One-Shot War With England


By mid-August, the U.S. force on the island had swelled to nine companies, backed by eight 32-pounders. At the northern end of the island were arrayed 2,140 redcoats, including 600 Royal Marines and engineer troops, supported by five warship and 167 guns.

Meanwhile in Washington, Lord Lyons, the British minister, haunted the State Department, pleading for information. But Secretary Lewis Cass offered him only slight comfort by expressing the “regret of the President at the recent difficulties” and the hope that no serious consequences would result.

There were some who later suspected Harney, Pickett, and other pro-Southern Democrats in the Washington Territory of deliberately seeking to draw England into open conflict, with the hope of diverting their fellow Americans from the issues that threatened to provoke civil strife between North and South, and thus of helping to save the Union. According to General George B. McClellan, who served as member of an army survey mission to the Territory in the late 1850’s, the Harney-Pickett element was ready to fight the British if that could avert disunion. In the years after the Civil War, McClellan and Pickett’s widow circulated this story widely. If, however, any such conspiracy existed, the plotters left no documentary traces.

Washington finally decided that a firm hand was needed at San Juan. The Chief of Staff of the Army, seventy-three-year-old Lieutenants General Winfield Scott, was picked to dash across the continent and exert a calming influence. There was always the chance, of course, that Scott, upon his arrival, would find the opposing forces locked in combat. If such was the case, he should not “suffer the national honor to be tarnished. If we must be forced into a war by the violence of the British authorities, which is not anticipated, we shall abide the issue as best we may without apprehension as to the result.”

Fortunately, when the elderly peacemaker arrived he found the antagonists still merely glaring at one another. Giving the order to stand fast, he quickly got in touch with Governor Douglas for the purpose of arranging a withdrawal of the bulk of the troops.

Agreement did not come easily. Douglas strenuously opposed continued occupation by a single U.S. soldier, while Scott came under pressure from San Juan’s American civilians to provide a guard adequate to repel marauding Indians. Douglas, after extended negotiation, agreed to the presence of a token force.

Meanwhile, General Harney was rebuked for his hotheadedness. He was relieved and sent back to Washington.

Came the Civil War and whatever happened on San Juan Island during that period went unrecorded. The “temporary” occupation by the small detachment of U.S. troops was maintained, however, and after Appomattox the impasse persisted, once more to plague the diplomats.

Actually the British-American ownership dispute was not alone responsible for the final solution of the San Juan problem. It seemed that the American civilian authorities and the military on the island had become engaged in an acrimonious conflict over who had paramount jurisdiction. Tension reached a climax when a resentful farmer stretched a wire fence across the road leading from the army camp to the landing. The captain in command promptly ejected the man from the island, whereupon the U.S. district court ordered the captain’s arrest.


Warned by the U.S. marshal that trouble was in store unless the issue was quickly resolved, the federal government sent word that the Army should continue to be the dominant authority, lest the territorial claim against Britain be prejudiced.

This failed to cool things off. Repudiating the longstanding arrangements made by General Scott, the government of Washington Territory assumed all fiscal and judicial powers, managed to arrest an army major, and levied a staggering $5,000 fine against the offending captain. Alarmed by these developments, the Department of State hastily obtained British agreement to lay the boundary dispute before the President of Switzerland for arbitration.

But the time was not yet opportune for a compromise. In the years following the Civil War, Northern tempers still raged over the depredations of the British-built Confederate raider Alabama. Anglophobic members of Congress not only demanded huge indemnities in payment for the Alabama claims, but the surrender of all British Columbia as well. The British reacted by backing away from the boundary negotiations with great rapidity.

By 1871, however, the atmosphere seemed ripe for another try. As British and American diplomats came together to settle the Alabama claims and other outstanding matters, the dog-eared problem of the San Juan boundary was quietly handed to Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany to arbitrate.

On October 21, 1872, “Authenticated by our autographic signature and the impression of the imperial great seal,” the Kaiser’s decision, based on a fat volume of documentary evidence, placed the final border to the west of San Juan, upholding the United States claim.