Once a mountain range carved out by glaciers, now an archipelago, the 100-million-year-old San Juan Islands feature some of the most spectacular scenery in the Pacific Northwest. Depending on the tides, the San Juans number anywhere from 428 to 743 islands. Only about 170 have names, including the four largest: Orcas, San Juan, Shaw and Lopez. The islands were explored (1790-92) and named by the Spanish Francisco Eliza expedition.
San Juan Island is steeped in unique history. It has the dubious fame of being host to one of the longest running wars on American soil. The whole gist of the war was to determine if the island would become American or British soil. There was a treaty in place, but arguments erupted over a portion of the boundary described as the “middle of the channel” separating the British colony of Vancouver’s Island from the U. S. mainland. There were actually two channels, Haro Strait (nearest to Vancouver) and Rosario Strait, nearer to the U.S. mainland. San Juan Island huddles right between the two straits. Britain insisted that the boundary ran through Rosario Strait, but the Americans said it lay through Haro Strait. So both sides considered San Juan theirs for settlement.
In 1845, Hudson’s Bay Company posted a notice of possession on San Juan, and in 1850 they established a salmon-curing station. A few years later they started Bellevue Farm, a sheep ranch. By 1859, 18 to 25 U.S. citizens had also settled on San Juan Island. They were settled on redemption claims which they expected the U.S. Government to recognize as valid, but the British considered illegal. Neither side recognized the authority of the other, so everyone was on edge and things were bound to come to a head.
In June of 1859, Lyman Cutlar (one of the U.S. settlers) shot a pig that was raiding his garden. Afterwards, he realized the pig belonged to the Hudson’s Bay Company and offered to pay for it. They claimed the pig was a champion breeder and was valued at $100. Cutlar was outraged at the price considering the pig had also just trashed his garden, and he refused to pay. He was told he’d pay or be arrested for trespassing.
The American citizens requested U.S. military protection. George E. Pickett (of later Civil War fame) was sent to San Juan Island with a 66-man unit. They landed in July and set up camp near the Hudson’s Bay Company wharf, just north of Bellevue Farm. Throughout the remaining days of July and early August, the British forces in Griffin Bay (then San Juan Harbor) continued to grow. Pickett also received reinforcements under Lt. Col. Silas Casey, who now assumed active command. Captain Hornby (in charge of the British troops) waited to take any action against the Americans until the arrival of Rear Adm. Robert L. Baynes, commander of British naval forces in the Pacific. Baynes was disgusted and wanted no part of involving “two great nations in a war over a squabble about a pig”.
By the end of August, 461 Americans, protected by 14 cannons, were opposed by 5 British warships mounting 167 guns and carrying 2,140 troops, including Royal Marines, artillerymen, sappers, and miners. Still no one budged, nor was a shot fired. Eventually an agreement was forged whereby a token force from each nation would occupy San Juan until a final settlement could be reached. On March 21, 1860, British Royal Marines landed and established camp on Garrison Bay, to this day known as English Camp. The U.S. troops stayed where they were, still known as American Camp.
San Juan Island remained under joint military occupation for 12 years. In 1871, when Great Britain and the United States signed the Treaty of Washington, the San Juan question was referred to Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany for settlement. In October of 1872, the emperor ruled in favor of the United States, establishing the boundary line through Haro Strait. San Juan became an American possession and the final boundary between Canada and the United States was set. In November of 1872, the Royal Marines withdrew from English Camp. By July of 1874, the last of the U.S. troops had left American Camp. The 49th parallel was no longer occupied by any military force. San Juan Island would be remembered for a military confrontation in which the only casualty was a pig.
Many Hudson Bay Company employees settled on San Juan Island. A Hawaiian sheep herder and employee of Hudson Bay was known as “Friday”. He settled in the area of what is now the town of Friday Harbor. The geographic attributes of Friday Harbor, especially the protected harbor made it a natural place to start a town and in the 1870?s the town began to be built. In 1873, Friday Harbor was named the county seat of the islands.
For more historic information on San Juan Island: