American Camp lies on the island’s southernmost point, six miles south of Friday Harbor, on a smooth and gently undulating road through mixed farmland lined with bushy hedgerows.
Farming was first established on San Juan Island in 1853 when the British-run Hudson’s Bay Company founded the Belle Vue Sheep Farm with the aim of gaining a foothold in the region and thwarting rival American claims in the San Juan archipelago. When the business became profitable, the Americans decided they too wanted a slice of the pie and, within five years, more than a dozen US settlers had sailed over from the mainland to claim grazing rights – applications the British deemed illegal.
Tensions simmered beneath the surface until 15 June 1859, when an American settler named Lyman Cutlar angrily shot a pig he found foraging in his garden. Fatefully, the offending animal belonged to the British, who were so incensed by the incident they threatened to evict American settlers en masse.
Undaunted, the Americans asked for military protection. Answering the call, Captain George Pickett (who later fought for the confederacy in the US Civil War) was dispatched to the island, landing with a 64-man force near present-day American Camp on 27 July.
The British responded by sending three warships to the area, as Pickett ratcheted up his troops to 450. Raising the stakes further, the British started conducting live drills on San Juan Island as ships, field guns and marines faced each other in a tense military stand-off.
Back in the peaceful present, I freewheeled into American Camp and paused to admire the plush new wood-and-glass visitor centre. Outside, graphic panels displayed maps and indigenous motifs, while indoors, pictures 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?