When we talk about the formation of the United States we tend to focus on the early days on the East Coast. More specifically, your high school history class probably brought up places like Philadelphia or Boston. If they even mentioned the West they might have branched out into things like Manifest Destiny and the Californian Gold Rush. Unfortunately for you the majority of the historical destinations located in these places, sans one very robust tea party, are land-locked. You could try to bring your boat to the Liberty Bell, but let’s face it, Philly’s parking enforcement is nuts and you don’t need that ticket. Anyway your boat is here, in Washington, far from the bugs and humidity of the East Coast and the great brown expanse that is modern-day California. Lucky for you we have the San Juan Islands: Washington’s own lush, green, perfectly temperate piece of national history.
The San Juans’ were first charted by the Spanish expedition helmed by Francisco de Eliza in 1791. Keep in mind that when we say ‘first’ here we really mean first European, as the land had been inhabited by the Coast Salish people for quite some time before the Europeans came sniffing around. 1791 was a good year for explorers: around the same time that Eliza started naming the islands inspiring Spanish names, like Sucia, George Vancouver set sail from England. The two bumped into each other shortly after Vancouver arrived in 1792. Disappointed though he was to find that he was not the first to chart the islands, Vancouver worked together with Eliza and other Spanish explorers to consolidate their cartographical ventures. Vancouver kept most of the Spanish names on his charts which, when in 1847 the British Admiralty created officially recognized charts for the area, resulted in the islands retaining their Spanish names.
Flash forward a few decades and you’ll find the U.S. has sent mountains of settlers to claim the lands of the west. With the U.S.’s westward expansion, tensions rose between the British and the Americans who were co-occupying the Pacific Northwest, each wanting the prosperous region for themselves. The resulting Oregon Treaty of 1846 dictated that, sans Vancouver Island and its closest counterparts, the boundary between the Oregon County and the British ruled Columbia District would reside at the 49th Parallel. The higher-ups in Washington DC, where the treaty was signed, declared the deepest channel between the islands to be the dividing point. As things were back in the day this decision was made by people who were very far away and had never been to the area, resulting in a general confusion as to which islands belonged to whom. The matter remained unresolved for over a decade until a young American farmer named Lyman Cutlar plunged our great nation into the depths of the Pig War.
The conflict started when a pig belonging to an employee of the Hudson Bay Company wandered into an American potato farm belonging to Lyman Cutlar. Being that this was not the first time a British pig had found its way onto his farm, Cutlar shot the pig. Unable to settle the dispute amongst themselves, the potato farmer and the pig owner went to their respective governing bodies.
When the British, sailing over from their outpost on Vancouver Island, threatened to arrest Cutlar the Americans refused to let them land. By August 10th 1859 there were over 450 Americans fending off five British warships from the shores of San Juan Island. Understanding the ridiculousness of their situation, the commanding officers from both sides gave the order to only fire if being shot at. Unable to exchange real bullets the soldiers exchanged what were no doubt witty insults in attempts to goad the other side into attacking.
The Pig War was one of the least bloody wars in American history, its only casualty being the pig that gave it its name, earning the islands historical notoriety. Bloodlessness aside the conflict lasted for twelve years before the decision was made to give the islands to the Americans. In those twelve years the opposing forces of about 100 men occupied opposite ends of the islands. More often than not the soldiers would exchange booze, instead of violence.
Today you can visit the very cleverly named English Camp and American Camp National Parks for an excellent romp through historical grounds. As an added bonus you can anchor your boat right in the harbor that the British occupied many years ago. See for yourself the strategic reasoning behind the Captains of yore’s decision to man that point. And let’s face it, sipping wine on your boat in the historical San Juans of a defeated British encampment beats standing in a sweaty line for hours to see the Liberty Bell any day.
Article by Morgan Thrulow