North from Seattle: Cruising the Briefly Embattled San Juan Islands

By Davidson, Carla | American Heritage, August-September 2004 | Go to article overview

North from Seattle: Cruising the Briefly Embattled San Juan Islands


Davidson, Carla, American Heritage


FROM A CAB HURTLING down the West Side Highway en route to Newark Airport from New York City, I spied the looming superstructures of three giant ships. They were waiting to take on their complements of 2,000 or more passengers heading for weeklong Bermuda cruises. I was traveling to the other side of the country to join the 138-passenger Yorktown Clipper and sail along the isolated, rugged coast stretching north from Seattle to Vancouver, a journey of about 219 nautical miles. I felt privileged. In today's world of ever-larger passenger ships, some now at 150,000 tons and carrying as many as 3,000 travelers, the 2,354-ton Yorktown Clipper and its like threaten to become an endangered species. Not, of course, if fans of small-ship travel have anything to say about it.

In the heart of Seattle's busy waterfront I easily spied the gleaming white Yorktown Clipper, tiny as it might be compared with the giants. Here it dominated its fellow craft--the ferries, sailboats, and kayaks that make their home here. The skyline, soaring behind the harbor and burnished by late-afternoon September light, appeared slightly unreal, a stage set of urban aspiration.

We would be putting urban behind us, at least for the first part of the five-day cruise. The ship sailed at midnight and arrived the next morning, a spectacularly sunny day, at Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. With a year-round population of 1,900, Friday Harbor is the largest town in the San Juans. The hundreds of windswept islands that make up the San Juan archipelago, between Washington State and Vancouver Island, share a U.S.--Canadian border and a history that is mostly peaceful. From the deck of a ship the view is entrancing as island after hill-topped island draws near and then gives way to the next; the air is spiced with salt and the pine and cedar that grow thickly here. Together the San Juans and Canada's Gulf Islands reach from Puget Sound to British Columbia's Inside Passage. Their Canadian and American inhabitants seem to have more in common with each other than with what islanders refer to, with a faintly dismissive tone, as the mainland, whichever side of the border they mean.

Still, the placing of boundary lines through these waters was once the big story here, culminating in the 1859 Pig War. The Joint Occupation Treaty of 1818 had opened to British and American settlers the vast Oregon Territory (covering present-day Washington, Oregon, and Idaho and parts of Montana, Wyoming, and British Columbia). Years of stewing about this arrangement resulted in the Oregon Treaty of 1846, which gave the United States all lands south of the forty-ninth parallel (Washington's northern border) but left a loophole in the way of a watery boundary vaguely referred to as "the middle of the channel."

Which channel in this braided waterway? That remained of keen interest to the British who ran the Hudson's Bay Company and to the handful of Americans settled on San Juan Island. When an American farmer shot a Hudson Bay pig, the incident came to resemble a mini version of Manifest Destiny. At the height of tension, when both countries backed up bluster with force, 461 Americans with 14 cannon faced rive British warships and 2,140 troops. Leading the Americans was Capt. George Pickett. "We will make a Bunker Hill of it," he supposedly said. (Two years later the Virginia-born Pickett resigned his commission to join the Confederate cause, and in 1863 he saw his name attached to the defeat at Gettysburg.) Before any shots were fired on San Juan Island, President Buchanan dispatched the old Mexican War hero Winfield Scott to work things out. "It would be a shocking event if ... two nations should be precipitated into a war respecting the possession of a small island," Buchanan wrote. With the resulting agreement both nations maintained a token force on the island until 1872, when Kaiser Wilhelm I, of all people, forged a final settlement. He set the boundary in a channel west of San Juan Island, thus awarding it to the United States.

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