The Northwest Passage

Antarctica mission launch re-enacted

The North West passage

The Northwest Passage is a long-sought water route through or around the northern part of North America, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Early explorers hoped such a route would shorten voyages from Europe to Asia.

John Cabot, in 1498, and probably his son Sebastian Cabot, in 1508, were the first to search for the passage. John Davis, Martin Frobisher, and William Baffin made explorations in the next century. While in search of the passage, Henry Hudson discovered Hudson Bay in 1610.

Other explorers searched for a river system leading through North America. The St. Lawrence River-Great Lakes system was explored in the hope of finding westward links to the Pacific Ocean. Samuel Hearne’s overland trip to the Arctic Ocean, 1770–72, proved that no strait or river led from Hudson Bay to a western ocean.

As a result of the overland journeys to the Pacific by Alexander Mackenzie (1792–93) and Lewis and Clark (1804–06) it became obvious that the only location for a northwest passage would have to be in the far north of Canada.

In 1819 William Parry sailed through Lancaster Sound and Melville Sound, passing north of Victoria Island. After crossing 110° west longitude, a new record, he was forced by impassable ice to turn back.

In 1847 Sir John Franklin’s expedition found a passage south of Victoria Island, but all members died before getting any opportunity to sail through it.Robert McClure traversed the Northwest Passage from west to east during 1850–54, but not entirely by water.

His ship became ice bound at Banks Island, and he and his crew walked the remaining distance to a rescue ship.The passage was first successfully navigated by Roald Amundsen, aboard his vessel Gjöa. He entered the passage through Baffin Bay in 1903; passing by way of Franklin’s route, south of Victoria Island, he completed the passage in 1906.

The next successful trip was a 28-month journey made from west to east by Henry Larsen in his ship St. Roch , 1940–42; the return trip took 86 days. Afterward, many vessels, including United States submarines, navigated the Northwest Passage.

The discovery of oil in 1968 on Alaska’s North Slope resulted the following year in the United States oil tanker Manhattan becoming the first commercial vessel to make the voyage through the passage. The trip was made to test the feasibility of shipping oil by that route.

The possibility of using the passage for shipping touched off a dispute between the United States and Canada—the United States claiming the passage to be an international waterway, Canada claiming sovereignty over much of the route. The dispute remained unresolved through the 1990’s.

War with Canada? 

By Chuck Woodbury editor, Out West

One of America’s most unusual wars involved only one casualty — a pig — and yet it could have changed the course of history. The bizarre conflict took place on present-day San Juan Island (in Washington state) and involved American and British troops, and even warships.

The Pig War began on June 15, 1859, when an American settler named Lyman Cutlar shot and killed a trespassing pig belonging to Englishman Charles Griffin of the Hudson Bay Company. “It was eating my potatoes,” said Cutlar, who had already warned Griffin to keep his pig out his potato patch. “It is up to you to keep your potatoes out of my pig,” was Griffin’s reply.

Normally, the shooting of a pig would be a small matter, but American and British tempers were short in those days. Both the United States and England claimed the San Juan Islands; ill-defined boundary lines were to blame.When British authorities threatened to arrest pig-killer Cutlar, his fellow Americans called for U.S. military protection — which they got in the form of the 9th Infantry.

The Brits responded by dispatching three warships under the command of Capt. Geoffrey Hornby.Forces on both sides grew, but guns remained silent. A month passed without incident. British Rear Adm. Robert L. Bayes, commander of British Naval forces in the Pacific, did his best to avoid war. He would not, he said, “involve two great nations in a war over a squabble about a pig.”Yet, the scene remained tense and potentially explosive. By August 10, American forces numbered 461; British forces numbered 2,140 with five warships.

When word reached Washington, officials were shocked that the shooting of a pig could cause such an international incident. President James Buchanan dispatched General Winfield Scott, commanding general of the U.S. Army, to investigate and hopefully contain the potentially deadly affair.Scott got both sides to agree to restrain their guns while a solution was worked out. During this time, both countries kept token forces on hand — at what are now National Historic Sites called American Camp and British Camp.

The paramount issue was who owned San Juan Island — the Americans or the British.For twelve years, including the Civil War period, the issue was debated. It wasn’t until 1872 that the question was put to a third party for a decision. On October 21, Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany declared the San Juan Islands American property; land north of the 49th parallel was Canadian, to the south it was American. A month later, British troops departed.And so ended the Pig War.

If things had gone differently — and war had actually begun, who knows what would have happened. Would the angry British have then sided with the Confederacy in the Civil War? If so, how would that have affected that war’s outcome? Would it have swung the balance of power toward the South?If so, the world would be a far different place today — and all because of a hungry pig in a potato patch.

You can learn more about the Pig War by touring San Juan National Historic Park, open year round except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years Day. Admission is free.Both American Camp and British Camp are open 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. A good first stop is at the information center at Friday Harbor, about a block from the ferry dock at First and Spring Stree


About trawlercat

Retired and now moving on from the cruising life jeeps, adventure bike, gardening, and travel. Always in search of the next great adventure!
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