Citing what he called the “oppressive interference of the authorities of the Hudson’s Bay Company at Victoria,” Harney ordered Capt. George Pickett, a 34-year-old, ringlethaired dandy who’d graduated last in his class at West Point before being promoted in the Mexican War (for what some deemed reckless bravery), to lead a detachment of infantrymen from Fort Bellingham, Washington, to San Juan Island. For his part, the British governor also welcomed a confrontation. He had worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company for 38 years and believed that Britain had “lost” Oregon because his commanding officer at FortVancouver, where he served as deputy, had been too welcoming of American settlers. In an 1859 dispatch to the British Foreign Office, Douglas complained that the “whole island will soon be occupied by a squatter population of American citizens if they do not receive an immediate check.”
On July 27, 1859, the steamer USS Massachusetts deposited Pickett’s 66 men on San JuanIsland, where they set up a camp on 900 square feet of windy hillside above the Hudson’s Bay Company dock.
Pickett’s orders were to protect Americans from Indians and to resist any British attempts to interfere in disputes between American settlers and the Hudson’s Bay Company personnel. But Pickett stretched his mandate. He posted a proclamation just above the loading dock, declaring the island to be U.S. property, with himself in charge. The document made clear that “no laws, other than those of the United States nor courts, except such as are held by virtue of said laws” would be recognized.
Strong words for someone whose flimsy camp was in easy range of naval guns. Sure enough, by the end of the very day on which Pickett posted the proclamation, the first guns arrived—21 of them, mounted on the deck of the British warship HMS Satellite. Acting in the absence of the Royal Navy’s commander of the Pacific, R. L. Baynes, who was making rounds in Chile, Douglas quickly sent two more British ships, including the HMS Tribune, to San JuanIsland, with orders to prevent any American reinforcements from landing.
For more than a week, American and British troops stared at each other across the water. The Tribune’s captain, Geoffrey Phipps Hornby, warned Pickett that if he did not immediately abandon his position, or at least agree to a joint occupation of the island, he risked an armed confrontation. According to one witness, Pickett retorted that, if pushed, he would “make a Bunker Hill of it,” fighting to the last man.
Privately, Pickett was less confident. In an August 3 letter to Alfred Pleasanton, adjutant to Harney, who had by then returned to FortVancouver, Pickett noted that if the British chose to land, the Americans would be “merely a mouthful” for them. “I must ask that an express [directions] be sent to me immediately on my future guidance,” he wrote. “I do not think there are any moments to waste.”
Captain Hornby relayed Douglas’ threats to Pickett throughout July and August, but fearing an outbreak of a larger war, he refused to follow the governor’s order to land his Royal Marines and jointly occupy the island. (Although nominally under the civilian Douglas’ command, Hornby had to answer directly to Admiral Baynes, and British Royal Navy officers at the time had wide discretion in deciding whether to initiate hostilities.) Hornby’s gamble paid off. “Tut, tut, no, no, the damn fools,” Baynes reportedly said of Douglas’ order to land troops, when, returning to the area August 5, he at last learned what had been going on in his absence.
In the meantime, the American detachment had managed to fortify its camp with men, artillery and supplies. By late August, the Americans counted 15 officers and 424 enlisted men, still vastly outnumbered by the British but now in a position to inflict significant damage on Hornby’s five ships and the nearly 2,000 men who manned them.
In those days before transcontinental telegraphs and railroads, the news of the fracas on the island did not reach Washington and London until September. Neither capital wanted to see the dispute mushroom into armed conflict. Alarmed by Harney’s aggressive occupation, President James Buchanan—who had negotiated the Treaty of Oregon when he was secretary of state—immediately dispatched one of his most gifted diplomats and battlefield generals, Winfield Scott, to resolve the matter.
Scott was familiar with Harney’s hot temper, having been involved in two of the general’s courts-martial. After Scott finally reached the West Coast in late October 1859, he ordered all but a single company of U.S. troops off the island and negotiated a deal with Douglas permitting joint military occupation of the island until boundary surveys were complete. As Scott sailed home in November, all but one of the British warships withdrew. At Scott’s recommendation, Harney was eventually removed from his command.