In a classroom on San Juan Island, Washington, across the HaroStrait from Victoria, Canada, a man in uniform was showing 26 fifth graders how to load a rifle. “It looks old, but it’s a weapon of modern warfare, mass-produced in a factory in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in the mid-19th century,” said Michael Vouri, a National Park Service ranger at San Juan Island National Historical Park. “It fires .58-caliber bullets—huge lead balls—and was designed specifically to hurt and kill people. It can hit a man from five football fields away, and when it strikes bone, the bone splinters in every direction.” Silent and saucereyed, the kids craned for a better look.
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Vouri lowered the rifle and held it out for closer inspection. “This is the sort of gun that almost started a war, right here on this island, between the United States and England, in 1859,” he said.
So began another of Vouri’s retellings of the boundary dispute between the United States and Britain that threatened to pitch the two nations into their third bloody conflict in less than 100 years. Few people outside of San JuanIsland have ever heard of the Pig War—whose peaceful outcome makes it an all-too-rare example of nonviolent conflict resolution—though in 1966 the U.S. government created the San Juan Island National Historical Park to commemorate it. Vouri, a Vietnam veteran who wrote a book about the standoff, believes it holds lessons for today.
By 1859, forty-five years after the inconclusive settlement of the War of 1812, the United States and Great Britain had developed an uneasy entente. The “Anglo-American Convention” of 1818 had solidified England’s control over the eastern half of what we know today as Canada, and citizens from each nation were moving ever west across the North American continent. The convention also established the border between the United States and Britain along the 49th parallel from the Lake of the Woods, bordering what is now Minnesota, west to the Rocky Mountains. Under its terms, the two countries would jointly administer the so-called Oregon Country northwest of the Rockies for ten years. In theory, unless either nation could decisively show that it had settled the region, the treaty would be renewed.
But renewal always seemed unlikely. To the thousands of Yankee settlers and fortune seekers who poured into the Oregon Territory during the mid-19th century, this half-million-square-mile swath of land—comprising today’s Oregon, Washington, Idaho and parts of Montana, Wyoming and British Columbia—represented a promised land. The same was true for English merchants, who craved the region’s deep ports and navigable rivers as lucrative highways for trade.
For decades, the Hudson’s Bay Company, a private furtrading corporation that functioned as England’s surrogate government in the territory, had lobbied for a border that would keep the Columbia River—a crucial pipeline for pelts—in English hands. But by the 1840s, British trappers found themselves vastly outnumbered. The U.S. population had swollen from more than 5 million in 1800 to 23 million by mid-century, and a heady sense of Manifest Destiny continued to drive farmers west. “In 1840 there were 150 Americans in all of Oregon Country,” says University of Washington historian John Findlay. “By 1845 that number had jumped to 5,000, and Americans were feeling their oats.”
Tensions had peaked in 1844 when under the slogan “Fifty-four forty or fight,” Democratic presidential candidate James Polk promised to push the U.S. border almost 1,000 miles north to 40 minutes above the 54th parallel, all the way to Russia’s territory of Alaska.
But Polk, who went on to beat Kentucky Whig Henry Clay for the presidency, sent the U.S. military not north but south in 1846, into a two-year war with Mexico. That conflict ultimately expanded the United States’ southern border to include Texas, California and most of New Mexico, and it stretched the frontier army almost to the breaking point. Another war on another front hardly seemed possible. “Polk wasn’t stupid,” says Scott Kaufman, author of The Pig War: The United States, Britain, and the Balance of Power in the Pacific Northwest, 1846-72. “He wanted territory—no question. But he wasn’t prepared to go to war with Britain about it.”
England’s territorial ardor in the Oregon Country had also cooled. Fur profits in the Pacific Northwest had begun to decline, partly due to overtrapping by settlers. As a result, maintaining exclusive control of the Columbia River now seemed less important. “In 1846,” Kaufman says, “both sides thought, ‘We’ve got to cool things down. Let’s just get this treaty signed. Let’s move on.’ ”
Indeed, on June 15, 1846, the United States and Britain signed a new agreement. The Treaty of Oregon stated that the new boundary “shall be continued westward along the forty-ninth parallel of north latitude 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. . . .”