The Women of the "Pig War" of San Juan Island
Updated: Jun 17, 2020
By D.J. Richardson
In late July 1859, the U.S. Army (on land) and the British Royal Navy (anchored offshore) faced off in a boundary dispute that has become known as the “Pig War” of San Juan Island. The standoff, which lasted four months, was the product of two events: a protracted dispute over the maritime route for the international border that followed the 49th parallel until reaching the Strait of Georgia, and the unfortunate shooting of a Hudson’s Bay Company pig by an American settler on San Juan Island. But in nearly every account that is told about these two nations sitting on the brink of war over a barely populated island, the story is about men. Male American settlers facing off against male Hudson’s Bay Company employees. Male American soldiers facing off against male Royal Navy seamen and marines. And male whiskey merchants facing off against male magistrates from both nations.
But it is also a story about women, just not a story that has ever been told in any detail. Women were few in number on the island, as they were throughout the region at that time, outside of indigenous communities. And they were rarely mentioned at all—if at all—in any documentation about the dispute. But they were there. And their untold stories would surely differ from the military aggression and bravado that is the traditional version of the story of the Pig War of San Juan Island.
The Women Who Preceded the Pig War:
The day before the American Army's Company D landed on San Juan Island, there were generally four potential categories of women on the island. The first were the wives and daughters of farm laborers at the Hudson Bay Company’s Bellevue Farm, a farm that sat on the southern peninsula of the island, but had sheep runs and cattle scattered across the island. It is unclear from the records if there were more than just a few, and the names of these women are lost in the historical record but for one. Some were Hawaiian (called “Kanakas” at the time) and followed their husbands from the Sandwich Islands (as the islands were called then) for work at Hudson’s Bay Company facilities. Others were indigenous women who married company employees, often at other posts before a reassignment to San Juan Island. There are just enough surviving records to tell us that they existed. But those same records reveal the extent to which their lives were overlooked.
U.S. cannons stood along this ridge in August of 1859, pointed at British Royal Navy warships
(usually the H.M.S. Satellite or Tribune) anchored in Griffin Bay, with their own cannons pointed at the ridge.
Charles Griffin, the manager of Bellevue Farm, kept a daily journal of the farm’s operations, consisting primarily of the weather, the tasks that the laborers performed that day, and occasional events of interest, such as a rare earthquake, a visit from a superior, or the activities of the American tax collector (Paul K. Hubbs, Jr.) who lived a hundred yards to the west. But it was also a journal that only mentioned the existence of women at the farm in three entries over the course of five years. And even then, the women were referenced as objects in sentences about the activities of the men. One departing laborer returned from Victoria to pick up his wife and children after finalizing the terms of his departure at company headquarters. Three men were kept from their duties one afternoon because they needed to build a coffin and dig a grave for the wife (unnamed) of dairyman Aleck Mcdonald. And the next day, the workers attended a funeral for the wife of Aleck Mcdonald (again, no name) before they returned to their duties, except for Aleck who was given the afternoon off. The only wife of a farm laborer during the era of the Pig War whose name survives is Rose Robillard, whose husband, Joseph, was a French-Canadian employee. Rose was Kwakiutl, suggesting that she likely met her husband during his earlier engagement at Fort Rupert. Her anglicized name survives thanks to marriage records, but her Kwakiutl name appears to be lost. They may have had as many as four sons in the 1850’s, though the repeated use of two names for the boys suggests that at least two didn't survive long. Bruce Watson’s Lives Lived West of the Divide(2010) is an excellent biographical record of company employees during that era, but the information about the identity and existence of wives and daughters is limited by the few primary sources that recorded the information.
A second category of women on the island is the wives or companions of American settlers. There were an estimated two dozen American settlers on San Juan Island before the American Army landed, although it is an estimate that seems to be based on the signatures that appear on a petition: two of which were Company farm laborers, and one of which actually lived full time in Port Townsend. It’s likely that some of these island settlers had wives, or more casual companions. And it is almost certain that these women would have been indigenous women. Their names, and even the certainty of their existence, however, have not survived in any historical records, other than a reference to an indigenous wife of Charles McKay. When Paul K. Hubbs, Jr. asked the island’s American residents (plus a few others) to sign the petition requesting U.S. Army protection, he didn’t ask any women to sign their names to the document.
The third category of women on the island before U.S. troops arrived is likely to have been Flora Amelia Ross, who left her schooling in Victoria on July 25, 1859, on a day when farm laborer Aleck Mcdonald was in Victoria. Her wedding announcement the following December describes her as a resident of “Bellevue,” and there are pioneer reminiscences that describe her as having been a nurse (her lifelong profession). Some might suggest that the Bellevue in her wedding announcement was a reference to the entire island, as some called it at that time. But Bellevue farm is the only reasonable location, as it is highly unlikely that a founding family of the colony would have permitted a seventeen year-old girl to live in sin on the island with an American settler, and equally unlikely that Reverend Cridge would have married her to Paul Hubbs in his church a few months later had she done so. And it is just as unlikely that she would have been permitted to travel to San Juan Island after the island had descended into the brink of war only a few days later. Her profession as a nurse, and the circumstances of Aleck Mcdonald’s dying wife, suggest that Flora would have traveled to the island before U.S. troops arrived, likely when Aleck Mcdonald journeyed to Victoria in late July. Such timing would also explain Hubbs’s opportunity to court Flora over the ensuing five months before their marriage. The fact that Charles Griffin didn’t bother to mention the arrival of a seventeen year-old girl in his company journal is hardly surprising, as it’s unlikely that she would have kept any of the men from their duties that day. It is particularly revealing that, despite her seven-year residence on the sparsely populated island, there do not appear to be pioneer reminiscences that remember her by name. Rather, and perhaps because the term Métis wasn’t in common use on the west coast at the time, she is variously remembered as Hubbs’ “Indian” wife, his “English” wife, his “white Canadian” wife, and his “nurse” wife. Only in modern, researched accounts is she identified as his wife, Flora Ross, from Victoria. It is a lesson quickly learned in historical research that a document's lack of reference to a woman is rarely an indication that she wasn't there.
A fourth category of women on the island is perhaps the hardest to confirm with any detail. Local indigenous communities had seasonal fishing camps, and other less-than-permanent places of occupation at various times of year. But few details from the era of the Pig War appear to have been recorded or survived. Christine Avery’s 2004 study, San Juan Island National Park: An Environmental History, includes an excellent study on the fishing, gathering and habitation practices of local indigenous peoples in the islands stretching back thousands of years, and the impact of European settlement on their way of life. Politicians in Victoria considered the island largely uninhabited at the time, as Dr. J.S. Helmcken proposed in early 1859 that the Songhees village across the harbor from Victoria be relocated to San Juan Island, most likely to permit further development of the Songhees reserve lands.
The Pig War Populates the Island:
As soon as U.S. troops landed on the island, in the early morning hours of July 27, 1859, two more categories of women soon arrived, among nearly a thousand military and civilian residents crammed into a square mile of land. The first were the wives of U.S. troops and merchants. Some of the soldiers were married, and the women whose names and presence is most documented are the wives who worked as company “laundresses.” Catherine McGeary is one whose name has survived. She followed her husband to the island and remained after peace was negotiated, when her husband was transferred to the single company that would remain on the island, in order to ensure that they would have a laundress. Merchants from each of the forts that supplied soldiers to the boundary dispute also followed their customers to the island, some of whom would have been married and perhaps had children. But the identity of their spouses are largely lost to history unless the family remained on the island.
One such couple was Lucinda and Stephen Boyce, who arrived from Victoria in the summer of 1859 to establish a saloon in the upstart village, with their business partner, John Bowker. A complaint filed the following year in U.S. District Court, to resolve an outstanding debt between Boyce and Bowker, explains that their saloon failed as soon as the U.S. military’s contingent was reduced to a single company following peace negotiations. But the Boyces remained on the island (but for a possible brief period in Victoria) and are well documented in island histories as one of the original settling families.
The last category of women is the most numerous, and the one that is mentioned most often in books and articles about the Pig War, though it is another category about which no details survive. Prostitution thrives whenever and wherever there are soldiers in large number. San Juan Island was no exception. Many tales of the Pig War recount “hundreds” of indigenous women camped on the beach, plying their trade. But that is about as much information as survives. Their names and their stories are entirely lost to history.
If given the chance, each of these women would likely have told a story of the Pig War era substantially different from the perspective and narrative that has been told by the men who stood on either side of the dispute. But none appear to have left their version behind. Flora Ross was a seventeen year-old girl living away from home, embarking on a career as a nurse while two nations stood at the brink of war, cannons for one side and targets for the other just yards from her door, and as a daughter of the builder of Fort Victoria being courted by the instigator of a military action designed to secure the island for the U.S. Meanwhile, Lucinda Boyce had raised two boys, alone, living in the miners’ tent city on the edge of Victoria while her husband pursued opportunities in the Fraser River gold rush, gave birth to a third child in the midst of a New Year’s Day winter storm, and arrived on San Juan Island during a military standoff to open a saloon with her husband amidst efforts of magistrates from both sides to shut down whiskey sales. Rose Robillard left her Kwakiutl home along the northern coast to follow her French-Canadian husband to San Juan Island, where they lived at a farm that was one of the most multi-cultural communities in the region, and struggled to raise a family, only to find her home surrounded by two colonial superpowers threatening to obliterate each other. And Catherine McGeary followed her husband into a war zone, to handwash the laundry of soldiers and raise two children under the shadow of cannons. These are the women whose names survive. The stories of every other woman on the island were as unique and compelling, but have ultimately been lost to history.
Telling any story from our past can be a fascinating and frustrating jigsaw puzzle of research. But trying to piece together the story of a woman such as the ones described in this article is far more of a challenge. Events are usually recounted in letters, journals, and newspapers from the perspective of the men who lived through them, but there is rarely any mention of the existence of the women who were also there. But as the pieces come together, it can be particularly rewarding to reveal the life of someone who has been hidden for more than a century, and see the same history through a very different pair of eyes.
In Her Own Footsteps: Flora Ross and Her Struggle for Identity and Independence in the Colonial West, will be released by Butterwort Books in September 2020.