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Mike Vouri: A Shot Not in the Dark: Tribune’s cannonball

  • Written by Mike Vouri

It’s not every day that you arrive at the office and find a rusty, mud-caked cannonball on your desk.


(Left): Historian Mike Vouri with a similar solid shot from the collection. The one found in 2002 was being conserved.     (Right): A curator at the former San Juan Island National Historical Park archival facility examines three solid shots in the collection. The one found near Old Town Lagoon Is in the middle.

That’s what happened in 2002 after my colleague, Park Ranger Ron Heeren, encountered a pair of teenagers lugging a 32-pound solid shot from Old Town Lagoon on Griffin Bay to the Jakle’s Lagoon parking area at American Camp. They had found it partially exposed in the root system of a Douglas fir clinging to the embankment above the shoreline, about 100 yards from the San Juan Village site. When they told Heeren they were going to take it home, he explained that removing artifacts from national parks may result in a $10,000 fine and up to five years in prison. It’s all yours, they said, the standard answer by anyone we’ve been lucky enough to catch in the act.

And I do mean lucky, especially in this case. The location of an artifact, or “provenance,” is as important as the find. The park archaeological collection, then at North Cascades National Park’s Marblemount facility, included two such solid shots. However, on my arrival here in 1995 I was disappointed to learn they had been donated by local folks who had no idea how that thing ended up in the garage. The shots could have been from anywhere.

 H.M.S. Tribune, one of 12 auxiliary steam frigates in the Royal Navy, was a tired ship by the time she arrived in Griffin Bay in July 1859. Rushed into production with green lumber 11 years before, dry rot was permeating her hull. One of her 32-pounder guns fired a solid shot into the bluff near Old Town Lagoon that remained buried until 2002. (San Juan Island NHP)

All that changed when the boys and Ranger Heeren became the first persons to lay hands on the shot since a crew member of H.M.S. Tribune eased it into the muzzle of a nine-foot gun in late July, 1859. That’s when the 31-gun steam frigate, under the command of Captain Geoffrey Phipps Hornby, arrived to treat with the company of American soldiers encamped on the opposite side of the lagoon from the Hudson’s Bay Company dock. The shot is not only tangible evidence of the ship’s presence here, it also conveys the tensions that escalated with her arrival. Here was history fleshed out, immediate and alive, not imprisoned in a book or museum.

The Americans, commanded by Captain George E. Pickett, had been ordered to the island in a wrong-headed and bellicose move to affirm American possession of the island, which had been in dispute with Great Britain since the Oregon Treaty of 1846. Hornby was to basically intimidate Pickett into leaving, and failing that, forbid the Americans to fortify or reinforce— with the caveat that he also was not to provoke violence. To Hornby, it was a tricky and foolhardy mission, freighted with potential disaster, particularly since he knew that his ship and crew were spent after nearly four years away from home.

This view looking aft on board H.M.S. Satellite, 21-gun steam corvette, offers some idea of the might of naval guns of the era. The solid shots visible in front of the midshipman at left are nearly 20 pounds heavier than the one found in the bluff on Griffin Bay. (Beinecke Library, Yale University)

At 192 feet long and 43 feet abeam, Tribune was only six years old and one of 12 propeller-driven “auxiliary frigates” in the Royal Navy. These combined low-compression steam engines for inland waters with a full ship rig for the open sea. Laid down as a 28-gun sailing frigate in 1848, her builders at Sheerness (at the mouth of the Thames River) revised the original plans in 1850 by amending the hull for the two cylinder engine and adding three more cannon, including a nasty 10-inch chase gun mounted on a revolving track on the foredeck.

Painted in the “Nelson Chequer scheme”—black with a narrow band of yellow with black gun ports running the length of the ship—Tribune was every bit the “black sea monster” described by one American on the island. And she had the war record to prove it, having shelled enemy shore batteries, captured enemy ships and launched boat assaults in the Crimea and Second Opium War in China.

Hornby took command of Tribune in Hong Kong in October 1858. On the surface the ship seemed fit enough to sail to Vancouver Island with a contingent of 164 Royal Marines ticketed to be a peace-keeping force in the colony. But on closer inspection the 34-year-old officer found serious flaws in his first command, among them an undisciplined crew and dry rot in the main mast that required shoring with iron (Hornby joked it had become more pipe than mast). There also was a weak mizzen that, once underway, Hornby himself climbed in a raging storm to furl canvas and save the ship. The storm off the north China coast was so prolonged and violent that it required 33 days to reach the safe haven of Nagasaki, Japan. As Francis Martin Norman, the third navy lieutenant aboard, was to write many years later:

“I never made so disastrous a passage... The ship laboured heavily and leaked in every seam, and we were continually employed in repairing damages to sails, ropes, and rigging...Then we always had between sixty and seventy men on the sick-list, and seven died.”

The marines were miserable passengers, crammed into limited spaces along with a crew of 330, three months’ provisions, water, coal and ammunition.

“I don’t know where all the room gets to,” Hornby wrote. “No tiers, bad storerooms, sail room, etc. I take three marine officers to sleep in my fore cabin. We shall have three or four casks between every gun on the main deck, and the Royal Marines stowed on top of them; so—as they say she is very wet at sea—they will have a jovial time of it.”

Not so jovial. The storms, the food and Hornby’s remedial floggings resulted in no less than 40 of her complement deserting when Tribune reached Vancouver Island in February. Neither did it help matters when news of a gold strike permeated the lower deck. By July, Tribune seemed squared away as shipwrights in Esquimalt had stepped a new 106-foot main mast (purchased from the sawmill at Port Gamble) and discipline had been restored. But dry rot had been detected in the stern post, which would soon require a return to England.

Griffin Bay and Old Town Lagoon then and now. The painting, c. October 1859, by James Madison Alden is the only known image of San Juan Island’s first town, San Juan Village. The ships in the harbor are (from left) H.M.S. Satellite and the U.S. Coast Survey Steamer Active. They are standing off about where Tribune (and Satellite) would have been in July 1859.

Shortly after dropping anchor, Hornby was immediately struck that Pickett, also 34, had established his camp in a straw-colored clearing at the foot of a hill that rolled gently into the bay. His trained eye at once noted the camp was neither fortified nor entrenched! He could easily sweep the hillside with his guns and drive the Americans into the woods on both sides of the clearing. He wondered at a man who would establish such a vulnerable camp, a feeling that would have been shared by Pickett’s superiors who had ordered him to place his camp in a “secure location.” This would be high ground where British guns constricted by gun ports could not reach him—not the beach.

Hornby’s orders had changed by then following a session in Victoria between Hornby’s fellow naval officers and Governor James Douglas of the Crown Colony of Vancouver Island. Now he was not to attempt to dislodge Pickett, nor prevent him from erecting fortifications, but stand by until officials in Washington and London could respond. This was more in line with British naval doctrine, which prescribed “deterrence through possession of overwhelming force, the protection of British commercial interests and the safe use of the seas.”

 This Roman Tribune of the Plebes , which rode below the bowsprit of H.M.S. Tribune, was rescued before she was broken up in 1866. Tribunes of the Plebes were champions of common people who could veto senatorial decrees. The figurehead is housed in the collection of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England.

Pickett came aboard Tribune, where the two men took one another’s measure. Pickett may have learned then that Hornby was not only the son of an admiral of the fleet, but also the maternal grandson of General John Burgoyne, who lost the Battle of Saratoga during the Revolutionary War. It is possible that Hornby knew Pickett would not shy from combat, as he was cited for bravery during the Mexican-American War. However the dialogue was opened, we do know that rather that sit idle in the bay and risk a backsliding crew Hornby strove for a quick resolution. He demanded that Pickett leave the island, as he could not guarantee that peace could be maintained. Pickett refused.

Perhaps this is when the solid shot was fired.

Hornby’s cool, yet insistent, demeanor and the frigate’s gunners at drill might have unnerved Pickett, who was likely watching from Hornby’s bridge above the wheel. A 32-pounder at 400 yards could smash deep into the bowels of an enemy vessel. No doubt the impact of the round penetrating the glacial till of the bluff also would have made a striking impression on the soldiers encamped not 200 yards away.

On landing, Pickett ordered his men to pull up stakes and move over the ridge to a new location above South Beach. The level expanse of prairie there would easily accommodate reinforcements if needed, and was less vulnerable to British cannon fire.

This is supposition, of course, based on newspaper reports of Tribune firing at the raised rocks at the tip of the peninsula and other out-of-the-way targets during her three-week stay. She had also loaded and run out her guns when the American Lieutenant Colonel Silas Casey arrived with reinforcements 10 days later.

But even if Hornby had not fired a gun that day, Pickett had already witnessed the effects of naval guns on shore positions during the Battle of Vera Cruz. Moreover, he was familiar with the other big dog in the neighborhood, H.M.S. Satellite. The 200-foot steam corvette, with 20 8-inch guns broadside and a massive 68-pounder chase gun in the bow, was the biggest in her class in the Royal Navy. Under the command of Captain James Prevost, the ship almost single-handedly enforced British laws over recalcitrant miners in 1858. And she had called at Griffin Bay only two days before, when Prevost and a British magistrate ordered Pickett off the island and threatened him with arrest if he did not comply.

When alerted by his crew of Pickett’s retrograde (along the course of today’s Pickett’s Lane), Hornby relayed the puzzling news in a letter to his wife. The American camp, he wrote, “...has been shifted from its first site to one close to the sea on the other side of the island and equally exposed to the fire of Ships, as was their original one.”

Hornby was unaware that Pickett had graduated last in his class at West Point.

A longboat from H.M.S. Satellite heads for shore toward the camp of Company D, 9th Infantry, under the command of Captain George Pickett. The date: July 27, 1859, the first day of the Pig War crisis. The watercolor was done by a midshipman aboard the Satellite. The side-wheel steamer is the U.S. Lighthouse Tender Shubrick.

Satellite indeed joined the siege, as Pickett feared, along with the survey ship, H.M.S. Plumper (12 guns) under the command of Captain George Richards, the guy who named Friday Harbor. The three commanders met with Pickett in his camp, but the only thing that was resolved was the captains’ impression that Pickett was making it up as he went. In fact, he had no idea that the islands were even in dispute. His correspondence after the meeting continued to register surprise and chagrin at the British response to his landing. He had been “WARNED OFF” [his capitals] by the Hudson’s Bay Company agent and forced to deal with three captains, though he nobly “thought it better to take the brunt of it.”

The proceedings were enough to convince Hornby, as the acting senior naval officer, to stand fast in the bay and reject Douglas’ ill-conceived idea of landing a like number of Royal Marines, an act Pickett warned he would contest. For this he would earn praise from his boss, Rear Admiral R. Lambert Baynes. While Satellite and Plumper came and went, Tribune crews went about shipboard duties, including gun drills. Some were allowed ashore where they visited with the soldiers and hordes of tourists from Victoria while the saloons and bordellos sprang up in the new San Juan Village.

Those familiar with the Pig War know that the diplomats fortunately had their way—in a few months the reinforcements and warships departed Griffin Bay. Following a peaceful 12-year joint military occupation, the islands were awarded to the United States through binding arbitration. While Pickett would go on to ruin and eventual oblivion as a Confederate officer in the American Civil War, Hornby would rise to become an admiral of the fleet and a Knight Commander of the Bath.

As for our solid shot? Call it a blessing that it was hidden from artifact hunters all those years and thanks again to Ranger Heeren for happening along and securing the find. If you’ve ever wished that a historical object could talk, here was one that unleashed 2,000 words.

For more information about the standoff: The Pig War: Standoff at Griffin Bay by Mike Vouri

Mike Vouri is a retired national park ranger and historian. He is the author of The Pig War: Standoff at Griffin Bay and four other histories about San Juan Island and the Pacific Northwest.


Last modified onSaturday, 05 September 2020 16:51

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