San Juan Island National Historical Park

American Camp

Photo of parade ground and officer's quarters of the American Camp
Parade ground and officer's quarters of the American Camp
National Park Service

Quick Facts

Location:
San Juan Island, WA
Significance:
Site of 1859 boundary dispute between U.S. and Great Britain
Designation:
National Park, National Register of Historic Places, National Historic Landmark

Following the Pig War, Great Britain and the United States in 1859 agreed to a joint occupation of San Juan Island until the water boundary between the two nations could be settled, with camps located on opposite ends of the island.

American Camp began on a grassy slope about 200 yards from the shoreline of Griffin Bay, where Capt. George E. Pickett and Company D, 9th U.S. Infantry landed on July 27, 1859, establishing an American military presence on San Juan Island that lasted 14 years.

Pickett changed locations five days later perhaps in a quest for level ground though more likely because of his proximity to the British naval guns. Shortly after he arrived on August 10, Lt. Col. Silas Casey ordered his growing force (now 450 men) to relocate to the north slope of the ridge just north of the Hudson's Bay Company barns. To supplement the clapboard hospital, barracks, laundress and officers quarters Pickett had brought in, Casey ordered Sibley tents shipped in from Fort Steilacoom. The veteran colonel also ordered Corps of Engineers 2nd Lt. Henry Martyn Robert - later to achieve fame for his Rules of Order - to start work on an earthen fortification on the ridge top east of the new camp with a commanding view of both strait and bay.

The post served its purpose as a deterrent until November it was finally agreed to a peaceful joint occupation by a company from each nation until the boundary dispute could be resolved. Casey and the bulk of the troops departed, along with the artillery from the redoubt.

Many of the key American players in the Pig War incident, including Pickett and Casey, went on to serve in the American Civil War on both sides. Throughout the war, American Camp remained an active U.S. Army installation, garrisoned entirely by U.S. Army regulars, who rotated between Northwest Washington and the battlefields of the East.

Eight companies from four regiments manned the post through some of the most tumultuous years of American history, until the camp was disbanded on July 17, 1874. They endured isolation, bad food, worse quarters and crushing boredom. Some soldiers were willing to risk company punishment to numb themselves with the rotgut whisky of old San Juan Town; some deserted; and some even committed suicide. But most endured and by so doing contributed to the legacy of peace we celebrate today.