American Camp is at the southernmost point of the island, 6 miles south of Friday Harbor, on a gentle, gently rolling road through mixed farmland bordered by bushy hedgerows.
Agriculture was first established on San Juan Island in 1853 when the British-run Hudson’s Bay Company founded the Belle Vue Sheep Farm in an effort to gain a foothold in the area. and to thwart rival American claims in the San Juan Archipelago. When the venture became profitable, Americans decided they wanted a piece of the pie too, and within five years more than a dozen American settlers had left the continent to claim grazing rights – applications deemed illegal by the British.
Tensions simmered below the surface until June 15, 1859, when an American settler named Lyman Cutlar angrily shot a pig he found feeding in his backyard. Fatefully, the offending animal belonged to the British, who were so enraged by the incident that they threatened to evict the American settlers en masse.
Undaunted, the Americans demanded military protection. Heeding the call, Captain George Pickett (who later fought for the Confederacy in the American Civil War) was sent to the island, landing with a force of 64 men near the present American camp on July 27.
The British responded by sending three warships to the area, as Pickett increased his troops to 450. Raising the stakes further, the British began conducting live drills on San Juan Island as ships, field guns and marines faced each other in a tense military position. -stopped.
Back in the peaceful present, I coasted into American Camp and paused to admire the new wood and glass visitor center. Outside, graphic panels displayed native maps and designs, while inside, images and stories explained the trajectory of the crisis from Cutlar’s fatal shooting to the brink of conflict. So how close were the two great powers to war?