Guest Writer: Mike Vouri and the 150 Anniversary of the Pig War

Mike Vouri as Pickett

What’s in Mrs. Hale’s Receipts for the Million 1857?

Choice of Reading. Never keep  house without books. Life is not life to any great purpose where books are not.  Read on any subject connected with your own pursuits.  A good book is a safe refuge in idle hours.

June 15, 1859. San Juan Island, Pacific Northwest. An American settler named Lyman Cutlar shot and killed a pig belonging to the Hudson’s Bay Company. The boar had been rooting in his garden. From that incident two nations, Great Britain and a young United States, nearly came to blows. This summer, the San Juan Island National Historical Park will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the historic event and its peaceful resolution.

Today, I’m happy to welcome my friend Mike Vouri, Park Pig War book coverRanger/Historian at the San Juan Island National Historical Park who knows quite a bit about the Pig War and George Pickett of Gettysburg fame, who was in the thick of the incident.  In addition to his duties in the park, Mike is a historian, actor, playwright and writer of several books on George Pickett, the Pig War and San Juan Island.

Mike, you began your career as a journalist. What led you to history and in particular to George Pickett and the stories around the Pig War? How did you end up at the national park?

After years as a journalist, including nine in the Air Force, I got interested in history and went back to school for it.  I worked as a reporter for the Skagit Argus and the Bellingham Herald and eventually became the public affairs person for the Whatcom Museum in Bellingham, Washington. I was there for six years. During that time I curated a couple of exhibits. One of them was George Pickett and the Frontier Army Experience.

At first I wasn’t too keen about it, but as I learned more I found that there was tremendous interest in the man. (note: George Pickett was stationed at Fort Bellingham in present-day Bellingham Washington from 1856-1859 before going to San Juan Island at the start of the Pig War) The show ran from October 1994 to April 1995 and had a number of important objects in it, including two battle flags, Pickett’s sabre and reenacting uniforms. In preparing for the exhibit, I came in contact with Richard Seltzer, considered the top researcher on George  E. Pickett. His book, Faithfully and Forever Yours documents Pickett’s activities on the east coast.  He’s gone on to write more, but at the time, Seltzer knew little about Pickett’s role out here.  I showed him that while he helped me locate sources, objects and contacts. We have become good friends and the show was a great success.

In 1995, you moved to San Juan Island to become a ranger at San Juan Island National Historical Park. Not long after you researched and wrote the popular one-man show Life and Times of General George Pickett. Folksinger Michael Cohen matched the emotional tone of the play with period songs as well provide a supporting role. How did it start?

Originally, it was three hours long.  After its first performance in Friday Harbor,  San Juan Island, I decided to knock the first act down after being advised to make it funny and sad.

It’s a wonderful play. I’ve seen it four times now, one for our Save Our History grant in Bellingham WA in 2007.

It will be performed this summer for the last time on July 10 in Friday Harbor and at Fort Vancouver, Vancouver, Washington — time to be announced.  I’m retiring it.

You have been a pretty prolific writer in the past few years. In addition to a book on George Pickett in the Northwest, there is the OUTPOST OF THE EMPIRE, a book on the Royal Marine encampment on San Juan Island which came out in 2004.  And you published a history of FRIDAY HARBOR with your wife Julia Vouri a couple of months ago.

What I would like to talk about is your book THE PIG WAR which came out in 2008. This is the most comprehensive account of the Pig War with never before published pictures from both military camps.  Pictures include those from the Delacombe family whose ancestor, Captain William Delacombe, commanded the royal marine camp from 1867 on. How did that come about?

Pure serendipity. Got an email out of the blue from the wife of the great- grandson of Delacombe. They couldn’t travel from England so they sent me  a CD with pictures from Captain Delacombe’s family album . I learned a lot about the royal marine site from the pictures. There is a view of the hill behind the encampment taken from Guss Island. And we confirmed that there was a long boat at the camp.

There are also wonderful pictures of American Camp after it closed and a painting done by a British midshipman onboard the Satellite showing Pickett’s first camp.

Arcadia Publishing requires a large volume of photographs. Your interview in the San Juan Journal says that there are 190 photos in the book. I remember you telling me that you were a bit surprised by that and had to drop some text to meet their specifications. i.e. more pictures, a lot less text.  How did you reconcile that? Did text translate to caption?

As Arcadia books are image driven with limited space for text (that is, only 350 words per chapter) it is critical to sustain the narrative with captions. Therefore, they cannot be repetitive. Each is composed anew.

I thought the book  moves very smoothly. The pictures are wonderful.  I learned some new things myself.  Amazing that  some building from both camps were preserved at all.

The Pig War is a real historical event and this summer will be the 150th anniversary. For the past eleven years, the park has presented English Encampment, a celebration of the peaceful occupation of the island by American and British military. Re-enactors come from here and Canada. Tell us what your plans are for this important celebration.

We are expecting a large turn out of reenactors from the US and Canada. One thing we are excited about is the participation of the Lady Washington and Hawaiian Chieftain. They will participate for the first time. Visitors will be able to book a three hour trip on each ship on Sunday. They will anchor off English Camp during the weekend event.

There are other talks and events during the whole summer.

Yes.  Check the park’s calendar.

Thanks, Mike. I’ll see you all soon under my favorite Big Leaf maple.

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