San Juan Islands Collection – Gerald Wellburn

San Juan Islands Collection – Gerald Wellburn

Read John Mackie’s article in the Vancouver Sun

“This year is the 150th anniversary of British Columbia joining Confederation on July 20, 1871.

One of the key figures the historic event was Dr. John Sebastian Helmcken of Victoria. Three months before B.C. joined Confederation, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald sent him a letter — and 150 years later, it has turned up in a private collection in the U.S.

The handwritten letter is dated March 31, 1871, and is marked “personal” and “private.” It isn’t about Confederation, but is focused on one of B.C.’s main concerns: the international boundary with the U.S.

“My dear sir,” Macdonald writes from Washington, D.C. “I have your note of the fourth instant reminding me of Point Roberts. I shall bring the matter up at a fitting season.”

He adds: “I read with great interest your interesting speech on the San Juan question, and made some use of it.”

This refers to the San Juan Islands, which had been jointly occupied by British and American garrisons since the so-called Pig War of 1859.

British North America once extended down to Fort Vancouver, across from Portland, Ore. on the Columbia River. In 1846, Britain and the U.S. signed a treaty that drew a boundary along the 49th parallel.

Britain was allowed to keep Vancouver Island, which dipped below this point, but ownership of the San Juan Islands was left unresolved. So the Hudson’s Bay Company set up farms there.

There were no big problems until June 1859, when U.S. settler Lyman Cutler got tired of a boar that was in the habit of rooting through his potato patch. Cutler took out his rifle and shot the pig dead.

But it wasn’t just any pig — it was a Hudson’s Bay Company pig. After the British tried to arrest Cutler, the Americans dispatched the steamer Massachusetts, Capt. George Pickett, and 60 American soldiers to safeguard their interests.

Read more in John Mackie’s article in the Vancouver Sun

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They were once owned by the legendary B.C. stamp and ephemera collector Gerald Wellburn, who may have purchased them at an auction of the McKenzie family estate in 1929.

Wellburn died in 1992, and his album of San Juan material is now owned by the American collector. Grant Duff estimates they will bring about $10,000 at auction, with about half from the Macdonald letter.

Read more in John Mackie’s article in the Vancouver Sun

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“Macdonald was in Washington D.C. in 1871 as one of the British negotiators for the Treaty of Washington.

“He’s the first Canadian to ever represent Canadian interests internationally,” said Grant Duff.

Alas, Macdonald didn’t seem to do much for B.C.’s interests. Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany was asked to arbitrate the San Juan question, and opted to give the island chain to the U.S. The Americans also got to keep Point Roberts, a quirky spot near Tsawwassen that is below the 49th parallel but can only be accessed by land through Canada.

Among the other items up for auction is an illustration from the Nov. 16, 1872, issue of Harper’s Weekly magazine. It shows the Kaiser handing a document labelled “San Juan” to Uncle Sam while Britain’s stocky John Bull looks on. “Great Britain’s Claim on San Juan,” meanwhile, has been thrown in the trash can.

Read more in John Mackie’s article in the Vancouver Sun

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