A territorial dispute on Washington's San Juan Island revealed two countries' desperate need to keep the peace.
By Shane Farnor
Just off the coast of Washington State, 200 tiny islands sprawl out like a constellation in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Year after year, one in particular—San Juan Island—rises to the top of “America’s Best Places to Live” lists, and it’s no wonder why: The people are friendly. The scenery is breathtaking. And there’s a local winery, a lavender farm, and whale watching by kayak.
It’s the kind of place that people would have fought over back in the day. And 150 years ago, the United States and Great Britain were inches away from doing just that.
It started in 1846, when the authors of the Oregon Treaty drew a long, invisible line westward from the Rocky Mountains along the northernmost border of Oregon to establish the border between U.S. territory and British territory (now Canada). On land, the divide was clear—but where that line hit the Pacific Ocean, things got a little hazy. But Americans and Brits lived side by side, and no one really seemed to mind. Until June 1859, when a pig owned by Britain’s Hudson’s Bay Company—a fur-trading monopoly—wandered into the garden of an American settler named Lyman Cutlar and began rooting up potatoes. Cutlar shot and killed the pig, then refused to reimburse the company for its loss.
Tempers flared. Great Britain threatened to arrest Cutlar, prompting a quick and aggressive response by U.S. Captain George Pickett (later of Civil War fame), who led in the American Army to protect their countryman. The British Royal Marines, led by Captain George Bazalgette, arrived quickly on their heels. The quarrel escalated into a standoff, with each side pointing guns at the other.
“It was a real crisis,” says Mike Vouri, chief of interpretation at San Juan Island National Historical Park. “They could have started shooting at any moment.”
Thankfully, it never went that far. Each side followed strict orders not to fire unless fired upon. But for the next three months, that tension remained, until U.S. Army Commander Winfield Scott and Vancouver Island Royal Governor James Douglas settled on joint occupation until a clearer boundary could be determined. Keeping the peace, after all, was essential for two countries that were hoping to avoid another conflict: In October, abolitionist John Brown staged an unsuccessful raid to liberate slaves at Harper’s Ferry, pushing the nation closer to civil war; and England had just engaged in the second Opium War with China. So the British set up camp at one end of the island, and Americans set up on the other—and incredibly, 12 peaceful years passed before anyone said much of the international border again. But that didn’t mean life was easy.
“Frontier living was a hell of a lot of work,” Vouri says. “The best way to keep soldiers happy was to keep them busy—so they gardened. They cleared woods. Some had carpenter skills that they put to use. But these guys were a long way from home and their loved ones, and that led to a lot of deep depression.”
Times were especially hard for the American soldiers, who regularly went hungry and unpaid. The British Royal Marines were slightly better off, but faced other problems—like accidental drownings. “In those days, it wasn’t considered healthy to immerse yourself in water, so most of these marines didn’t know how to swim.” They didn’t even bathe, for that matter—which is why the park’s historic collection features so many perfume bottles.
Eventually, the Brits and Americans began to find refuge in each other’s company. They organized baseball games and attended the same churches. They celebrated each other’s national holidays, like the Queen’s birthday and the Fourth of July. Even Captains Pickett and Bazalgette formed a sturdy friendship. “In order to keep the peace,” Vouri says, “they had to model it.”
San Juan Island became so friendly, in fact, that it began to draw tourists. Thousands of people from Vancouver Island streamed in on passenger boats that offered rides to the British warships and the American camp, where tourists were free to wander the grounds and visit with the soldiers.
Life carried on like this until 1871, when a German Kaiser—an arbiter chosen by both sides—appointed a commission to settle the boundary dispute once and for all. They decided that Great Britain would own the islands to the west of the shipping channel, and the United States would own the islands to the east. That fall, British troops pulled out; in 1874, American troops followed suit.
And 150 years later, Americans are still gleaning lessons from how two countries established peace in a time of crisis.
“Are we a species that has to fight wars to exist?” Vouri asks. “Because wars impact our resources, and I don’t think the world can afford that. If we want to preserve our planet and make life worth living for everyone who occupies it, we have to find peaceful ways to resolve conflict. We have to decide what kind of people we want to be. And that’s what this park is all about.”