San Juan Island National Historic Park

History | American Camp | English Camp | Formal Garden

American Camp

The officers quarters at the turn of the 19th century and today


American Camp really began on a grassy slope about 200 yards from the shoreline of Griffin Bay. That’s where Captain George E. Pickett and Company D, 9th Infantry  landed on July 27, 1859.  With the first tent stake, Pickett established an American military presence on San Juan Island that lasted 14 years. 

The Virginian changed locations after only three days,  perhaps in a quest for level ground but more likely because of the British naval guns looking down his throat. It wasn’t until the August 10 arrival of reinforcements under command of Lieutenant Colonel Silas Casey that the post found its permanent home. Casey decided to move after two stormy nights at Pickett’s second camp.  Casey was not impressed with the new site. "We are encamped in rather exposed situation with regard to the wind, being at the entrance of the Straits of Fuca. The weather at times is already quite inclement." 

On August 22,  Casey ordered his growing force (now 450  men) to pull up stakes and relocate to the north slope of the ridge just north of the Hudson’s Bay Company barns — once home to the pig that strayed and started the whole mess two months before. Casey ordered large, conical Sibley tents shipped from Fort Steilacoom to the new site which Casey deemed, "a very good position for an entrenched camp."  The tents would supplement the clapboard buildings Pickett had already shipped over from Fort Bellingham, among these the hospital,  barracks, laundress and officers quarters. The veteran colonel also ordered Corps of Engineers Second Lieutenant Henry Martyn Robert — later to achieve fame for his  Rules of Order —  to start work on a earthen fortification on the ridgetop east of the new camp with a commanding view of both strait and bay. Meanwhile the British riding at anchor in Griffin Bay were nothing short of impressed with the colonel’s enterprise.

"(Casey’s camp) is very strongly placed in the most commanding position at this end of the island, well sheltered in the rear and one side by the Forest and on the other side by a Commanding eminence," wrote Captain James Prevost, commander of the H.M.S. Satellite. As a deterrent, the post served its purpose until November when Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott and British Columbia Gov. James Douglas finally agreed to a peaceful joint occupation by a company from each nation until the boundary dispute could be resolved.  Casey and the bulk of the troops departed, along with the artillery from the redoubt. One company remained. 

And thus would the post continue through July 17, 1874. Eight companies from four regiments — all regular army and under command of 15 different officers — would man the post through some of the most tumultuous years of American history.  They endured isolation, bad food, worse quarters  and crushing boredom.  Some soldiers were willing to risk company punishment — such as carrying a 40-pound log around the post all day — to numb themselves with the  rotgut whisky of old San Juan Town.  Some committed suicide.  Some took "French leave" (deserted).  But most endured and  by so doing contributed to the legacy of peace we celebrate today. 

Lack of funds and pure neglect at times insured that American Camp changed little over 14 years.  At top, is a contemporary photograph of the camp as it looked about 1863.  Most of the buildings, including the blockhouse, were shipped over from Fort Bellingham by George Pickett.  At bottom left is the hospital Pickett first erected at Spring Camp, then moved to the new camp in August 1859.  The Fort Bellingham structures, and the buildings constructed on site over the years, did not hold up well.  In fact, conditions grew so bad that by 1867 the post commander begged for a new barracks roof.  The original  roof had been constructed of green lumber and “it has now become rotten — almost uninhabitable, and irreparable.” The officers didn’t have it  any better.  The two  middle structures in officers’ row (in top camp photo) were “shells, battered on the inside, and owing to the exposed position of the garrison, extremely uncomfortable and cold.” One commander was “compelled to allow the carpenters to sleep in the carpenter shop and stable hands in the stables.” The Secretary of War denied all requests for improvements.




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