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The Pig War ?

The Pig War ?

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

As I write this from my home office, I can see Canada’s Gulf Islands, which are like sister islands to the San Juan Islands. This view is one I don’t take for granted because living on the extreme NW edge of the US mainland is where I want to be. It feels as if the entire westward expansion of the US has ended here, on the rocky western shore of Orcas Island. It’s nearly impossible to go any further west and remain in America. This is especially true today, as the Canadian border is likely to be closed to recreational boats until 2022. 

Another reason I don’t take the view for granted is that Orcas Island, along with the rest of the San Juans, could have easily been property of the English, and later of Canada. The story of how the border was drawn, and why, is often referred to as The Pig War, which began in 1859.

At the time, the election of Lincoln was a year away and the Civil War was soon to follow. As tempers flared on the eastern side of the country, the west was still wild and becoming populated with settlers, trappers, and gold diggers. Washington was not yet a US state, but that was coming, too. 

The Spanish were the first Europeans to explore our part of the Washington coast and named many of the islands, like Lopez, San Juan, and Horcasitas, which eventually became “Orcas“. Then came the British and George Vancouver, who sailed into the region and named mountains, rivers, islands, ports, and more from the deck of his ship, the HMS Discovery. Peter Rainier, for example, was his Rear Admiral and namesake for Mount Rainier, which was called “Tahoma” by the Native Americans.  

Americans were settling the Pacific Northwest by land and the British by sea. What is now Washington State was essentially the end of the road in terms of westward expansion, with the territory being surrounded by British territories to the north and west. In the middle of the landmasses were hundreds of islands with ambiguous ownership. Border disputes were inevitable. 

The main issue was commerce. The growing population of the area meant that military and supply boats needed reliable ways to navigate from the Pacific to inland settlements in places like modern day Seattle and Vancouver, BC. To help ensure safe passage, US and British military forces helped protect territories and secure the shipping lanes they considered their own. 

Both sides were concerned with where to draw the North/South line between the US and British territories. This was debated for years and there were two contenders. One potential border, on the east side of the San Juan Islands, claimed them for Britain. The other border was on the west side of the San Juans, near Vancouver Island, which would make the San Juans American. This situation made the San Juan Islands a kind of DMZ, caught in the middle of a disagreement between empires. 

The Pig War

In June of 1859 an American farmer named Lyman Cutler found a large black pig repeatedly rooting in his garden on San Juan Island. He became so upset that he shot and killed the pig. The owner of the pig, Charles Griffin, was an Irish farmer and employee of the powerful Hudson Bay Company. The two men tried to settle the dispute with money, but came to no agreement. One version of events has Cutler saying to Griffin, “It was eating my potatoes”; and Griffin replying, “It is up to you to keep your potatoes out of my pig.”

San Juan Island at the time of the Pig War

The disagreement escalated and led Griffin to demand that Cutler be arrested by British forces. This threat was answered by Americans requesting military protection. This eventually led to a standoff between nearly 500 mainland Americans and over 2,000 British soldiers in ships off San Juan Island. Both sides were under orders to defend themselves and not fire the first shot. 

As the Civil War was about to commence in South Carolina, a lesser-known war was possible in the wilds of Washington State. Thankfully, through negotiation, no shots were ever fired in “The Pig War”, but about 100 American and British forces ended up occupying opposite ends of San Juan Island for about twelve years. 

During the stalemate, ownership of the San Juans remained unresolved and both sides looked for a way to settle it amicably. They eventually turned to international arbitration, with German Emperor Wilhelm I as arbitrator. After meeting for a year, the arbitration commission sided with the United States and set the border in the Haro Strait, on the west side of the San Juan Islands.  By 1874, the San Juan Islands were indisputably American.

Map of the San Juan Islands
Today’s Border

When I look out of my office window over to Canada, I can see huge cargo ships about nine miles away, some of them over 1000 feet long. These ships arrived in the Salish Sea from the Pacific Ocean, just like George Vancouver, nearly 150 years ago. They are headed for his namesake port, Vancouver, BC, and travel exclusively in Canadian waters. American ships bound for US ports use similar lanes that head south to Seattle and Tacoma.

I like seeing the ships in the distance, even if I sometimes worry about an accident or oil spill that could impact our coast. The cities that make up our region could not have become what they are without clear shipping lanes and defined borders. The ships are a symbol of the importance of our region and two nations who found a way to work together so long ago.

The history of this far-fetched place could have been very different, if not for a hungry pig and a German Emperor. The San Juans could have become British and I might be writing from the American mainland, wishing I could be on an island, watching ships bound for a foreign port on the western horizon. 

Related:

R.I.P. Yahoo Groups

R.I.P. Yahoo Groups

Yahoo recently shared the news that, after 20 years, Yahoo! Groups is shutting down. It’s no big surprise, but seeing this news took me back to the early days of online communities and my job as an online community manager.

In 1999, I was fascinated with online communities and learned that a colleague at the company where I worked had set up an eGroups site for a small group of customers of the company. She showed me how it was working and I was so excited. I quickly started working with her on the site. Over time, I became the Online Community Manager and grew the community to have thousands of members, who were customers using the company’s software.

eGroups was bought by Yahoo! in 2000 and became Yahoo Groups. The discussion board/email list system worked most of the time for our communities, but there were bugs and issues. What I remember most was not having any way to get help or support. It was my job to make the community work and I had no one at Yahoo to ask for support. It drove me crazy. There was a Yahoo! Group set up for support issues, but it was rarely used by Yahoo employees. When they did show up, it was like a resurrection. I thought, “they live!”. But my hopes were usually dashed by them posting a message about features and not answering any questions.

We used Yahoo Groups for a couple of years before moving to Web Crossing, which was a paid and supported platform that I liked. After three years of being the online community manager, I left to start Common Craft in 2003. I felt like I had earned real experience doing a job that was about to become essential in a wide variety of companies. That was the plan for Common Craft: online community consulting.

Looking back, it’s easy to see what happened at Yahoo. Yahoo Groups was a free, popular, and well-used product that was mostly stable. But I’m sure it cost more to run than it produced with ads. To Yahoo, it was a cost center and they couldn’t afford or didn’t care enough about it to support and develop it. So, in my experience, it mostly languished and was used by people who just needed a free service and didn’t care about the issues.

Even in the context of all the frustrations with it, I’m thankful it existed when it did. It was a free resource that allowed me to cut my teeth in the online community management world and develop my own perspectives on how community technology should function.

12 Years of the BIG ENOUGH Perspective

12 Years of the BIG ENOUGH Perspective

In Big Enough, I tell the story of reaching a breaking point in 2008. Sachi and I were burned out and tired of ambiguity about where Common Craft was headed.

It was time to make a decision and start putting a plan into action. The path we chose that day was to focus all our efforts on building Common Craft around our original videos and phase out custom videos. Starting then, we placed a long- term bet that we could make Common Craft a company of our own design. We would be in the product business and earn a living based on our intellectual property.

Big Enough Chapter 6 – Designing for the Future

At the same time, I was writing a series of blog posts called “Being Lightweight” where I explained how we were thinking about Common Craft. In a post called Being Lightweight – Business Design, I shared 13 points related to a business that I would now call Big Enough. Here are a handful of those points:

Two People – We are dedicated to being a two-person company without employees. This is a fundamental constraint that guides nearly every decision. By making our size the priority, we have been forced to think hard about what is possible for two people and be prepared to focus on opportunities that work within this constraint.

Balance – We don’t believe in working 80 hours a week, 51 weeks a year so that you can vacation when you’re old.  We work more hours than most, but we’re not bashful about making sure that we live a fun, interesting, and balanced life. Lightweight businesses make this easier.

Limited Layers – Each person who handles a product on the way to the consumer adds weight and removes reward.  We look for the best ways to get our product from an idea to the customer as directly as possible.  Outside of us, Common Craft doesn’t have salespeople, distributors, marketers, or support reps.  We do it all, A-to-Z.

Supporting Two People – At the end of the day, we remember that we are two people.  Sure, our model may not enable us to dominate markets or become a Fortune 500 company, but that’s not our goal.  We need our business to support us and the life we want to live.  

Common Craft Blog: Being Lightweight – Business Design, July 2008

I provide these points as evidence that Big Enough isn’t a brainstorm, or a trend that we recently noticed. We’ve been at it for over 12 years and have stuck to the same constraints we agreed upon back then. Being lightweight and Big Enough is who we are.

Learn more about Big Enough.

Rumbling with YouTube Re-Uploaders

Rumbling with YouTube Re-Uploaders

Common Craft videos could not have become popular without YouTube. Starting in 2007, the site was our platform for sharing videos and it helped us reach millions of people. I’ll never forget uploading a new video and watching it get embedded on websites around the world.

When we uploaded our first video, RSS in Plain English, to YouTube, it took less than two days to see our first copy-cat. A guy in France created a version in French that was similar to ours and to his credit, he notified us and we said it was OK. He was inspired.

Over time, Common Craft copy-cats became common. Most of the time, they were people inspired by our work and experimenting with their own stories. We came to see it as an honor. We worked to protect our trademark and copyright, but didn’t try to prevent them from copying our style. Even today, we encourage people to use our style for their own videos. A search for “Common Craft Style” on YouTube yields thousands of results, mostly by students and teachers.

One of the side effects of using YouTube is the ease at which it’s possible to download and then re-upload a video to another account. This violates copyright law and YouTube’s terms of service. But it was difficult to stop. YouTube is full of people who steal other people’s videos and reupload them with ads so they can make money. Seeing it happen over and over was frustrating and often I would try to contact the account owner to ask them to remove our video. If they didn’t, I would have it taken down by YouTube on the basis of a copyright claim. In some cases, their accounts were suspended.

Sometimes trying to stop re-uploaders felt like I was removing a grain of sand from a beach. I could have spent weeks trying to remove the offending videos and still not have made a dent. I eventually assumed it was just part of using YouTube. This was a big reason we made commoncraft.com the home of our original videos. 

Last week, thirteen years after we started using it, YouTube released a Copyright Match Tool that sniffs out copyright violating videos and provides them in a nice list. If you choose, you can select and report them, fifty videos at a time. Finally, there was a way to know how our videos were being used on other accounts and it was surprising. 

The copyright tool found 1,164 Common Craft videos that were reuploaded to other accounts. When sorted by views, they added up to millions. The highest viewed video had 1.1 million views and others had hundreds of thousands. Many of the highest viewed videos had been edited to include a post-roll promotion for another company at the end. It was amazing and disheartening. 

As someone who makes his living on intellectual property, I’m thankful that YouTube is taking this issue seriously and providing options. When reporting a video, you can send the account a warning to remove the video in seven days, or have it taken down immediately. For now, we’re giving the accounts a chance to do the right thing before a formal takedown happens. My hope is that the tool will discourage people in the future.

More than anything else, I’m confident that we made the right decision to move away from YouTube years ago. Platform risk is real.

Watch early Common Craft videos on YouTube.

Ready for Rain: In an Instant, She Was Gone

Ready for Rain: In an Instant, She Was Gone

Dog named Piper

A new issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain, went out to subscribers recently. It’s a short, scary story about our dog Piper disappearing into the woods on a windy afternoon.

It was about 3:45 when Piper disappeared and as we searched, I started to do mental calculations. It gets dark at about 6pm, so we have a little over two hours to find her. She is used to having dinner at 5, so maybe that will bring her home. I looked at the weather and saw low temperatures in the upper thirties. These little calculations led to a series of questions I didn’t want to have to face. What if she’s not home when it gets dark? What if she’s not home when it’s time to go to bed? What about two days from now? A week? Is it too cold? Are we going to have to make signs? I imagined Sachi spending the night by the front door, waiting.

Read this issue.

Ready for Rain goes to a small group of dedicated readers and about 60% of them open each issue, which I find encouraging. I’d love to have you as a subscriber.

Ready for Rain #55: The Moment Everything Changed

Ready for Rain #55: The Moment Everything Changed

The lastest Ready for Rain newsletter was meant to fill in essential gaps regarding what events led us to today. Up to now, the readers have seen my life in real-time, with only brief references to the past. I wrote:

Over the past year, you’ve had a front-row seat to my life. You’ve seen Sachi and I start and complete projects. You’ve read about my motivations and decisions and, by now, have a pretty good sense of who I am. As our story has developed in real-time, you’ve been there.

Now that I’m shifting the newsletter to talk about the Big Enough book project, I’m feeling the need to build context and give readers a sense of what events shaped my career. There is probably no more consequential event than publishing the first Common Craft video. Our careers relate directly back to that event in 2007.

I had no idea at the time, but the moment I clicked “Publish” was the moment our lives changed in fundamental ways. From that point on, we started operating in uncharted territory.

Within minutes of RSS in Plain English hitting the web, it started to receive views and comments that flowed faster than we could read them. Bloggers around the world embedded the video on their blogs. Emails poured in. The video went viral and it felt like striking gold. We both lived in a state of shock for a few days. Despite it being poorly produced, the video was popular because it explained RSS in a way that everyone could understand. 

Here’s the video that started it all:

Ready for Rain is where I tell stories about the projects in my life. You can subscribe here.

The Surprising Origin of the Name “Orcas” Island ?⛵️

The Surprising Origin of the Name “Orcas” Island ?⛵️

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.


If I told you about an island that was known for watching cormorants and the name of the island was Cormorant Island, it would be safe to assume that the island was named after the bird that calls it home, right? How else would the name originate?

Now imagine an island known for watching orca whales named Orcas Island. Surely the name comes from the whales, right? They are in the water surrounding the island.

Female killer whales as seen from the Yurt
Female killer whales as seen from the Yurt

The name Orcas Island is even more apt if you know a bit about the orcas in the pacific northwest. Along with “transient” orcas, the Salish Sea is home to three pods of “southern resident killer whales”, which are a distinct population of whales that have been on the endangered species list since 2005.

There are currently 75 southern resident whales, who are closely watched, in part, because their numbers are at a 30 year low and may be falling.

As you might imagine, their plight is big news and I am not immune to feeling the heartbreak. This is especially true now that we live with them in our backyard. Do you remember the national news story of the mother orca who carried the lifeless body of her baby on her back for over two weeks? That’s Tahlequah a southern resident orca. After learning so much about the residents, I couldn’t watch that saga in the news.

Having orca whales in the area is one thing. Having resident whales with names and stories, is another. They feel like OUR whales and it seems entirely logical that an island could be named after them, right?

Male killer whale from the Yurt
Male killer whale from the Yurt

As it turns out, it’s all a strange and unlikely coincidence.

When we visited the San Juans before living here, I always wondered why this part of Washington bore names that sounded so Spanish. To access the islands from the Pacific, you must pass through the Strait of Juan de Fuca and sail past Port Angeles. Lopez Island is one of the San Juan Islands. These names seemed out of place among very English sounding names like Rainier, Baker, Vancouver, and Washington. Why was this the case?

Along with English explorers like George Vancouver, the Spanish were the first Europeans to explore the pacific northwest in the late 1700s and named much of what they saw. One of those Spanish explorers was Francisco de Eliza.

How explorers reached the San Juan Islands
How explorers reached the San Juan Islands

Eliza was under the command of the Viceroy of New Spain (now Mexico). The Viceroy’s full name was: Juan Vicente de Güemes Padilla Horcasitas y Aguayo, 2nd Count of Revillagigedo.

To honor the Viceroy, Eliza named the area around what is now Orcas Island “Horcasitas” and from that point on, the island was known as Horcasitas on Spanish maps.

The English, not satisfied with the Spanish version of names (or native names for that matter) eventually shortened the name to “Orcas” on their charts in 1847. The new, abbreviated name stuck and the island has been known as Orcas Island ever since.

This is why the name is such an interesting coincidence. The name of the island and the name of the whale appears to have no connection at all.

The southern resident orcas were probably swimming these waters when Orcas Island originally got its name. This begs the question: Were the whales named after the island? The short answer is no. Their name comes from their scientific classification as Orcinus Orca (1758), which references a god of the underworld.

For most of their history, they were called blackfish or killer whales because they were seen killing much larger whales. Only in the 20th century did we start calling them orca whales. For the record, orca whales are technically large dolphins.

A life-size orca in the village of Eastsound on Orcas Island
A life-size orca in the village of Eastsound on Orcas Island

And so, despite the unlikely origins of the name, there is no more pervasive symbol of Orcas Island than the orcas who live around it. They adorn everything from mailboxes and yard art to cutting boards and yoga outfits that tourists take home as remembrances.

When those visitors arrive home, they might tell stories of seeing orca whales from Orcas Island and it will all seem to make perfect sense. After all, they’re in the water.