San Juan Island National Historic Park

History | American Camp | English Camp | Formal Garden



San Juan Island NHP commemorates the peaceful resolution of the 19th century boundary dispute between Great Britain and the United States over the Oregon Country. The crisis on San Juan Island -- which both nations claimed -- ignited when on June 15, 1859, an American farmer shot a British-owned pig. Soon the U.S. Army and Royal Navy were at gunpoint. However, officials on both sides quickly restored calm and the nations agreed to a military joint occupation of the island until the boundary dispute could be resolved. The American soldiers and British Royal Marines remained for 12 years until Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany, as arbitrator, awarded the islands to the United States. San Juan Island National Historical Park is an excellent place to hike, picnic and view wildlife. From soaring eagles and hawks, to river otters, red fox, black-tailed deer, and European rabbits, the park supports a rich diversity of flora and fauna. Just offshore at American Camp you may see whales, porpoises, seals, and sea lions as well. Situated on the Pacific Flyway, the San Juan Islands and the surrounding saltwater provide a stopover for many birds, both marine and terrestrial. More than 200 species may be found here all or part of each year. 


Park Information

Hours/Seasons:  Grounds at American and English camps are open from dawn to 11:00 p.m., throughout the year. Winter hours (October-May): American Camp visitor center open 8:30-4:30, Thursday-Sunday; Friday Harbor visitor center, 8:30-4:30, Monday-Friday. Summer (June-September): American Camp, English Camp and Friday Harbor visitor centers open 8:30-5:00 daily.

Directions:  Take Interstate-5 north to Washington State Route 20 West to Anacortes; follow the Washington State Ferry signs in Anacortes 6 miles to the ferry dock.

Fees:  No fees

Weather:  Summer is sunny with scattered showers; high-low 85-62 degrees F.; shorts or trousers, T-shirt, hat, and sunscreen; bring a raincoat. Winter is cloudy and cold; high-low 45-20 degrees F.; wear coat (and raincoat) and hat.


The "Pig War," as the confrontation on San Juan Island came to be called, had its origin in the Anglo-American dispute over possession of the Oregon Country, that vast expanse of land consisting of the present states of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, parts of Montana and Wyoming, and the Province of British Columbia. 

An Anglo-American agreement of 1818 had provided for joint occupation of the Oregon Country, but by 1845 both parties had grown discontented with this arrangement. The British, determined to resist the tide of American migration sweeping across the Rocky Mountains, argued that the Americans were trespassing on land guaranteed to Britain by earlier treaties and explorations and through trading activities of the long-established Hudson's Bay Company.  Americans considered the British presence an affront to their "manifest destiny" and rejected the idea that the great land west of the Rockies should remain under foreign influence.  Both nations blustered and threatened, but wiser counsels eventually prevailed and in June 1846 the Oregon question was resolved peacefully. 

The Oregon Treaty of 1846 gave the United States undisputed possession of the Pacific Northwest south of the 49th parallel, extending the boundary "to the middle of the channel which separates the continent from Vancouver's Island; and thence southerly through the middle of the said channel, and of Fuca's straits to the Pacific Ocean."  But while the treaty settled the larger boundary question, it created additional problems because its wording left unclear who owned San Juan Island. 

The difficulty arose over that portion of the boundary described as the "middle of the channel" separating the British colony of Vancouver's Island from the mainland.  There were actually two channels: one, Haro Strait, nearest Vancouver's Island, and another, Rosario Strait, nearer the mainland.  San Juan Island lay between the two.  Britain insisted that the boundary ran through Rosario Strait; the Americans proclaimed it lay through Haro Strait.  Thus both sides considered San Juan theirs for settlement. 

Belle Vue Farm Manager
Charles Griffin

As early as 1845 Hudson's Bay Company, based at Fort Victoria,  had posted a notice of possession on San Juan Island.  In 1850 it established a salmon-curing station there and, 3 years later, a sheep ranch called Belle Vue Farm.  About the same time, the Territorial Legislature of Oregon (which then included the present State of Washington) declared San Juan Island to be within its territorial limits, and in January 1853 incorporated it into Island County.  In March 1853, Washington Territory having been created, San Juan Island was attached to Whatcom, its northernmost county. 

By 1859 there were about 25 Americans on San Juan Island.  They were settled on redemption claims which they expected the U.S. Government to recognize as valid, but which the British considered illegal.  Neither side recognized the authority of the other.  Tempers were short and it would take little to produce a crisis. 

That crisis came on June 15, 1859, when an American settler named Lyman Cutlar shot and killed a pig belonging to the Hudson's Bay Company because it was rooting in his garden.  When British authorities threatened to arrest Cutlar, American citizens drew up a petition requesting U.S. military protection. Brigadier General William S. Harney, the anti-British commander of the Department of Oregon, responded by sending a company of the 9th U.S. Infantry under Captain George E. Pickett (of later Civil War fame) to San Juan.  Pickett's 66-man unit landed on July 27 and occupied a commanding spot near the Hudson's Bay Company wharf, just north of Belle Vue Farm. 

James Douglas

James Douglas, governor of the new Crown colony of British Columbia, was angered at the presence of American soldiers on San Juan.  He had three British warships under Captain Geoffrey Hornby sent to dislodge Pickett but with instructions to avoid an armed clash if possible.  Pickett, though overwhelmingly outnumbered, refused to withdraw.


Throughout the remaining days of July and well into August, the British force in Griffin Bay (then San Juan Harbor) continued to grow.  Captain Hornby, however, wisely refused to take any action against the Americans until the arrival of Rear Admiral Robert L. Baynes, commander of British naval forces in the Pacific.  Baynes, appalled at the situation, advised Douglas that he would not "involve two great nations in a war over a squabble about a pig." 

Meantime, Pickett had been reinforced on August 10, by 155 men under Lieutenant Colonel Silas Casey, who now assumed active command.  This meager force still seemed inadequate to face the growing concentration of British vessels and men, so Harney ordered in additional reinforcements.  By August 31, 461 Americans, protected by 14 cannons and an earthen redoubt, were opposed by five British warships mounting 167 guns and carrying 2,140 troops, including Royal Marines, artillerymen, sappers, and miners.  The general did not realize that the more than 1,500 British sailors were not armed to fight on land; that this chore was reserved for the 400 Royal Marines and Royal Engineers scattered throughout Vancouver Island and British Columbia. 

When word of the crisis reached Washington, officials there were shocked that the simple action of an irate farmer had grown into an explosive international incident.  Alarmed by the prospects, President James Buchanan sent General Winfield Scott, commanding general of the U.S. Army, to investigate and try to contain the affair.

General Winfield Scott

Through correspondence with Governor Douglas, Scott arranged for each nation to withdraw its reinforcements, leaving the island with a single company of U.S. soldiers and a British warship anchored in Griffin Bay. Unbeknownst to either Scott or Douglas, the governments in mid-September had agreed to a joint military occupation until a final settlement could be reached.  Harney was officially rebuked and afterwards reassigned for allowing the situation to get so out of hand.  Casey's soldiers were withdrawn and replaced by others under a different officer.  On March 21, 1860, British Royal Marines landed on the island's northwest coast and established on Garrison Bay what is now known as "English Camp."

San Juan Island remained under joint military occupation for the next 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.  The kaiser referred the issue to a three-man arbitration commission who met for nearly a year in Geneva.  On October 21, 1872, the commission, through the kaiser, ruled in favor of the United States, establishing the boundary line through Haro Strait.  Thus the San Juan Islands became American possessions and the final boundary between Canada and the United States was set.  On November 25, 1872, the Royal Marines withdrew from English Camp.  By July 1874, the last of the U.S. troops had left American Camp. Peace had finally come to the 49th parallel, and San Juan Island would be long remembered for a military confrontation in which the only casualty was a pig. 




For Additional Information Contact:

San Juan Island National Historic Park
P.O. Box 429
Friday Harbor, WA 98250
(360) 378-2902


For more information visit the National Park Service website