Islands, Empire, and a Pig

Let’s All Get Along

English Camp, San Juan Island National Park

When reading about the San Juan Islands and their history in Mike Vouri’s book The Pig War: Standoff at Griffin Bay, you see the role place and relationships have on the manner in which stories unfold.  For example, growing up in a rural community provided me with several first-hand experiences related to property disputes and they were often times linked to the challenges of animal ownership.  One summer in particular, my family came to blows with the neighboring property owner because our horses enjoyed breaking free for walkabouts.  Those troublemakers would always head to the one place we they were definitely not welcome, causing property damage and endless frustration.  As a result, resentments grew, threats were made, and relationships frayed.  However, community is important to success and whenever situations arose where old disagreements needed to be set aside, we would band together for the greater good.

The story of the Pig War flashed me back to those pervious experiences, which helped me process how the events of this particular confrontation would ultimately conclude.  Truth be told, I fully understood how a wondering British pig could almost insight war.  This tragic figure, shot by an American settler, was the catalyst event in a land dispute between the United States and Great Britain.  The question being, who had the ownership rights to a small set of Islands on the coast of the Washington territory? However, the two countries were able to stave off conflict through a lengthy joint occupation and compromise.  In the end, the pig would be the only causality of the 13-year standoff. 

1859 British Map of the San Juan Islands

Throughout the book, Vouri provides a detailed account of the ownership claims of each country tracing the history back to the early European explorers and this lesson establishes reasons why each country would value the location.  It seems some type confrontation was inevitable because of the ambiguities in the Treaty of Oregon 1846, which divided the Oregon Territory at the 49th Parallel, but did not make clear who would get the San Juan Islands.  As a result, both countries assumed that they had a rightful claim to the Islands and a collection of colorful actors would pursue their country’s nationalistic and economic interests.

A strength of the book is how Vouri introduces the main figures involved is the historical account.  For example, James Douglas, the chief factor in charge of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Northwest post at Fort Victoria.  In the early 1850s, under Douglas’ direction the first moves to establish a British claim on the region began when the company established a salmon curing station and a sheep ranch on San Juan Island. Douglas was a staunch supporter of the British claim throughout the duration of the standoff.  Similarly, the U.S. military General William S. Harney played a significant role in this narrative when he encouraged American settlers to seek protection after the pig incident.  Also, Captain George Pickett who – Vouri points out several times graduated last in his class at West Point – landed on the Island in 1859 to establish an American military presence.  Years before his infamous role in the Civil War, Pickett claimed exclusive American jurisdiction and set up a military post on the north side of San Juan Island’s Cattle Point.

George E. Pickett (1825-1875), Picture taken while serving in the Confederate States Army

Ultimately, I found that the most important feature of the book and the story of the Pig War is how Vouri connects the reader to place.  The San Juan Islands became a tangible location and I longed to see the places discussed within the text.  The Belle Vue Sheep farm and locations connected to Griffin Bay, English Camp, American Camp, and Roche Harbor were especially interesting and sites I would like to continue to learn about.  So many times, history can seem distant but knowing that these locations are within driving distance and a ferry ride way makes them seem accessible in the Pandemic world we currently live in. 

NPS Image: Belle Vue Farm: Sketch by James Madison Alden, 1858

2 Replies to “Islands, Empire, and a Pig”

  1. Enjoyed your synopsis, of the book. I think he spent more time talking about the Americans. If he spoke of the British it was short comments and usually positive.

  2. I love the perspective of comparing this dispute to your experiences on a family farm. It’s amusing, in the book, to see each side trying to justify getting so worked up about a tiny island by increasingly insisting it was of great strategic importance when really they were bringing battleships to a spat between farmers.

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