As soon as you board a schooner for your day cruise around the San Juan Islands, you will not only set foot on a vessel that’s part of the archipelago’s history, you will also be going on a voyage that mirrors journeys countless others have taken in the past. Though you may not be charting new waters as were 18th-century explorers, in a unique way, you will be sailing in their wake.
That’s why it’s stimulating to know some of the histories that make the San Juan Islands what they are today. With them in mind, you may find a deeper appreciation – and heightened excitement – for your one-of-a-kind day cruise.
A shared sea
Does your itinerary involve sailing to the U.S.-Canadian border? Are you planning a quick pass through British Columbia’s islands? If your answer is “yes” to either question, you’d do well to know how you’re able to sail so freely through the two countries’ shared sea.
The San Juan Islands, as you may know, is in the Salish Sea – a network of waterways that straddles southwestern Canada and the northwestern United States. Though Native Americans were the first to live in the archipelago, and Spanish explorers were the first Europeans to colonize it, British, Canadian and American settlers are responsible for shaping it.
The “Pig War”
In the mid-1800s, territorial lines between American interests off Washington State and British interpretations of border-lines off British Columbia were not quite so well defined. San Juan Island itself was a contested point, as both Americans and British Canadians settled there believing the others to be trespassers. Tensions simmered for years.
Things came to a boil when an American farmer found a British-owned pig eating his crops and shot it. When he refused to pay for the dead pig, British authorities threatened to expel all Americans from the island. Both countries deployed troops to San Juan Island, and a battle seemed imminent.
Thankfully, the generals refused to start shooting over a pig. Instead, they peacefully co-existed in their separate camps, and soon amiably socialized with each other. By any measure, a rather pleasant military confrontation. Eventually, with the help of German and Russian arbitrators, all sides agreed that San Juan Island belonged to the United States and the British would have all of Vancouver Island.
If you explore San Juan Island on foot, you’ll see the American fort and British Marine camp that testify to this curious bit of the archipelago’s history.
Naturally, there are infinitely more histories one can learn about the San Juan Islands, and many more historic isles one can see during a day cruise. The “Pig War” is just one well-known tale; let your guides tell you more.
The Pig War, NPS.gov/SAJH
The Pig War: How a Dead Hog Almost Led to War Between the US and England, TheDailyKos.com