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Mike Vouri: Luck of the Irish: The De Courcy Cousins and San Juan Island

  • Written by Mike Vouri

Major John Fitzroy De Courcy watched from the deck of H.M.S. Satellite as the big steam corvette rounded Cattle Point Peninsula and dropped anchor off the Hudson’s Bay Company dock on San Juan Island.

John De Courcy wearing a wide-brimmed hat sits on the log fence in this 1859 shot of Belle Vue Sheep Farm at American Camp. At far right is the American magistrate Henry Crosbie.

It was July 27, 1859 and the 38-year-old British magistrate had accepted a commission that initially required him to arrest a single American for shooting a Company boar and evict as trespassers a scatter of other Yankees who staked claims on the island. But that task was complicated by a company of United States infantry that encamped adjacent to the dock the night before. His orders from the colonial governor, James Douglas, specified that he evict all Americans from the island, which now included more than 60 soldiers, two 12-pounder mountain howitzers and a six-pounder Napoleon gun.

This was a tall order for a lone magistrate with a revolving pistol, but the governor must have figured that De Courcy, a 17-year veteran of Empire skirmishes and a Victoria police court judge, was up to the task. The so-called Pig War crisis would prove to be merely another chapter in a colorful life that culminated in his elevation to his family’s Anglo-Irish peerage. And he was not the only De Courcy to shape events on San Juan Island. His third cousin, Captain Michael De Courcy of the steam corvette H.M.S. Pylades, was also instrumental in cooling the crisis before it plunged the two nations into armed conflict. He retired an admiral and a Companion of the Bath. Not bad for two lads from the County Down.

Both John and Michael De Courcy were born Newry, County Down in today’s Northern Ireland and would have known this view of the quay

The De Courcy barony and extended family dates to 1177 when King Henry II of England overran Ireland and rewarded Sir John De Courcy of Normandy with lands in the northern and southern counties. The cousins who came to the island were both born in Newry in the County Down, which is south of Belfast. They shared a grandfather (great-grandfather), the 18th Baron Kingsale, whose sons Gerald and Michael De Courcy married sisters, thereby enriching the bloodline. All this belies an anecdote by David W. Higgins, a Victoria pioneer who devoted an entire chapter of his memoir, The Mystic Spring (1904), to the De Courcys. According to Higgins, when John Fitzroy De Courcy introduced himself as a De Courcy to his cousin Michael on the streets of Victoria, the naval officer, who was 10 years older, looked down his nose and said, “The hell you are.”

Perhaps this story had more to do with John De Courcy’s notoriety than distant kinship. He was remembered in his obituary in the Victoria Daily Colonist 30 years later as being “...tall and thin and pompous, passionate and indiscreet, and, having lost an eye in battle, his appearance was not improved thereby.” The obit was very likely written by Higgins, the founder of the newspaper, who added that the major’s “... manners were eccentric and not calculated to add to popularity.” This undoubtedly described the police court bench, where De Courcy was known to inflict heavy penalties for light offenses, which spurred the Colonist to call him “a snob and a Bashi-bazouk.”

De Courcy commanded a battalion of fierce Bashi-bazouk such as these fellows during the Crimean War. Victorians bitter with De Courcy’s police court verdicts scorned this association, as the Bashi-bazouk were internationally notorious.

The latter pejorative refers to De Courcy’s Crimean War service, during which Bashi-bazouk, or Turkish guerrilla fighters, were engaged by the British to raid behind enemy lines under the command of British officers. The plan to match the ferocity of the enemy Russian Cossacks with these raiders sporting fezzes and embroidered Bolero jackets dripping with weapons, did not disappoint. Unfortunately, they were equally as ferocious with their allies as their enemies, and soon became an international sensation. De Courcy was one of the British officers at that time, along with Victorian-era notables such as explorer Richard Francis Burton and the eccentric general of Khartoum fame, Charles “Chinese” Gordon.

Michael De Courcy’s career in the Royal Navy was more orthodox. The grandson of Vice Admiral Michael De Courcy, who fought with Lord Nelson, and son to Captain Nevinson De Courcy, he steadily progressed up the commissioned ranks, culminating in his appointment as captain of Pylades at age 48. By 1859 he was the senior captain in Victoria, second only to the Pacific Station commander, Rear Admiral R. Lambert Baynes. Consequently, he had a lot to say about the use of British naval resources in confronting the Americans, even if Douglas was an “honorary vice admiral” as colonial governor.

 John D Courcy as a young Anglo-Irish aristocrat.

Despite John De Courcy’s bad press, Douglas thought him the perfect man to exert his authority over San Juan Island, which had been in dispute with the Americans since the signing of the Treaty of Oregon in 1846. To his mind, the rapacious Yankee squatters were no more than another horde of Bashi-bazouk—and who better than De Courcy to bring them under control. As Douglas hoped, the magistrate stepped out of Satellite’s launch and boldly strode to the U.S. Army camp perimeter. However, reputation aside, De Courcy was not about to force the issue. His instructions, issued four days before, cautioned that force was only to be used as a last resort, and he was to be “most careful to avoid giving any occasion that might lead to acts of violence.”

De Courcy and the American commander, Captain George Pickett, verbally jousted for a few minutes before the magistrate ordered Pickett off the island, but the American refused to leave. Pickett sized up his opponent in a dispatch to his commanding officer, Brigadier General William S. Harney: “This Mr. (he calls himself Major) De Courcy is I think a man of some education but a little of the snobbishness inevitable with Englishmen.”

The “major” decided to forego the ridiculous act of threatening Pickett with arrest as ordered. Though hardly a Bashi-bazouk who lopped off the heads of their enemies and slung them over their saddles, Pickett was clearly not bluffing. Earlier in the day he had posted a proclamation on the beach that declared the island U.S. territory, and claimed sole jurisdiction. Moreover, De Courcy’s trained eye determined that the Royal Navy would need considerably more men and resources to carry out Douglas’s orders. He concluded that matters needed to cool, and stated as much in a note to Douglas that was dispatched to Victoria the following morning aboard Satellite.

But Douglas had no interest in talking by then, and Michael De Courcy ordered H.M.S. Tribune, a 31-gun steam frigate, to Griffin Bay under the command of Captain Geoffrey Phipps Hornby. Douglas’s orders contained a frustrating dichotomy. Hornby was to use force if necessary, but not provoke the Americans into a “collision,” according to another officer aboard Tribune when Hornby received the order.

John De Courcy could not see how this could be avoided if they carried out the order. Or so he told Hornby when Tribune dropped anchor on Saturday the 29th. If Pickett did not leave, then he would have to arrest Pickett and anyone “aiding him in resistance.” By now, “anyone” meant Pickett’s soldiers, and the Royal Navy would have to back him up. He spun a vision of Royal Marines chasing panicked farmers and soldiers through the bush once Tribune had raked Pickett’s tents with her guns. They would be fools to press the point, the major said, reiterating the need for more guns, or, better yet, a peaceful resolution to the entire issue.


Hornby immediately sent his estimation of the crisis to Douglas via the H.B.C. steamer Beaver. Burning with martial fervor, Company managers and the colonial attorney general urged the governor to send another warship along and draft a tougher warrant for the magistrate to serve. With three powerful warships on hand, “might would make right.” Douglas agreed, and ordered Captain Michael De Courcy and Pylades to San Juan “trusting that the exhibition of an overwhelming force might prevent resistance and the probable effusion of blood.”

That’s when the Royal Navy balked.

As the acting senior naval officer in Victoria, De Courcy had received his own report from Hornby. He also had spoken with Satellite Captain James Prevost, freshly arrived from the scene and very likely bearing his cousin John’s troubled views. Realizing the incident was moving into deadly ground, De Courcy, accompanied by Prevost and Captain George H. Richards of the survey ship, H.M.S. Plumper, went to the governor the evening of July 30 to urge restraint. While De Courcy had a sincere desire to avoid bloodshed, he also was moved by practical considerations. Douglas was nominally in charge as honorary vice admiral, but De Courcy still had to answer to Baynes, who was personally and professionally committed to the Royal Navy’s global policy of “deterrence...and the safe use of the seas.”

De Courcy asked Douglas for “more specific instructions,” particularly “when I was to resort to force.” The captain said he realized the islands were in dispute, but he had “very strong” reservations about the deployment of British ships against the U.S. troops and suggested “milder measures” at first. The “civil process” of Magistrate John De Courcy arresting Pickett should be abandoned, he urged. Instead, a detachment of marines could be dispatched and held at the ready. The message was clear: Douglas could issue orders, but the Royal Navy would not obey them.

Hornby was then ordered to hold fast in Griffin Bay and suggest to Pickett that an equal number of Royal Marines to his soldiers be landed. Pickett categorically refused. On hearing Pickett’s latest response, Douglas again blustered and urged action, but Hornby, taking the lead from both De Courcys, ignored the governor’s orders and politely declined. Michael De Courcy meanwhile was steaming south in Pylades with a messenger bound for England when he encountered Baynes aboard his flagship, H.M.S. Ganges, off the Washington coast. Braving rough seas in a longboat, De Courcy related all of the bizarre details of the incident to which Baynes was said to reply, “Tut, tut, no, no, the damn fools.”

The crisis was far from over, but war had been averted in the near term.

John De Courcy would remain on San Juan as the British magistrate until the Royal Marines landed on Westcott Creek (Garrison Bay) to establish their camp when the joint military occupation began in March 1860. He fades from view until the outbreak of the American Civil War when he applied directly to Secretary of State William Seward for a commission in the Union Army. Though Seward’s daughter thought De Courcy’s face looked like a “rocky beach” from apparent acne scars, and was appalled by his one bad eye, Seward arranged for a commission as colonel of the 16th Regiment of Ohio Volunteer Infantry.

(Right) John Fitzroy De Courcy, the future Ango-Irish peer who came to San Juan Island to arrest and evict American squatters and found a company of U.S. infantry.

(Left) Following the cooling of the Pig War crisis, De Courcy (right) came to the United States and was awarded a commission as a lieutenant colonel  in the Union Army. He ran afoul of his commanding officer and took an early discharge, but not before leading his troops to victory at Cumberland Gap.

De Courcy was in command of the 26th Brigade of the Army of the Ohio when he exceeded his orders and captured from the Rebels the saddle of Cumberland Gap on the Kentucky-Tennessee border. Utilizing a combination of skullduggery and hard spirits, he first fooled the Confederate commander into believing he had a larger force by switching cap badges and marching his troops hither and thither. He then sweetened the prospect of surrender by liberally distributing several barrels of whisky to the Southern officers. De Courcy’s success did not save him from being relieved of command by his immediate superior for not advising him of the action in advance. Reverting to his Victoria police court days, De Courcy arrogantly replied that as a professional officer with more than 30 years experience, including his time with the Bashi-bazouk, he didn’t need some rank amateur telling him what to do. The decision to relieve De Courcy was backed by Major General Ambrose Burnside, a notorious incompetent who lacked the creative vision to understand a successful operation that did not involve monstrous loss of life.

De Courcy was honorably discharged several months later, and went on to more soldier-of-fortune adventures in Mexico and North Africa. Then, following the death of a collateral relative in 1874, he suddenly became the 31st Baron of Kingsale, Baron Courcy and Baron Ringrove of Ireland. As it so happened his father was older than Michael’s grandfather so the peerage passed to him. This was (and remains) the premier barony of Ireland, and the oldest peerage not merged with any other dignity, according to his obituary in the London Times. However, as old as the barony might have been, it did not come with a fortune as with many Irish peerages. More than one Irish peer had been spotted waiting table, shining shoes or serving as a doorman. To make ends meet, De Courcy moved with his wife Elizabeth to the family home in Florence, Italy, where he died in 1890.

No images have been located for Captain Michael De Courcy, but here is an image of a sister ship of H.M.S. Pylades, a 21-gun steam covette.

It is unknown whether he ever again saw his cousin Michael, who rose to become a vice admiral and Commodore of the Southern Division of the Pacific Station. Michael retired an honorary admiral in 1870, and enjoyed 11 years of retirement before dying in England at 81. He left a wife and four children.

However, even if they never met again, it is likely that these two Victorians never forgot each other, particularly those days in the Northern Straits when together they urged calm and circumspection, and helped prevent a war.

For Further Reading:

The Pig War: Standoff at Griffin Bay, Outpost of Empire: The Royal Marines and the Joint Occupation of San Juan Island, Images of America: The Pig War, all by Mike Vouri; Historic Resource Study: San Juan Island National Historical Park by Erwin Thompson; 16th Ohio Volunteer Infantry website (http://www.mkwe.com/home.htm); Victoria, (B.C.), Colonist, 1859-72; National Archives of the United Kingdom of Great Britain, FO14/414, Correspondence Pertaining to San Juan Island.   



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 onWednesday, 02 December 2020 19:07

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