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George E. Pickett’s forgotten war – and wife

Posted on Friday, January 19, 2018 at 1:13 pm

Pickett’s name is forever attached to the valiant charge of July 3, 1863 at Gettysburg. But long forgotten is an event only a few years earlier, in which his bone-headed military and diplomatic bungling nearly caused open warfare between the United States and Great Britain, which also coincided with his marriage to a Haida Indian woman, Morning Mist, and Pickett’s abandonment of their child. These are not the usual parts of Pickett’s history, but they are true and deeply documented.

In ancient Rome, war was ritually commenced by sending an emissary to the enemy’s border; he cast an iron spear into enemy territory. In the far Northwest, the tip of the spear was hothead George E. Pickett, with another hothead, William S. Harney, breathing down his neck. At that instant in history Pickett was a 34-year old captain and Harney was 59-year old brigadier general, commanding the District of Oregon. Pickett commanded the sixty-four man Company D, 9th US Infantry, camped on San Juan Island, a speck of land disputed by the United States and Great Britain. Harney hated the British with a passion, made worse by the fiery temper which had led him to beat to death his slave Hannah (she had lost his keys), and be court-martialed himself four times. The man sent to rescue them from this crisis, a crisis fuelled by the death of a single pig, was a 73-year old man, so morbidly obese and so crippled that he had to hauled with block and tackle, in an enormous basket, aboard the rescue vessel. This was of course, Winfield Scott, the hero of two wars, the commanding general of the entire US Army, and a long-time bitter enemy of William S. Harney.

What chain of events, what turns of fate, had brought these three men together in an arena so distant from the corridors of power in Washington, DC, and so far from Scott’s favorite table at Delmonico’s, New York City’s premier four-star restaurant?
Today, the Pacific Northwest is very much part of American life. Microsoft, Boeing, Costco, and Starbucks, are entities known not just nationwide, but through most of the world. Yet in the 1850s, that land of salmon and timber might as well have been on the moon. A New York traveler headed for Puget Sound had a choice: travel around the remote tip of South America, risking death by shipwreck, or cross the Isthmus of Panama on a muddy trail, risking death by yellow fever or malaria. The 1855 completion of the trans-Isthmus railway made the journey easier, but hardly lessened the mosquito’s appetite for blood. Sailing north from Panama bucked both northerly winds and south-flowing currents.

For four centuries, great nations had coveted this remote area. The empires of Russia, Spain, and England were the first, followed by the Americans, spurred by the Louisiana Purchase and the explorations of Lewis and Clark. But why? The first incentive was Spain’s China trade. Galleons sailed from Mexico to China, loaded up on silk, pearls, and porcelain, caught the Kuroshio Current off Japan, sailed north then east, often stopping at Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island to fight scurvy and starvation, then coasted south along California. At Mexico the treasures of the east joined gold robbed from the Aztecs and Incas and all were shipped back to Spain. The wealth involved was enormous. Next, the traders found that otter pelts bought in Nootka commanded astronomical prices in China.

In the early 1790s, Spanish and British ships ventured away from the coast into Puget Sound waters, and later up the Columbia River, with the Americans founding Astoria, Oregon as a trading post. The surging interest and possible conflicts stirred the United States and Great Britain to sign the Convention of 1818, which placed the vast “Oregon Country” under joint occupation. In 1846 the Oregon Treaty placed the border between the United States and British interests in the west (there was no Canada as such until 1867) at the 49th parallel. And there was the problem.

From space, it would appear that a giant bite had been taken out of the upper left corner of Oregon Country. The 49th parallel ended in a confusion of water and islands. The treaty writers, without consulting the most recent maps, or the testimony of people actually onsite, defined the boundary through Puget Sound as extending southward through “the middle of the channel which separates the continent from Vancouver’s Island.” Locals knew that there were two channels, known today as Haro Strait and Rosario Strait. The former gave the San Juan Islands to the United States; the latter did quite the opposite.

Enter the Hudson Bay Company, long known as HBC, a strange hybrid of commerce and government, as if Macy’s and the US Army had been given a territory to exploit. HBC arrived in the area in 1821 and in 1843 established a major trading post at what is now the lovely city of Victoria, British Columbia. For many years before George Pickett arrived, the HBC in the Northwest had been headed by James Douglas, who bore the official titles of Governor, Crown Colonies of Vancouver Island and British Columbia and Chief Factor of Fort Victoria, and carried in his heart the absolute conviction that the San Juan Islands were British, and always would be. The island group has three major land masses: San Juan, Orcas, and Lopez. Only the former plays a part in our drama.

In 1853, the ownership of the San Juan Island was still a matter of diplomatic dispute, but Governor Douglas unilaterally decided to colonize San Juan Island for the HBC. He established four sheep stations there, with the largest, “Belle Vue Sheep Farm,” commencing operation with over a thousand sheep and a staff of Hawaiian herdsmen. The US collector of customs declared the island to be American, and sent a bill to Douglas, with a note that the sheep would be seized if the bill remained unpaid. Events rushed onward. The HBC threatened the Americans with arrest. Pistols were brandished. Competing flags were run up. A nighttime landing stole sheep and rams in a wild melee of surfing livestock and shouting sheepherders, one of whom was now a constable. Each side sought backing from its respective government, but the round trip of a diplomatic note to and from London was a minimum of three months. However, on San Juan Island it only took American settler Lyman Cutlar one minute to shoot the Berkshire railback boar which was rooting up his potato patch. The hog was HBC property. Cutlar offered compensation. The HBC agent demanded $100, roughly $4,000 in today’s dollars. The stage was set for the Pig War, and George E. Pickett’s essay into armed diplomacy.

Although he was dead last in his West Point class, he had established an enviable record in the Mexican War, being brevetted first lieutenant for “gallant and meritorious conduct” at the battles of Contreras and Churubusco, and brevetted captain for “gallant conduct” in the battle of Chapultepec. However, there was no hero’s welcome back home. The cost and purpose of the war was hotly debated, while the pro-slavery element pushed for extending slavery into the Southwest territories, and were vigorously opposed by the abolitionists. The army had its funds slashed dramatically, and was sent out west, undermanned, underpaid, and underappreciated, to isolated and miserable posts, far from any civilization, to pacify the Indians and protect settlers. Unlike the Mexicans who lined up in battle, the Indians followed the classics of guerilla warfare, presenting neither good targets nor chances at glory. From 1848 to 1855, Pickett served in many isolated posts, each more miserable than the one before. The only break in this routine was his marriage to a social butterfly, the aristocratic Sally Minge. On November 13, 1851, she died in childbirth at Fort Gates, Texas. (The level of obstetrical care can only be guessed at; perhaps one of the illiterate laundresses served as midwife.) The fort, six miles from the present town of Gatesville, was abandoned the year after Sally’s death.

In 1855, Pickett’s life took an abrupt turn. After intense lobbying by his father, George was promoted to captain, removed from Texas, and given his own company in the 9th Regiment of Infantry, bound for the newly-formed Washington Territory. After a few months in Florida on court-martial duty, he arrived at his new home, 3,000 miles from Virginia, with orders to pacify “the hostile Indians on Puget Sound.” It was the usual story: the Indians bitterly resented their lands being overrun by white settlers. The Indians wished to exterminate the white, the whites wished to exterminate the Indians, and Army was supposed to conciliate the two factions. Thus the Yakima War, fought around what are now peaceful apple orchards. By the summer of 1856 the army had imposed relative calm, and Pickett’s company was sent to Bellingham Bay, where blood was still being shed.

The settlers were angry that the fort took land without compensation. Nearly all his troops deserted, headed for the gold mines at Fort Colville, or ended in the guardhouse for drunken escapades, or committed suicide. The Indians and the whites wanted protection from each other. Pickett, who loved the army and its rich martial tradition, felt degraded by fighting “savages” who vanished into the woods when confronted, yet he also learned the Chinook language and was enraged that that the whites broke every treaty with the native inhabitants. He soon proposed that the only solution was to use force to move every “belligerent tribe” out of the Puget Sound basin. In an official report he vowed to do everything in his power to protect the settlers, but the Indian agent at Fort Bellingham described the army’s presence there as a sham, with many soldiers shackled in the guardhouse, and military control confined to the boundaries of the fort itself.

There were a few bright moments for Pickett in this thankless environment. He and several fellow officers rowed over to Vancouver Island; Pickett returned with five gallons of distilled spirits. And there was a romance, whose details have been blurred by generations of nonsense, lack of records, and “tradition” masquerading as history. His bride, Morning Mist, was said to be Haida. If so, she may have had the traditional Haida body tattoos and lip plug. (Placed alongside the Confederate image of the tasseled and perfumed George, they would have made a striking couple). James Tilton Pickett, the issue of this union, is well-documented.

Thus far, Pickett had made no career-altering gaffe, no irretrievably calamitous decision, no regrettable and intemperate utterance. That time could soon come. But first, in June 1858, Pickett, clearly tired of life at Fort Bellingham, took a nine-month furlough, which he spent in New York and Virginia. He returned to a new and more dramatic assignment. He was to launch a military invasion of San Juan Island. This disputed geologic accident, only sixteen miles long and six miles wide, was to make and break military reputations, and bring two nations to the brink of war. This was something a company commander could not accomplish his own, but needed the push of higher authority. In Pickett’s case, that authority was Brig. Gen. William Selby Harney, military commander of the Department of Oregon. What manner of man was Harney? It depends on which biographer one consults.

Logan Uriah Reavis provides these assessments: “General Harney has in silence and heroic reserve stood for his country through all these years … hold him up to our youth now as history will hold him up in good time, as one of the chiefs of those patriots who lived not for us only, but for all mankind … physically the finest specimen of a man I ever saw … tall, straight, muscular, broad-chested and gaunt-waisted.. one of nature’s noblemen … independence and manliness of character … a nobler soldier and more perfect gentleman … the favorite of all the young officers in the army … a kindly, impetuous spirit, America has sheltered no nobler nor unselfish heart, no character more worthy of her lasting honor.”

A somewhat different view appears in the writings of E. C. Coleman. “A reputation for rashness … In the Indian wars, vigorous and often reckless pursuit of the enemy … irresponsible stupidity … without orders invaded north Mexico, lost his supply train, and suffered a defeat which boosted Mexican morale … extreme imbecility and manifest incapacity … yet another court-martial … his attack on the severely out-numbered Sioux at Ash Hollow killed all the warriors and captured seventy women and children … Harney earned the name among the Sioux of ‘The Butcher’ … an act of stupid outrage … all matter and no mind … a laughing stock … one of the weakest officers and most arrogant humbugs in the army … a cross between a pantomime villain and a puffed up pirate.”

Many of Harney’s forbears has suffered from the British during the American Revolution and Harney himself inherited a deep hatred of the British. His roots were in the South and he saw no problem with slavery. Under the political protection of Andrew Jackson, William Marcy, and James Polk, Harney saw a war with the British as a perfect trifecta: personal vengeance on the British, defeat of his nemesis Winfield Scott, and a stepping-stone to the White House.

Harney, after conferring with nearby Southern-born officers and officials, began his war. His sympathizers gathered twenty-one signatures on a petition begging protection from the Indians, who were nearly non-existent on San Juan Island or even on nearby territory. Harney provided this “protection” in Special Orders No. 72, which directed Pickett to occupy San Juan Island and included an unusual personal note: “… your disposition of the subjects coming within your supervision and action will enhance your reputation as a commander.” Pickett, now approaching middle-age, with his Mexican War glories far behind him, could hardly have overlooked this open invitation to “enhance his reputation.” Harney also arranged for the Quartermaster ship Massachusetts to be outfitted with eight thirty-two pounder cannons. Such weapons, hurling thirty-two-pound cannon balls, were absurdly mismatched with the Indians bows, arrows, and ancient firearms. Harney informed his superior, Gen. Winfield Scott, of these developments, in a letter filled with falsehoods, secure in the knowledge that weeks would pass before the letter would arrive in New York City.

On July 27, 1859, Pickett and his company of sixty-six men and three brass howitzers came ashore. That same day, Pickett posted a notice that this was American territory and under his jurisdiction. He established a tented camp on an east-facing slope quite near the sea, a site easily destroyed by any naval bombardment, a military blunder no doubt explained by Pickett’s standing in his West Point class – dead last.

Within hours the British leaned of this unilateral and high-handed coup and dispatched HMS Tribune, a steam-powered sloop, mounting thirty-one powerful cannons. This formidable vessel, skippered by Capt. Geoffrey Hornsby, RN, an experienced naval officer, soon anchored just off Pickett’s camp. Events began to assume the form of a potentially deadly Gilbert and Sullivan farce. The island now had two magistrates, one British and one American, each of whom assured the other that he was the sole legal authority. Happily, they did so in a spirit of conviviality, refusing to be drawn into the Pickett-Harney machinations.

Tensions escalated as the governor at Vancouver Island encouraged the Royal Navy to use its vast firepower and amphibious Royal Marines to oust Pickett’s troops. The Royal Navy’s professional officers, knowing that the governor had no real command power over them, and not wishing to start a war, chose judicious inaction. A few days later, Hornsby and Pickett met. Each had their own impressions of the encounter. Hornsby wrote to his wife that Pickett was a typical American, who “…seems to have just the notion they all have of getting a name by some audacious act.” He also recalled that Pickett had let slip the opinion that “… General Harney had hopes of winning the presidency.”

Pickett noted his extreme exposure to Hornsby’s guns and the next day moved his camp to another seaside spot, just as vulnerable to Hornsby’s guns as the initial site. The British were puzzled by this pointless move, not having access to Pickett’s West Point record. Pickett had written asking for help and received it in the form of Major Granville Haller, who arrived and was immediately annoyed at being placed under the command of a junior officer. But on another subject, Haller was more than annoyed; he was wildly alarmed when Pickett announced his plan of opposing any British landing with force. Such an action would of course result in the annihilation of Pickett’s force and the beginning of an international war.

(Would Pickett’s annihilation have troubled Harney? Not likely. Many of Pickett’s men were Irish immigrants. Harney, who had hanged dozens of “San Patricios” during the Mexican War had only disdain for the Irish. If they were wiped out, the American newspapers would headline “American troops massacred by British,” while the Irish press would report yet another massacre of Irishmen by the hated British, stirring the always simmering pot of Irish rebellion. Pickett was simply an expendable dupe, glorious only in his own eyes. Harney had much to gain and little to lose by provoking the British to use their great firepower.)

The British then proposed a conference. In a rather disrespectful reply Pickett agreed and soon met with Captains Hornsby, Prevost, and Richards, whose ranks were the equivalent of US Army full colonels. The British noted the illegal occupation of a disputed territory. Pickett countered with the nonsense that he was on San Juan Island by orders from “my government,” whereas neither he nor Harney had any such orders. Pickett soon learned that the three British warships anchored off the island were being joined HMS Ganges, with her 167 guns and a crew of 2,000. Only a complete fool would thumb his nose at such overwhelming force, but Pickett was uniquely suited for such a role.

In this hare-brained defiance, he was fully supported by Harney, whose plan, much to his chagrin, was not working. The nefarious British had replied not with ball and grapeshot, but with forbearance and weary patience. Harney decided to up the ante. In a long letter to the Army Adjutant-General in Washington, DC, Harney described a series of “insults” and “outrages” perpetuated by the British. Added to these fabrications, Harney invoked imaginary British support for murderous Indian raids, and concluded with the note that “… the occupation of San Juan Island was … made an imperious necessity by the wanton and insulting conduct of the British authorities on Vancouver’s Island towards our citizens.”

Grasping at one last chance to start a war, Harney wrote to “The Senior Officer of the United States Navy Commanding Squadron on the Pacific Coast,” requesting the immediate assistance of the American navy in driving off the British. That commander, who had six small sloops to patrol the entire west coast, declined Harney’s request. Not only did Harney have no jurisdiction over the navy, but any such attack by the American ships would have been an act of suicide. Meanwhile local politicians, both British and American, fulminated against the lack of open warfare, ready as most politicians have been for centuries for some other than themselves to die for a Glorious Cause.

It was not long before the problem became visible on the east coast. President Buchanan, a quiet and often ineffective man, already had his hands full trying to avert the American Civil War. He waffled, claiming not have a full grasp of the San Juan Island situation, while the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Russell, opined, “It is the nature of US citizens to push themselves where they had no right to go…” The danger deepened. The French defeated the Austrians at the Battle of Solferino and could now turn their full attentions to their ancient enemy – Great Britain, and Harney had landed additional heavy artillery on San Juan Island. He was still outgunned by the British, but the contest would have been much more severe than weeks earlier. Even the spineless Buchanan could no longer avoid taking action. He dispatched the diplomatically experienced Gen. Winfield Scott to calm the situation. Buchanan’s apparent passivity covered a talent for deviousness. He himself had never uttered a word against slavery; His Secretary of State and his Secretary of War were both pro-slavery southerners. The only man in power who truly supported the Union was the country’s commanding general, Winfield Scott. What better way to solve the crisis with Britain than by sending the principal Union man to the nearly inaccessible Pacific Northwest? Two birds with one enormous stone. Scott, too, may have had an agenda: a chance to crush Harney, who had humiliated Scott during the Mexican War. A possible entrée of diplomatic success, with a side dish of vengeance.

On September 14, 1859, Buchanan requested that Scott go to the Northwest. Six days later, the old general was hoisted aboard the Star of the West and set sail for Panama, where he crossed the isthmus, and was hoisted once again upon the deck of his next ship, the steam-driven side-wheeler Northerner. On October 19 the ship crossed the perilous Columbia River bar and arrived the next day at Harney’s Fort Vancouver headquarters. (Scott was lucky to arrive at all. Only two months later, the Northerner and all aboard were crushed in the pounding surf along the Mendocino coast.)

During the night of October 20, Harney was shocked and deeply discomfited to be told that Scott’s ship was tied up just outside and that he was to report aboard the next morning to relinquish command to his superior. After a few leisurely hours of ceremonial music and displays of welcome, the two old enemies sat down to discuss matters. Harney started with a spirited defense of his actions but was cut short. Scott made it clear that he was now in command, that San Juan Island would be under joint occupation by the Americans and the British, and that Harney should seriously consider an immediate transfer to a new command in St. Louis, Missouri, two thousand miles away. Also pending were a number of court-martial sentences that the tyrannical and punctilious Harney had imposed upon most of his junior officers. Scott rescinded all these punishments.

By coincidence, Pickett had arrived at Fort Vancouver to sit on a pending court-martial. The General-in-Chief summoned Pickett, made it very clear that Harney was no longer in charge, and informed Pickett that his actions would receive the closest scrutiny. Leaving Pickett trembling for his future, and Harney fuming with suppressed rage, Scott, still on board the Northerner, set sail for Puget Sound.

There he exercised his long-admired skills at diplomatically defusing dangerous situations. He informed the British governor of his plan for joint military occupation of the island. The governor rejected that plan. In a brilliant series of exchanges, Scott outmaneuvered the British. In the final plan, all the additional artillery that Harney had imported would be removed, and that one company – no more – of American troops and one company of Royal Marines would occupy opposite ends of the island. The final selling point was the removal of Pickett, whose abrasive pronunciamentos had so annoyed the British, and his replacement by a different company under a different commander.

Scott, as in his previous diplomatic successes, made it clear that this was not a permanent solution. Such was to be determined by an international commission operating along diplomatic channels. The Americans and British could not agree on the boundaries, but they did agree to binding arbitration by Emperor Wilhelm of Germany. He in turn appointed a commission of eminent German geographers. Their final determination gave San Juan Island to the Americans, and in 1872 the Royal Marines departed, after thirteen years of a remarkably peaceful joint occupation.

Pickett’s memory lingers on in the Pacific Northwest, mostly for his role in implementing Harney’s plan to start an unnecessary war and his reputation for inflaming international relations. His better-known role in the Civil War is summarized in the somewhat uncharitable observation of the historian Allen Guelzo: “Whatever moments he could spare from self-adornment were devoted to the neglect of his duties.”

And what of Harney? In 1865, he was brevetted major general for “long and faithful service.” Post Civil War, he was, surprisingly, noted for his fair treatment of the Indians. He died in 1889.

-By Thomas P. Lowry