United States had occupied a disputed island with a military force, it was incumbent on Britain to take similar action. ‘I am under orders from my government,’ Pickett answered. ‘I cannot allow any joint occupation of the island before I communicate with, and hear from, General Harney.’
With that, the meeting concluded, and Pickett requested that Hornby compose a letter covering the main points of their conversation, which the British naval officer agreed to do. When the letter arrived that afternoon, Pickett wrote a careful acknowledgment, reiterating that he was on the island at the orders of his government and urging that no further action be taken until he had the opportunity to communicate with General Harney. In response to a statement in Hornby’s letter that put the blame for any future confrontation on the Americans, Pickett artfully replied: ‘Should you see fit to act otherwise, you will then be the person who will bring on a most unfortunate and disastrous difficulty, and not the United States’ officials.’
Remaining with his ship in the harbor for several more weeks, Captain Hornby made no attempt to land a party of marines. On his return to Vancouver’s Island, he endured the wrath of Governor Douglas, whose temper worsened when Rear Admiral Robert L. Baynes, commander of British naval forces in the Pacific, arrived and informed the impatient and bellicose civilian functionary that he had no intention of precipitating a war with the United States in the absence of express instructions from the British Admiralty and the government in London. Baynes suggested that both he and the governor write to their superiors and await their responses before proceeding further. He did agree, however, to keep at least one ship of war stationed in the bay at San Juan Island below the American camp until further orders had been received.
Pickett’s report of his encounter with the commander of the Tribune pleased General Harney, who was, however, concerned by the captain’s assessment that his forces were too weak to repel any full-scale attack by the British. Harney, therefore, dispatched reinforcements to San Juan Island, over the continued protests of Governor Douglas, until the American garrison there numbered 461. By the end of August, the British contingent assigned to the San Juan Islands included five warships, mounting 167 guns and carrying complements of more than two thousand, including Royal Marines and engineers.
When President James Buchanan learned on September 3, 1859, of the confrontation with the British through newspapers in the American capital, he was shocked. After receiving General Harney’s July 19 report on that same day, the president took swift action. He directed the acting secretary of war, W. R. Drinkard, to send an urgent message to General Harney stating that ‘the President was not prepared to learn that you had ordered military possession to be taken of the Island of San Juan or Bellevue. Although he believes the Straits of Haro to be the true boundary between Great Britain and the United States, under the Treaty of June 15, 1846, . . . he had not anticipated that so decided a step would have been resorted to without instructions.’ Secretary of State Lewis Cass assured the British ambassador, Lord Lyons, that General Harney was not acting on the instructions of his government, and Buchanan dispatched the general in chief of the army, 73-year-old Winfield Scott, to the Pacific Northwest to order Harney to desist.
In spite of his poor health, Scott left New York City on September 20 on the steamer Star of the West for the long sea voyage to the west coast, arriving in San Francisco on October 17. Scott immediately continued on to Fort Vancouver, where he met with General Harney on October 21 and with Captain Pickett the following day. Scott concluded from these meetings that both men were quite proud of their actions, and he set about at once to defuse the situation they had created.
In negotiating with Governor Douglas, Scott resurrected the offer of joint military occupation of San Juan Island, which Britain’s Captain Hornby had made to Captain Pickett at their meeting in August. Scott also unilaterally reduced the American garrison stationed there to a single company under the command of Captain Lewis C. Hunt. Governor Douglas accepted the arrangement, on the condition that Pickett not be reinstated at that post. This being agreed to, General Scott thought the matter resolved and began to plan his return to the District of Columbia. Before leaving, however, he attempted to persuade General Harney to relinquish his command in Oregon and transfer to the Department of the West, whose headquarters was in St. Louis, but the troublesome general flatly refused.
Returning to the nation’s capital, General Scott reported on the matter to Secretary of War John B. Floyd and expressed grave doubts about the wisdom of leaving Harney in command. ‘The highest obligation of my station,’ Scott stated, ‘compels me to suggest a doubt whether it be safe in respect to our foreign relations, or just to the gallant officers and men of the Oregon Department, to leave them longer, at so great a distance, subject to the ignorance, passion, and caprice, of the present headquarters of that Department.’
Even after the joint-occupation agreement was reached, the British naval personnel on the scene continued to act with remarkable restraint. When Governor Douglas told Admiral Baynes that he had received word from the British government that such an occupation should now take place, he demanded that marines be landed on the island immediately. But Baynes resisted, preferring to wait until clear instructions had been received from the Admiralty. Those orders arrived in March of the following year, and shortly afterward, a Royal Marine detachment of 84 men, under the command of Captain George Bazalgette, landed and set up camp on the opposite end of the island from the American troops.
On April 10, 1860, General Harney–furious that he had not been advised about the joint-occupation agreement and that his man, Pickett, had been replaced as commander on the island–committed a final act of insubordination. In spite of the agreement reached by General Scott and the British, and in violation of Scott’s direct orders, Harney sent Company D under Captain Pickett back to San Juan Island to relieve Captain Hunt’s Fourth Infantry company.
When this news–and the flurry of protests from the British government that it caused–reached Washington, reaction was swift and coordinated. The departments of state and war being of one mind, Secretary of State Cass reported to the president that, on June 8, the adjutant general sent a dispatch to Harney, ordering him to turn over command to the officer next in rank and to ‘. . . repair without delay to Washington City, and report in person to the Secretaries of State and War.’
Harney avoided court-martial but received a reprimand from Secretary of War Floyd for his actions ‘. . . which might have been attended by disastrous consequences.’ Given command of the Department of the West, he traveled to St. Louis, but after reporting difficulties with his officers, he was recalled from that post in May 1861. He held no further command and was retired in 1863.
General Harney’s departure from the Northwest mollified the British, who withdrew their objection to Captain Pickett commanding on San Juan Island. Pickett, a Virginian, left that post on June 25, 1861, and soon after, he resigned his commission and traveled to Richmond, where he was appointed a colonel in the army being formed by the Confederate States of America.
For the next decade, the boundary location for the still jointly occupied San Juan Islands remained in dispute. Finally, the United States and Great Britain submitted the matter to Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany for arbitration. On October 21, 1872, he ruled that the boundary should be drawn through the Haro Strait, which made the San Juan Islands part of the United States. Britain withdrew its garrison of Royal Marines a month later.
Peaceful negotiations won out, ending a confrontation that could have escalated into war, a conflict that, as Admiral Baynes remarked, would have involved ‘two great nations in a war over a squabble about a pig.’ *
* The United States divided the Oregon Territory in 1853. The northern portion became known as the Washington Territory. The San Juan Islands were considered by the U.S. to be part of that territory’s Whatcom County. The southern section of the former Oregon Territory was admitted into the Union as the state of Oregon in 1859.
This article was written by Michael D. Haydock and originally published in the February 2001 issue of American History Magazine.
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