One-Shot War With England

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The following day the British warship Satellite hove into view, carrying to San Juan a special envoy with orders to bring Cutler to Victoria for trial. Cutler, still fuming, refused to surrender. Flourishing his rifle, he made it plain that he would blow the emissary’s head off rather than submit to arrest.

The commanding general of United States forces in the area at this time was Brigadier General W. S. Harney; his headquarters were at the former Hudson’s Bay Company post, Fort Vancouver. Harney, who appears to have had all the instincts of a fire horse, was already darkly suspicious of British motives in respect to San Juan Island. The presence of three ships of war in the nearby waters made him uneasy, and he accepted at face value the rumors that the English were plotting to unleash a horde of hostile Indians against the American settlers.

Harney was convinced that San Juan was an outpost of major strategic importance, not to be given up under any circumstances. In his view, the bay on the southeastern shore of the island was the best location for a naval base on the entire Pacific Coast. He was also aware of the difficulty that the English had encountered in their efforts to promote colonization of their holdings in British Columbia. With the promise of ten acres of land, the Hudson’s Bay Company had induced many families to migrate from the barren Orkney Islands north of Scotland. Through the grapevine, however, these settlers quickly learned that less than a day’s journey distant, the United States was giving away 640-acre parcels, and many realists among them coolly picked up and moved to take advantage of the better deal.

This led General Harney to include in his reports to the War Department the observation that the British were unable to colonize their holdings, being “too exacting,” and to propose that Vancouver Island, as well as San Juan, might properly be part of the U.S.

When he learned of the attempted arrest of Lyman Cutler, Harney went into a frenzy of activity to counter what he regarded as an act of aggression, as well as to remove further question as to the rightful ownership of San Juan Island and to establish a bridgehead for any future operations that might be authorized.

The U.S. Army unit nearest San Juan was Company D, 9th Infantry, stationed at Bellingham under the command of Captain George E. Pickett, who later won immortality as a Confederate general at Gettysburg. Harney ordered Pickett to San Juan without delay, alerted the rest of his command to move to Pickett’s aid, and called on the Navy to “send such force as you can render available.”

On July 27, Pickett landed on San Juan with his fifty men and pitched camp near the southeast tip of the island. He had two primary missions: to protect the inhabitants against further “outrages” by the British and to warn off the Indians. “Should these Indians appear peaceable,” he was told by Harney, “you will warn them in a quiet but firm manner to return to their own country; and in the event of any opposition being offered to your demands, you will use the most decisive methods to enforce them.”

As it turned out, the Indians steered clear of the excitement, and Captain Pickett’s full attention was reserved for the British. Their first move came in the form of a written communication from Charles Griffin—who, as a justice of the peace, was the resident authority—notifying the troops that they were on Hudson’s Bay Company property and pointedly inviting them to depart. Pickett reported “tremendous” excitement around his campsite. An estimated five hundred persons came to see the soldiers, and several who had brought their weapons with them volunteered as reinforcements.

Communications of warning, remonstrance, and protest were at this point flying back and forth at all levels of authority. But Governor Douglas’ past experience told him that he would be foolish to rely on the professional diplomats for a quick and satisfactory solution. He resolved to dislodge Pickett—if this was feasible—and to preserve the status quo if it was not. Douglas reasoned that the bigger the American forces on San Juan and the longer they were dug in, the harder it would be to drive them back to the continent.

Sending the H.M.S. Tribune on reconnaissance, the Governor soon learned that Pickett’s men were so disposed that it would require a sizable force to round them up in an orderly fashion. The Americans held a piece of ground flanked by heavy scrub growth into which they might easily scatter. Ruling out direct action against Pickett, Douglas attempted instead to prevent reinforcements from reaching him.

A succession of parleys ensued. Governor Douglas’ various representatives sought to impress Pickett that he should withdraw, but Pickett stood on his orders to remain. On August 3, after a polite but disquieting conference with the captains of all three British warships, the American commander rejected a proposal for a joint military occupation, and sent a plea for reinforcements. Receiving Pickett's message, Harney ordered five companies waiting on the mainland to charter the necessary steamers and move to San Juan Island, taking all field guns and every bit of ammunition they could muster.