Today’s main topic is The Pig War, a comic-opera “war” in 1859 between the United States and Great Britain over a minor island in the far-flung provinces of the old Oregon Territory. A disagreement concerning the actual sovereign ownership of the island, instigated by the death of a British pig at the hands of an American farmer, swelled into an international incident with calls for war from both sides. Luckily for everyone concerned, cooler heads prevailed in the long run, though it did lead to the occupation for another 12 years by British troops of what was eventually deemed to be American soil.
Early Exploration of the Pacific NW
The origins of the Pig War go back to the earliest days of exploration in the Pacific Northwest of the North American continent. England put in an early claim with Sir Francis Drake’s exploration of the area in the late 1570’s. The name of the waterway separating Vancouver Island from Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula is named the Straits of Juan De Fuca, in remembrance of a Greek pilot who claimed to have been captured by Drake off of a Spanish ship and forced to lead Drake’s Golden Hind into previously unexplored waters. Spain quickly followed up on this and extended her own claim to the region, but little was done with the area by the Europeans for the next several hundred years.
The late-18th Century saw renewed interest in discovery, this time with a far more scientific bent, famously acted upon by the Royal Britannic Navy and Captain Cook, later followed up by Cook’s Lieutenant, George Vancouver. In 1792, an expedition under the command of Vancouver entered the Straits of Juan de Fuca, after having stopped off the coast near Cape Flattery to converse with Captain Robert Grey of Columbia (not John, as I mistakenly stated in an earlier episode), who went off to discover and claim the Columbia River for the United States. Britain had recently won the right to the “ownership” of what is now Vancouver Island through negotiations with Spain following the “Nootka Crisis” of 1789, in which ships of the British Navy were ordered to depart Nootka Sound by officers of the Spanish Navy, who held that to be their territory.
Vancouver, in cooperation with Juan Francisco Bodega y Quadra, explored the coast of what was at that point named “Quadra and Vancouver Island”. There was a small Spanish settlement at Nootka Sound already, and Vancouver took over official possession of the settlement. (On a personal note, my Grandparents lived near Bodega Bay, in Northern California when I was a kid. Interesting how I now live near “Quadra y Vancouver Island” as an adult.) At Nootka Sound Vancouver again met with Grey who confirmed to him that there was indeed a major river to the south, and Vancouver sent one one of his officers to make some maps of the area.
At approximately the same time (1789) a small exploration party under the command of Alexander Mackenzie (an employee of the North West Company and officially posted to Fort Chipewyan on Lake Athabaska, presently in the North West Territories of Canada) had followed a hunch of his superior Peter Pond and explored a major river leading out of Great Slave Lake in hopes that it would lead to Cook Inlet in Alaska. Instead it proved to be the largest river in the Great North, the Mackenzie river which instead leads to the Arctic.
In 1792 however, Mackenzie was sure that following the Peace River would lead to a route to the Pacific. With 6 voyageurs, he ascended the river and crossed the continental divide to the headwaters of the Fraser. Finding it just too rough for their canoes, they struck out overland and on July 22 1793, just 48 days after Vancouver had been there on his second trip, they gained the mouth of the Bella Coola River and become the first to cross the continent north of Mexico. This added further substance to the British claim on the area, now being referred to as “The Oregon Territory” after the fanciful “River Oregon” which was said to flow there.
One of the interesting things about the British exploration of the area, especially that of Vancouver, is that almost all of the place names of the Puget Sound/Admiralty Inlet area, with some major exceptions, were given by Vancouver while making his maps. Puget Sound is named after his Lieutenant Peter Puget, Hood Canal after Admiral Samuel Hood, Mt Baker after Lt. Joseph Baker who had first spotted it, and even the Straits of Juan de Fuca, due to that Greek pilot’s centuries-old claim to having discovered it with Drake. Vancouver Island is of course named after the captain himself, and the Straits of Georgia named after the King, George III. American naval officer Charles Wilkes’ Expedition of Exploration, in 1841, named most of the rest.
A decade-plus later, the American overland expedition of Lewis and Clark and their Corps of Discovery made it to the mouth of the Columbia River and re-established the claim that Robert Grey had made on the area for the United States. At the same time the Russians, in the form of the Russian-American Fur Company, were making expeditions to the south in the pursuit of the Sea Otter so highly prized by the Manchu Court of China, from their posts in Alaska. In 1812 they had established Fort Ross some 15 miles north of Bodega Bay, and now there were four major claimants on the region: Spain, Russia, Britain and the United States.
In 1821 Mexico declared independence and put an end to Spain’s claims to the North West. Twenty years later the Russian-American Fur Company sold Fort Ross to the Swiss entrepreneur and colonist Johann Sutter in 1841 and confined their efforts to their solidly-claimed Alaskan province. The Anglo-American Convention of 1818 established the concept of “Joint Occupation” of the Oregon Territory, and with the signing of the Adams-Onis treaty of 1820, the northern border of California was established. The Oregon Territory now consisted of the present-day territory of the states of Oregon, Washington and Idaho, as well as British Columbia.
Sharing the Territories
The British-based Hudson’s Bay Company had established a major post at Fort Vancouver in 1824 on the north bank of the Columbia River, and the settlement nearby of former employees of that company began to be encouraged. By the late 1830’s though, Americans had begun to settle in the nearby Willamette Valley as well. By the early 1840’s it was becoming fairly obvious to all that there were more Americans in the Territory south of the Columbia than British subjects, and that these Americans were also heading into areas further to the north.
Enter the 11th President of the United States: James K Polk. The Democratic Party candidate for 1845 was quite honest and forthright in his campaign promises. He promised not only to ease the burden of exporters by lowering the tariff, remove the Federal Government from doing business with commercial banks, but most importantly to this discussion to extend the territory of the United States by acquiring San Francisco Bay from Mexico and settling the “Oregon Question” with Great Britain. He is probably the only President in US History, and perhaps the only Politician in History, to actually fulfill his campaign promises.
Although he would have preferred to buy it, he was only successful in the acquisition of San Francisco Bay from Mexico by fighting a major war from 1846 to ‘48 to do so, and in the process not only took California but also Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and parts of Utah, Colorado and Wyoming in the process. He was far more successful in negotiating with Great Britain over the Oregon Question however. (Great Britain being the most powerful nation in the world at that time may have had something to do with it, but perhaps the idea of fighting both Mexico AND Great Britain at the same time was more of an argument against it. American self-confidence of that day and age was pretty impressive.)
Despite the use of slogans such as “54-40 or Fight!” used by some of Polk’s supporters, I don’t think that Polk had any intention of actually fighting over the Oregon Territory. That the US was at that point (1846) a major factor in feeding Britain through the output of our farms, and we were also getting ready to provoke a war with Mexico, war with Britain was a pretty unlikely scenario. The British had also, by this point concluded that the Columbia River was really not all that great an entrance to the interior due to its mouth being a VERY rough, dangerous passage. The major center for administration of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s activities throughout the area had been transferred north to Fort Victoria on Vancouver Island, and the local officials at least saw the writing on the wall. With some solid negotiations, by June of 1846 the Oregon Treaty had been signed, and the territory was separated by the simple process of extending the border, as it already existed from the Anglo-American Convention’s decision of 1818, along the 49th Parallel to the Pacific Ocean. It was nice and tidy, except for a few minor details.
The first issue was that the Pacific Ocean didn’t go clear into the mainland. Where the 49th Parallel emerges it hits salt water in the Straits of Georgia instead, between the mainland and Vancouver Island. This was acknowledged with the provision that Vancouver Island in its entirety would be kept by Great Britain, and allowed that the border would equally divide the Straits of Juan de Fuca. The other awkwardness was exactly how to thread the border between the islands which populate the inland waterways from the present-day Canadian Straits of Georgia. The treaty stated that the border would follow the “deepest channel” between Vancouver Island and the mainland… the problem was deciding which of the various channels, three of which were used for shipping, was the “deepest” one.
There was also provision for the Hudson’s Bay Company’s subsidiary, the “Puget’s Sound Agricultural Company” to retain their rights to their properties to the north of the Columbia, and here-in came the proximate cause of the “Pig War”.
The present day San Juan Islands form a beautiful and attractive location for settlement, and they are today in fact a popular tourist destination. On San Juan Island, the island nearest Vancouver Island of the those in question, a few Americans had settled, along with several employees of the Puget’s Sound Agricultural Company. In June of 1859 one Lyman Cutlar, an American, developed an recurring problem with a pig belonging to an Irishman named Charles Griffin. Unfortunately, the pig was fond of rooting up potatoes from Cutlar’s garden. Cutlar, in exasperation, shot said pig, and then offered Griffin $10 for having done so. Griffin demanded $100, at which point Cutlar stated that since the pig was trespassing, he wasn’t liable for any damages at all. Griffin responded in turn by sending word to Victoria to dispatch a constable to come and arrest Cutlar, whereupon the American settlers called upon the US Army to come to their defense.
This is where things got interesting. Brigadier-General William S. Harney, commanding the Department of Oregon, sent a company of the 9th Infantry under Captain George Pickett (yes, THAT George Pickett of Gettysburg fame) to San Juan Island to “calm the situation” by preventing the British from landing any sailors or Marines. The British then responded by sending Captain Geoffrey Horneby of the RN with three small warships to counter the American move to militarize the island. Further response was then made by Harney, who dispatched Col. Silas Casey to the island with his artillerymen from Fort Steilacoom, in present-day Tacoma, WA. By August, there were some 460 or so American soldiers with artillery facing five British warships.
The Governors of both Washington Territory, Isaac Stevens and British Columbia, James Douglas, did their very best to exacerbate things. Douglas even ordered Rear-Admiral Robert Baynes to land Marines on the island and eject the Americans. Baynes refused the order, stating that it would be criminal to begin a war “between two great nations over a squabble about a pig”. Commanders were ordered to defend themselves, but under no circumstances to fire the first shot. Supposedly insults were exchanged, but no lead.
When word reached the respective capitals that war had almost broken out over a pig, efforts were quickly made by cooler heads, which thankfully prevailed, to de-escalate the situation. President James Buchanan sent the Commanding General or the US Army, Winfield Scott, hero of the War of 1812, victor of the Mexican War and now in his late 70’s, to see to the negotiations. Traveling via the Isthmus of Panama, Scott arrived in Fort Townsend in October, four months after the inciting incident, and began friendly negotiations with Baynes. Finally, after consulting with Douglas, an agreement was made to “jointly occupy” San Juan Island until an arbitrated settlement could be made, and some 100 troops from each side would continue to occupy the island until that time. They settled into “English Camp” and “American Camp” for the next 12 years.
|American Camp today|
Of interest is the fact that “English Camp”, occupied by the Royal Marine Light Infantry, is a beautifully located site, with balmy weather and spacious grounds. “American Camp”, occupied by the 9th Infantry however, on a site selected by Col. Casey, is ugly, but very, very defendable. As well, it is amusing to note that during the “joint occupation” of the island, the two garrisons spent a fair amount of time involved in social interaction, with picnics and dances being shared between them. What a stressful duty it must have been for all concerned.
|English Camp today|
Finally, after the American Civil War had come to its conclusion and relations between the US and Britain had normalized after the uncertainties of a possible British intervention, it became time to return to the diplomatic issues of San Juan Island. The newly installed Emperor of Germany (of the newly-minted united German Empire), Kaiser Wilhelm I, was asked to be the arbitrator of the different claims. Taking the new responsibility for an international settlement quite seriously, Kaiser Wilhelm sent a ship of the new German Imperial Navy to investigate the matter. They took their time, opting to appeal to the scientific method, taking soundings of the three possible channels, and when they returned to Berlin proceeded to make a 3-D map of the sea-floor to further investigate the issue. The map was set on gimbals, and filled with water. Ink was poured into the headwaters of the model Fraser, and was followed with great interest as to where it would show the main water flow should occur. They concluded that the Haro Strait, to the west of San Juan Island, proved to be the primary flow of water to the Pacific and therefore met the conditions of the 1846 treaty more correctly than Rosario Strait, which is to the east of the islands. By this time British North America had become the Dominion of Canada, and although still subject to invasions by Americans, most of them at least have been peaceful, in the form of tourism.
A final note of interest is that this topographical map still exists. For some reason it was put inside a wall of a building housing some bureaucracy in Berlin and my some miracle escaped destruction in 1945, and even escaped the interest of the Communists of East Germany as well. A friend of mine said that while on a tour there a few years ago he saw the map and said “Hey, that’s Puget Sound!”, which netted him an explanation by way of reply. Amazing.