Officer Quarters at American Camp

The Men of American Camp and A Look at How They Lived

The lives of the Officers in American Camp was not the intense, action-packed experience we may expect for those at the site of a boundary dispute.

American Camp was constructed at a strategic location on San Juan Island that allowed the American military to watch Griffin Bay and the Strait of Juan de Fuca for incoming English Navy vessels. While good for surveillance, the location of the camp also meant that those residing there were exposed to the poor weather pervading during the winter. It was situated within fifty yards of the Belle Vue Sheep Farm, which was owned and operated by the Hudson’s Bay Company. Because of its proximity to the commercial arm of the British Empire, the location of the American Camp made it easy for tensions to escalate between citizens from both countries.

American Camp contained 35 buildings throughout its twelve-year existence on the island, not counting outhouses, and included a school, a medical building, soldiers’ barracks, officers’ quarters, store buildings, and a mess hall. Established by General George Pickett in July of 1859, many of the buildings were built from materials taken from Fort Bellingham and surrounding areas. These materials were reused because of the unwillingness of the United States government to provide funding for a military post that had no predicted long term function.

Because the Camp was considered a temporary landing, the earliest buildings were constructed quickly and with little thought to their longevity. After it became clear that the Camp was to remain longer than a few months or a year, improvements were made to provide more comfort and protect against the harsh weather. As for Officer’s Row, the buildings were uniform in design and shape, and had whitewashed walls to add an aura of cleanliness and increase light. Furniture was typical for the time period, made mainly from available materials, but imported pieces appeared on the occasion. Also, due to the limited amount of freight that the military was allowed, much of the furniture was simple and easily constructed. Folding chairs were popular, and rugs were made from Army blankets that had been sewn together. Additional furnishings were generally produced by the officers and their families.

Each of the Officers’ quarters had a fence, an outhouse, and a vegetable garden. The vegetable gardens were grown to add some flavor to the Officers’ diets, as Army rations are historically lacking in that department. Generally, meals served to the military were supposed to consist of strictly portioned meat, grain, and vegetables. However, often, this diet quickly became limited to hard tack, dehydrated vegetables, and salted pork and beef. Hard tack has notoriously been described as flavorless, as it is made from flour, salt, and water. While sustaining, it was not considered fulfilling. Because of this, Army Officers would seek out other ingredients from local orchards and gardens to make their meals more tasteful and plentiful. During the boundary dispute constituted as the Pig War, Officers tended their own gardens.

Tending gardens not only helped to expand the flavor pallet of their meals, but it helped reduce boredom for the officers. American Camp survived for twelve long years, during which time there was no active combat. They ran drills with the enlisted men, played games, and occasionally took part in celebrating American and English holidays with the English troops. These celebrations helped to reduce tensions between the opposing sides by allowing them to get to know one another on a more personal level and celebrate important events for both countries.

Officers themselves were much better off than the regular Enlisted men. Enlisted men were paid either 7 or 13 dollars a month, depending on their status, whereas Officers were paid between 25 and 75 dollars a month, also based on status. Paychecks did not always arrive as planned and many soldiers, Officers and Enlisted men alike, were rarely able to survive without credit or save any money. Also, when the country was not embedded in active combat, Officers and Enlisted men received little respect from the general public. They survived off the food and supplies provided by average civilians, were paid by the government, and seemingly did little to advance the nation. At the time, they were viewed as parasites, unlike the heroes they are often seen as today.

Discipline was an active part of the Officers’ job. They were charged with keeping Enlisted men in order, which proved to be a struggle in American Camp. Because there was no action outside of nationalistic posturing, Enlisted men often turned to alcohol and gambling to keep themselves entertained. It went so far that liquor was banned in the Camp, however, men simply visited the nearby town to get their fix. Intoxication often led to lockups in the Block House at the Camp, and tempers could flare, resulting in fights. Although more severe than drinking, desertion was also common in the Camp. Men believed they could make a better living and have more freedom doing other work, whether that was farming, hunting, or something else entirely, and it led them to desert their posts.

Towards the end of the Pig War incident, the United States was collapsing into Civil War. Men of every level were leaving their posts to fight for the Confederacy or the Union, and few were left in American Camp. The boundary dispute over the San Juan Islands was quickly ending as the country turned its attention inward, and an International Arbitration was determined to be the best course of action in deciding the outcome of the dispute. German Emperor Wilhelm I was chosen as the Arbitrator, and it was decided in 1872 that the United States would gain control over the San Juan Islands.

As the boundary dispute ended, many of the buildings in American Camp were sold to the public in an auction. The Officers’ Quarters building that can be found at the National Historic Park today was bought at auction and moved to Friday Harbor, where it was renovated and existed until 2010, once it was determined to be a historic artifact of the Pig war dispute and transferred back to its home in American Camp.