Union Jack over the USA

On May 15, 2009 · 10 Comments

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland proudly flies the Union Flag, often called the Union Jack. It retains an official or semi-official designation throughout the Commonwealth Realm. Oddly, it also flies over a tiny corner of the United States with the explicit approval of the American government.

I’m not talking about Hawaii where the Union Flag has been "cantoned in the dexter chief angle next to the point of suspension" (fancy talk for "stuck in the upper corner next to the flagpole"), although that’s a good example.

Hawaiian Flag
Flag of Hawaii

I’m not considering embassies or consulates, either. And I’m not I referring to Union Flags flown outside of various self-styled "British Pubs" scattered throughout the United States to serve a thirsty expatriate community or as a cheap marketing ploy. Really, this is not a trick question. I’m referring to an honest-to-goodness genuine Union Flag flying over sovereign American territory controlled by an agency of the United States government.

It’s all due to the Pig War.

This obscure Anglo-American disagreement had roots in a much greater dispute involving large swaths of western North America. I’ll summarize the issues surrounding the Pig War but if you would like to know more you can always go here.

The preponderance of the western land issues between Britain and the United States had been resolved peacefully by the Oregon Treaty of 1846. The parties designated the 49th parallel as their boundary from the Straight of Georgia all the way to the Rocky Mountains (this agreement also created the Point Roberts oddity). They further agreed that all of Vancouver Island, located west of the Strait of Georgia, would be recognized as British territory even those some of it fell south of the 49th parallel. That sounds amicable enough. It’s nice to see countries resolving their disputes diplomatically; a welcome change from the War of 1812 and that earlier revolution stuff.

The provisions accounting for the 49th parallel and Vancouver Island were clear. The dip in the border as it jogged south of the 49th parallel and around the southern end of Vancouver Island were not, and they became a point of serious contention. Here the treaty said the boundary should go:

…to the middle of the channel which separates the continent from Vancouver’s Island; and thence southerly through the middle of the said channel, and of Fuca’s straits to the Pacific Ocean.

Well, we’ve got a problem. This is what sits squarely in the middle of "said channel"

View Larger Map

Note that there are two channels, Haro Strait and Rosario Strait. Naturally British interests favored Rosario Strait while American interests favored Haro Strait. Both sides claimed San Juan Island and established settlements. Neither side recognizing the authority of the other and it was only a matter of time before interests clashed. The spark finally ignited in 1859 when an American settler found a pig owned by the Hudson Bay Company trespassing on his cropland and promptly shot it dead.

The situation started spiraling out of control with tit-for-tat military reinforcements. Within two months nearly five hundred American troops with 14 cannons had dug-in at San Juan Island, staring down three British warships manned by two thousand sailors and 70 mounted guns. Cooler heads prevailed once the crises rose to higher levels of government. The absurdity of armed conflict and bloodshed over a pig found people with the ability and authority to diffuse the situation. Both nations agreed to a joint military occupation of San Juan Island until final resolution.

American and English Camps
SOURCE: National Park Service

British Royal Marines arrived under terms of the agreement and established a garrison known as English Camp, sharing San Juan Island with their American counterparts on the opposite end of the island. The arrangement lasted more than a decade until an international arbitration commission ruled in favor of the Americans. The Royal Marines decamped peaceably in 1872.

But what about the flag?

Flag over English Camp
Notice the Flag
SOURCE: National Park Service

This episode is celebrated and preserved by the United States National Park Service at its San Juan Island National Historical Park. The park is split into two distinct parts, American Camp and English Camp. The Union Flag, fittingly enough and as seen in the photograph above, flies over English Camp. It is reputed to be the only place in a U.S. national park where this occurs although I’ve not been able to corroborate that independently. The flag and the flagpole were both provided by the British government as a sign of friendship.

The park will will be celebrating the sesquicentennial (150th anniversary) of the Pig War this year, on July 25-26. Pack your bags!

On May 15, 2009 · 10 Comments

10 Responses to “Union Jack over the USA”

  1. FS says:

    The Union Jack flies over the British cemetery on Ocracoke Island, NC.

    • Good catch. Yeh, the Wikipedia claim seemed a little spurious to me too, especially when I couldn’t find it on the Park’s website (lots of flag-raising ceremony photos though). I’m sure there are other example out there too. Anyone else know of any examples where the Union Flag flies over the USA in a semi-official manner? Maybe this set of comments will become the definitive list.

  2. Jim C. says:

    A variant of the Union Jack (the UK Red Ensign) also flies over Fort Michilimackinac at the tip of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula in Mackinaw City.

    You can see the flag (which flies alone over the grounds – no American flag) on Flickr here (not my shot, or Flickr account): http://www.flickr.com/photos/28081588@N03/2650986120/sizes/l/

  3. Bill Harris says:

    How about Williamsburg, VA? The Union Jack flies over the recreated capitol building.

  4. Bill Harris says:

    I’ve got a nice clear photograph of the Williamsburg capitol building with the Union Jack flying over it:


  5. Sheldon says:

    Fort Vancouver, in Vancouver Washington flies a variation of the Red Ensign also. It is the flag of the Hudson’s Bay Company. No American flags allowed hear. The site is operated by the National Park Service.

  6. Carolyn Oxenrider says:

    Years ago the British Union Jack also flew over the site of the Battle of Bloody Marsh in Glynn County, Georgia, USA.

  7. Greg says:

    You can find the Union Jack (as well as the Canadian flag) flying at equal height with the US Flag at Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial in Put-In-Bay, OH, commemorating the War of 1812 Battle of Lake Erie. Wikipedia’s article on the memorial has a nice picture.

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