Saturday, June 9, 2012

Borderlines and the Oregon Country: Whatcom County Sheriff Nearly Starts a War with Great Britain

…. the line of the boundary between the territories of the United States and those of Her Britannic Majesty shall be continued westward along the said 49th 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 said channel, and of Fuca’s Straits to the Pacific Ocean… - The Oregon Treaty of 1846 between Great Britain and the Untied States.

For the most part the dispute over the Pacific Northwest was resolved with the Oregon Treaty; however, a new dispute soon arose over just exactly how the boundary would traverse through the waters separating the main land from Vancouver Island. This dispute had some interesting twists and if one finger had been a little quick with a trigger the outcome of the US Civil War may have been a bit different.

San Juan Islands parked smack dab in the middle.
Where would you draw the border?

Between Vancouver Island and the mainland lies a broad archipelago of islands. Some of these islands had significant agricultural value at the time. While much of area of what is now northwest Washington and southeastern British Columbia was heavily forested, large swaths of the islands between the mainland and Vancouver Island were prairie and covered with grass lands. At the time of the Oregon Treaty these lands were ideal pasture land for sheep. The sheep provided wool for clothing and cloth valuable to local residences and for trading for other goods. The Hudson Bay Company already firmly established at the southeast end of Vancouver Island at present day Victoria began agricultural operations in parts of the San Juan Islands shortly after the Oregon Treaty was signed.

It should be noted that for the British citizens of the area there was strong resentment that the border was at the 49th parallel and that Britain had given over the Puget Sound region. Great Britain and the US both claimed the San Juans. It took some time for the dispute to heat up but Whatcom County played a role. The Oregon Territory was split into two territories in 1853 with Oregon Territory being the southern half and the new Washington Territory being the northern half. At that time Whatcom County covered all of northwest Washington and given that the US claimed the San Juan Islands, Whatcom County included the San Juans on the County tax roles. In 1855 Whatcom County assessed the Hudson Bay Company properties in the San Juans and when the tax was not paid foreclosed on the property and announced a sale of the land (and sheep) for tax foreclosure purposes. Of course the Hudson Bay Company ignored the position of the County. Then the Whatcom County Sheriff landed on San Juan Island at night and rounded up sheep for a midnight sale to other Whatcom citizens. They were caught doing this. It is a remarkable thing that no shots were fired and was was avoided. If war had broken out between Great Britain and the U.S. in 1855, it is hard to imagine the U.S. Civil War taking place the way it did.

A Boundary Commission was set up in 1856 to try to resolve the conflict, but the Commission meetings ended with the San Juan Islands still in dispute. England claimed the boundary was Rosario Strait on the east side of the islands and the US claimed it was Haro Strait on the west side of the islands. A last gasp compromise that offered San Juan Island as well as a few other more western islands being used by Hudson Bay Company to England was rejected by the English contingent.

With both American and Great Britain claiming the islands the conflict continued to simmer. The San Juans were a neutral zone where the law was not clear. With both English and American citizens claiming and setting up farms, the San Juan Islands were off to a lawless start. The islands were a great place to import wool through as well as other items in order to avoid duty fees. However, it did not take long for conflict to arise with the Pig War in 1859.  And unlike the conflict with the Whatcom County Sheriff, both the English and Americans had troops and gun ships aligned against one another. Remarkably the conflict was resolved without blood shed (except for the pig). A cool headed British commander declined to force the issue and no one fired the first shot. Again the trajectory of the Civil War may well have been determined by what sounds like a light funny incident at first read.

A joint military occupancy was set up in 1859 and continued through the US Civil War and to 1872. At that point Great Britain and the US agreed to send the conflict to arbitration. The powers in Washington DC and London thought better of going to war over a small set of rocky islands. An additional conflict was also in the mix with U.S. claims against Great Britain regarding Britain aiding the Confederacy during the Civil War via the building of a war ship, the Alabama. The arbitrator was Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany. Wilhelm set up a 3 person panel to hear evidence and make a recommendation. The panel listened to presentations made by the Americans and English that utilized navigational charts made by Wilkes in the 1840s and Vancouver in the 1790s to determine how to draw the line from the Strait of Georgia to the Strait of Juan de Fuca and separate Vancouver Island from the Continent.

So back to the map. In our case we have a nice satellite image. The panel had the best maps of the day, but they were a bit tougher to decipher.


Vancouver's 1798 map
So where would you draw the line? Where is the middle of the channel that separates the continent from Vancouver Island? Of course today the deabte would go a bit differently because geologists would have tesitified that Vancouver Island is now part of the North American Continent. Wilhelm's panel split 2-1 in their recommendation and Wilhelm went with majority setting the line down Haro Strait on the west side of the islands giving a future Washington State tourist mecca to the United States.

As for Whatcom County's jurisdiction over the San Juans. That ended with the clarification that the islands were part of the U.S. and a new county was formed - San Juan County. I have to wonder how things would have turned out if the night of sheep round up on San Juan Island someone got shot.

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