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.”
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.
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.