The First Anglo-American War

20th August 1859


23rd January 1860


Oregon territory, British Colombia, North Eastern United States.


British gain the Washington territory and the State of Maine.

American power in the West is significantly decreased.


United Kingdom, Province of Canada

United States


Queen Victoria, Captain Hornby RN, General Davison, Major Cartwright, General Smithe.

President Buchanan, Captain Pickett, Brigadier-General Harney, General Sugar, Major-General Buckle.


20,000 troops, 87 warships (May 1860)

35,000 troops (May 1860)

Casualties and Losses

2,750 casualties

5,640 casualties


In 1846 the Oregon treaty was supposed to have cleared the question of the San Juan islands. However there was still misunderstanding between Britain and America over the wording of the treaty. The Americans claimed the islands as their own, but so did the British. However, the islanders agreed to allow citizens of both countries to live together so long as no country tried to occupy and lay claim to the islands.

But in 1859 Lyman Cutlar, an American farmer who had moved onto the island, found a large black pig rooting in his garden. Cutlar was so angry that he took aim and shot the pig, killing it. It turned out that the pig was owned by an Charles Griffin, who was employed by the Hudson's Bay Company Cutlar offered $10 to compensate for the pig but Griffin was unsatisfied with this offer and demanded $100. Cutlar refused to pay this amount and so Griffin told the British authorities. When British authorities threatened to arrest Cutlar, American settlers called for military protection.

Pickett's attack

Brigadier-General William Harney, initially dispatched 66 American soldiers of the 9th Infantry under the command of Captain George Pickett to San Juan Island with orders to prevent the British from landing. Concerned that the Americans would begin to occupy San Juan Island, the British sent three warships under the command of Captain Geoffrey Hornby to counter the Americans.

The situation continued to escalate. By August 10, 1859, 461 Americans with 14 cannon were opposed by five British warships mounting 70 guns and carrying 2,140 men.


Pickett's camp with artillery (August 1859)

Until August 20, 1859 no shots had been fired. But then on 20th August the British Governor of Vancouver Island colony ordered Captain Hornby to land his Marines on San Juan island and drive the Americans out. Before Hornby could launch his attack his ship was fired upon by the American cannon on the mainland, in retaliation he ordered his five ships to fire on the positions.

By noon that day the 800 Royal Marines had landed and, along with the Naval barrage, had killed around 150 American soldiers, the remaining soldiers were routed and headed for the American mainland. The British governor appealed to the local garrison commander at Fort Henry to reinforce the Marine's position on San Juan Island.

When William Harney heard of the American defeat on San Juan island he ordered the 9th Infantry to head for Mount Vernon, Oregon territory and create a Fort there to deter the British. On 26th August 1859 President James Buchanan heard of the British attack and was outraged, he began issuing orders to mobilise troops on the west coast to prepare for a British attack.

British Assault on Oregon

Between 25th August and 10th September Captain Pickett was launching skirmishes on the British on San Juan and Vancouver Island. This was ordered by the American Brigadier-General Harney. The British were outraged by this event and ordered 25 ships under the command of Captain Hornby to fire on the small town of Seattle hoping to stop the American attack.

However, this just further angered General Harney who ordered even more attacks on the British and thus caused the British to retaliate into a landing on 20th September 1859. The British force of around 4,000 men landed in Padilla Bay and immediately came under fire from the Fort on Mount Vernon. After a short battle Fort Vernon was captured by Major Cartwright of the 4th Battalion Royal Canadian regiment. Cartwright then began to march his troops slowly South eliminating any resistance on the way.

The Americans were shocked at the out come and a force of 20,000 men were sent from the Great Lakes area to the West. The British learned of these plans and in turn sent 15,000 men to intercept the American army.

Battle of Bismarck

On 29th October 1859 the two armies in the Central United Sates met just outside Bismarck, Dakota territory. The British/Canadian force of 15,000 men was headed by General Davison and the American army of 20,000 men was headed by Major-General Buckle.

The following battle was long and bloody with almost a combined casualty total of 7,000, but the British forces under Davison were victorious and the Americans were routed with most soldiers never to be seen again. This battle allowed the British army to sweep into the western Washington territory, and led to the eventual occupation of the territory by the British.

Final stages

By November 1859 the British were effectively in control of the Washington territory.The American Generals realised this and knew if the were to win they must be prepared to open a new front where they could turn the war in their favour. They chose to send a small force of around 2,000 elite American troops into Maine and provoke the British into attack.

USA and Canada, 1860

The United States and Canada after the Treaty of Quebec, 1860. Red- Province of Canada Blue- United Sates Brown- Jointly Administered Nebraska Territory

The British fell for the American trap and on 14th December 1859 the British sent 4,000 men under the command of General Smithe into Maine to defeat the Americans. The Battle of Maine ensued and both sides had large losses but both claimed victory.

The American army claimed to have won a victory over the British as they suffered more losses, but the British used the battle as a spring board to capture Maine in late December 1859. The American General Sugar immediately reported to president Buchanan in Washington that the war was all but lost and he should sue for peace at once.

Treaty of Quebec

After the Battle of Maine the Americans asked the British for Peace. The British complied and the treaty of Quebec was signed by both nations in Quebec on 23rd January 1860. The treaty laid out the post war boundaries as follows:

  • The Province of Canada will absorb the following areas into its territories: Washington territory and the State of Maine.
  • The United States is to relinquish all control over the said territory and state by the 30th January 1860.
  • The Province of Canada will also jointly govern the Nebraska territory with the United States.

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