Clash over Customs? San Juan Island has been there before

Mike Vouri - Contributed photo
Mike Vouri
— image credit: Contributed photo

By Mike Vouri

Special to the Journal

The proposed re-location of U.S. Customs & Immigration from the Port of Friday Harbor to First and Spring streets has created quite a furor in recent weeks, but it pales in comparison to the first rootin’-tootin’ flap between islanders (albeit nascent ones) and Customs officials here in April 21, 1854.

That was when Collector Isaac Neff Ebey arrived from the U.S. Customs House in Port Townsend and ordered Belle Vue Sheep Farm agent Charles Griffin to pay duty on the 1,369 sheep grazing on today’s American Camp prairie. The sheep station had been established the previous December by Vancouver Island Gov. James Douglas (as a chief factor of the Hudson’s Bay Company) to reinforce the British claim to the island, which had been in dispute between the United States and Great Britain since 1846.

Ebey was friendly, but aggressive. If the Hudson’s Bay Company refused payment the sheep “were liable to seizure” for being smuggled into the territory. In his view, the San Juans were American possessions and not a duty-free zone. When informed of Ebey’s demand’s Douglas, as yet without the Royal Navy to back him up, appointed Griffin Justice of the Peace for the “District of San Juan Island,” at no pay. If he returned, Ebey was to be treated as a common offender if he attempted to enforce his jurisdiction.

Issac EbeyOne wonders if Douglas wondered if he were receiving a taste of his own medicine. He, in fact, had been the first to attempt to collect duty in the disputed islands when in July he compelled R.W. Cussans, an American settler on Lopez Island, to pay 10 pence sterling per each 50 cubic feet of 30,000 board feet of lumber that he had cut and squared. Cussans had filed a protest with Capt. James Alden of the U.S. Coast Survey Steamer Active, which first surveyed the islands that fall.

Ebey returned to collect on May 3, landing in an open boat about 6:30 p.m. with his assistant, Henry Webber, whereupon the two men established the first customs house on the island…a simple tent clinging to the bluffs above the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Ebey dispatched “an Indian” to Griffin with an invitation to visit him at the customs tent.  Griffin complied and later recorded: “…after several minutes spent in conversing on commonplace subjects, I at once put the question to Colonel Ebey, ‘What is the purport of your visit?’”  In contrast to the first encounter, Ebey said that he had “done nothing…yet”

Griffin advised Douglas, who steamed to the island the following morning aboard the Otter, accompanied by British customs inspector James Sangster. Noting that the U.S. “invasion” constituted two men and a single tent Douglas returned to Victoria, but ordered Sangster ashore with a British Union flag, which he was directed to run up the Company flagpole.

The gauntlet was thrown the next day when Ebey and Webber called on Griffin with a proclamation naming Webber assistant collector of customs on San Juan Island. Ebey left soon thereafter and Webber pitched his tent “immediately” behind Griffin’s cabin, garnishing the act by running up an American flag. That did it for Griffin. The next morning he issued a warrant for Webber’s arrest and appointed one of his herdsmen, Thomas Holland, a temporary constable and ordered him to bring in the prisoner. Sangster went along to observe and record.

Webber was armed and belligerent. Not recognizing Holland’s right to detain him, Webber “…instantaneously presented a revolver pistol at the breast of the constable, telling him if he touched him he would most certainly fire.” Sangster, noting that Webber had “two brace of pistols hung about his waste and breast, and a knife thrust in his boot at the knee,” ran and got six men but Webber, determined as ever to resist, continued to menace them with his pistols.

A disgusted Griffin called off his posse and wrote in his journal that evening, “…Such a farce! If this is what is called law, then it plainly is rum law.”Bellevue sheep farm

After all that, Webber and Sangster each returned to their respective headquarters the next day, Webber to purchase supplies and report to Ebey, Sangster presumably to tell all to Douglas. Webber returned, apparently to stay, on May 10. Opting for the high road, Douglas advised Griffin not to bother the American so long as he minded his own business and did not attempt to confiscate or molest property. Webber was to be treated not as a U.S. government agent, but a private person “entitled to protection by Her Majesty’s Government and subject to those same laws.” If the American attempted to collect customs duties he was to be arrested. If he resisted arrest he would be held accountable in the Queen’s courts.

Webber was likewise directed by Ebey not to collect, but to peacefully keep book on HBC property, for which he would be paid a rate of $5 a day. Webber was only too happy to comply and remained where he was at Belle Vue Sheep Farm, where, in what was to become a tradition among contending government officials on San Juan Island, he soon became fast friends with his neighbor Charles Griffin. He was eventually replaced by Paul K. Hubbs, Jr., who as the formal “deputy collector of customs,” built a cabin on Griffin Bay, replete with a flagpole on which he daily posted the stars and stripes.

While friendship blossomed, letters were penned quickly (though delivered too slowly for the pace of events) between Ebey and Douglas and their respective governments. Douglas complained of American effrontery while Ebey, in a dispatch to Secretary of the Treasury James Guthrie, accused the HBC of violating U.S. revenue laws. His position that the San Juans belonged to the United States was shared, but for diplomatic reasons not enforced, by Governor Stevens. If Webber was detained, Ebey stated, he would simply replace him with another agent and appeal to the territorial government for help in obtaining Webber’s release.

When the home governments of both nations were advised of the incident each ordered their local officials not to provoke the other side by attempting to collect customs or duties or enforce their respective laws. Neither were they to weaken in demonstrating their respective claims to the islands, though Douglas was expressly cautioned not to “push matters to extremities, unless we are compelled to do so.”

Douglas found this advisory “an unfortunate admission, showing a lamentable want of information on the question at issue, and yet it is a fact that may greatly embarrass Her Majesty’s Government.”

That came the following year when it was not the federal government, but Whatcom County that would make off with 34 breeding rams in lieu of nonpayment of $80.33 of “back taxes.” After Griffin had rejected the claim, a posse rowed from Bellingham Bay in the dead of night and herded the rams into rowboats. The racket finally awoke Griffin, who when ordering the Americans to halt, was also confronted with several braces of “revolving pistols.”  This time the cease and desist order to U.S. officials came directly from the President through the Secretary of State, William Marcy. It was an order that British officials from then on would not hesitate to pull from their coat pockets.Four years later all bets were off when Lyman Cutlar shot the pig.

— Editor's note: the article above is based on accounts from; "The Pig War: Standoff at Griffin Bay" by historian and author Mike Vouri




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