Before there was American or English camp, there was the Belle Vue Sheep Farm. What was once a central point of the Pig War is now no more than a vast, open field with a white flagpole.
The farm was originally established by Chief Factor of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) and Vancouver Island Governor James Douglas as a way to cement British rule over San Juan Island, which had been disputed territory between the US and Great Britain since 1846. The HBC was also seeking to diversify its economic base as the fur trade had become less profitable. Charles John Griffin chief agent of the farm arrived in 1853 with a multicultural workforce of Kanaka (Native Hawaiian), European, and Indigenous Coast Salish herdsmen--along with 1,369 sheep, and some cows, horses, and boars.
Wool was an especially vital resource in the 19th century. In a time when cotton was still an expensive luxury fabric, sheep wool made most of the clothing worn by Europeans and white Americans. Durable, warm when wet, yet breathable in hot weather, wool fabric was also a popular trade good. The thousands of sheep of the growing Bellvue farm turned grass into wool, and the HBC turned wool into money.
By 1859, there were 4,500 sheep, and the farm’s operations included cattle, oxen, horses, and hogs. Nineteen employees lived in 8 cabins and managed 80 fenced acres of cultivated land and four other sheep stations besides the main station. Griffin also directed his workers to create some of the island's first European-style roads and begin commercial fishing operations on the salmon banks adjacent to San Juan Island.
To find out more about the Kanakas and Natives who worked on the farm, listen to the audio below.
Tensions on the island began to rise as Americans came in the 1850s to settle and sometimes even to collect taxes on the disputed island. Americans squatted on lands the HBC considered their own. One of these squatters, Lyman Cutlar, found a boar belonging to the HBC rooting around in his garden and shot the pig, marking the start of the Pig War. The growing tide of American settlement, along with what Griffin called the “demoralizing” effects of whisky sellers on the employees led the HBC’s London headquarters in 1861 to order the Belle Vue Sheep Farm to cease operations as soon as possible. Griffin left in 1862, replaced by Robert Firth, a shepherd. Firth was leased the farm until 1873 when he eventually became the owner, bringing the land out of British hands for its future.