'Pig War' began 150 years ago; British consul, tall ships will attend events this weekend

The Lady Washington ... will sail into Garrison Bay this weekend for the annual Encampment and the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the joint military occupation of San Juan Island.  - San Juan Island National Historical Park
The Lady Washington ... will sail into Garrison Bay this weekend for the annual Encampment and the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the joint military occupation of San Juan Island.
— image credit: San Juan Island National Historical Park

History was made on San Juan Island 150 years ago. While the event is a mere footnote in world history books, it was an event of national and international importance.

In 1859, American and British troops occupied San Juan Island to defend their claims to the archipelago. What ensued over the next 12 years was a peaceful occupation that proved that nations, even superpowers, can resolve conflicts without bullets or blows.

Ultimately, the dispute was settled by a European adjudication panel led by Kaiser Wilhelm. Mike Vouri, chief of interpretation at San Juan Island National Historical Park, believes it was the first time an international territory dispute was settled by arbitration. San Juan Island was also the place in the continental United States over which the British flag flew.

The occupation had its ironies: While it was amicable for the U.S. and Great Britain, its resolution spelled the end of indigenous life on the island as Coast Salish people knew it since time immemorial. While U.S. Army soldiers and British Royal Marines engaged in friendly competitions, celebrated each other's national holidays together, and waited patiently for a negotiated resolution to the San Juan dispute, the North and South were engaged in a bloody Civil War.

The anniversary of the beginning of the joint military occupation — known officially as the San Juan Imbroglio or the San Juan Difficulty, and colloquially as the Pig War — will be commemorated during the 12th annual Encampment, Saturday and Sunday at English Camp. The weekend includes visits to Garrison Bay by the tall ships Lady Washington and Hawaiian Chieftain. The events are free and open to the public.

The National Park will provide free shuttle service aboard San Juan Transit, between the Friday Harbor ferry landing and English Camp. Vouri said islanders and visitors are encouraged to take the shuttle to relieve parking congestion at English Camp. People with physical limitations should call the park at 378-2902 or 378-2240 for special access information.

Here's the schedule:

The Lady Washington and Hawaiian Chieftain are scheduled to arrive at noon on Saturday and will welcome visitors throughout the day. Other activities include recreations of mid-19th century Royal Marine Light Infantry and U.S. Army camp life; demonstrations of blacksmithing, carpentry, cooperage, horsemanship, music, sewing, spinning and weaving; as well as the pageantry of period uniforms in scarlet and blue.

Black-powder rifled musket demonstrations and the firing of Battery D’s mountain howitzer are planned both days.

At 2 p.m., there will be a ceremony featuring Mary Gilbert, deputy consul general of the British Consulate, San Francisco; and Rory Westberg, deputy regional director for the National Park Service’s Pacific West Region.

U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Everett, was scheduled to attend but cannot. However, he introduced a resolution in the House noting the peaceful resolution of the Pig War and praising the close ties between the U.S. and Britain. Larsen told McClatchy Newspapers he consulted with the British Embassy before introducing the resolution.

The Candlelight Ball begins at 8 p.m. in the English Camp barracks. The public is invited to join in the dancing and refreshments that will include traditional cake and punch. Music for contra dancing will be provided by the folk group Sugar on the Floor.

Sunday at 3 p.m., you can go for a sail on the tall ships for a fee. Passengers will embark by longboat from the dock on Garrison Bay and board the vessels by Jacob’s ladder. Contact Gray’s Harbor Historical Seaport at or (800) 200-5239.

The commemoration continues with a speakers series on four Mondays in August, 7 p.m., in the San Juan Island Library. The series is free and open to the public. On schedule: Aug. 10, Dr. Merle Lefkoff, an educator, mediator and political scientist; Aug. 17, Dr. David M. Kennedy, history professor at Stanford University and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945"; Aug. 24, Barry Gough, author of "Fortune's A River: The Collision of Empires in Northwest America"; and Aug. 28, and Dr. David Goldberg, a law professor at Stanford University.

Difference of interpretation
Tensions between the U.S. and Britain began over different interpretations of the Northwest boundary described in the 1846 Oregon Treaty.

The treaty described the boundary as being down "the middle of the channel" between the mainland and Vancouver Island, thence through the middle of the channel and Juan de Fuca Strait to the Pacific. But the "middle of the channel" could have followed either Rosario Strait or Haro Strait between the Strait of Georgia and Juan de Fuca Strait, and between them lay San Juan Island, which was claimed by Britain and the U.S.

On June 15, 1859, Lyman Cutlar, an American who had squatted on land claimed by the Hudson's Bay Co., shot a British-owned boar rooting in his garden. The shooting of British property by an American — and the British threat of the arrest of an American citizen — escalated the tensions into near hostilities. The question of who had jurisdiction over San Juan Island had to be finally answered.

"This seemingly innocuous event nearly escalated into hostilities between elements of the U.S. Army and the Royal Navy on San Juan Island between July and October 1859," Vouri said. "The crisis was quelled thanks to the restraint of Royal Navy officers on scene and the negotiating skills of Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott, commander of the U.S. Army, who made the six-week trip from New York City to the West Coast from Washington, D.C."

Scott was the right man for the job; he had resolved earlier U.S.-British boundary disputes in Niagara Falls, N.Y., and Aroostook, Maine. The two nations agreed to a joint military occupation of San Juan Island. The Americans elected to remain at their camp at Cattle Point, the Royal Marines at a camp on Garrison Bay.

"Throughout the joint occupation, the garrisons exchanged visits to celebrate holidays that included Christmas, the Fourth of July and Queen Victoria’s birthday," said Vouri, author of three books on the joint military occupation period. "Typically, the men would participate in athletic contests, imbibe in spirits and other refreshments and usually host a dance to which the community was invited."

The U.S. and Great Britain agreed to let an adjudication panel decide the territory dispute. "Nobody ever came out here, no member of the adjudication panel ever came out here. It was all done in Geneva, Switzerland," Vouri said.

Both sides submitted arguments and counterarguments. In 1872, the adjudication panel decided 2-1 in favor of the United States and the Royal Marines left the island in November that year.

The Encampment tradition started by the U.S. and British troops here was renewed in 1998 on the occasion of the dedication of English Camp’s 80-foot flagpole, a gift to the park by the people of the United Kingdom. The event drew nearly 600 people to the parade ground, including distinguished guests and officials from both nations.

Vouri said the peaceful resolution of the conflict — commemorated by that flagpole gift — was no small feat. Both sides were heavily armed and at one time weapons were poised to fire.

"They attended church services on each other's ships, but if either side were given orders to charge that camp and spike that cannon, they would have done it," Vouri said. "This was an international crisis. Two great powers were in danger of plunging into hostilities over a small place."

Fortunately, diplomacy ruled the day. Vouri hopes people understand that when they visit the national park.

"We like people to appreciate why things didn't get out of hand and realize what war would have done," said Vouri, a Vietnam War veteran and former assistant director of the state Department of Veterans Affairs. "It's important for Americans to understand what war is really all about, that it exacts a cost through entire generations."

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