The Pig War

Undeniably one of the most obscure and unusual ‘wars’ in history, this is the story of how the killing of an escaped pig almost caused a war between the United States and Britain.

‘The Pig War’ is perhaps one of the most obscure and unusual wars in history. The story begins back in 1846 when the Oregon Treaty was signed between the US and Britain. The treaty aimed to put to rest a long standing border dispute between the US and British North America (later to be Canada), specifically relating to the land between the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific coastline.

The Oregon Treaty stated that the US / British American border be drawn at the 49th parallel, a division which remains to this day. Although this all sounds rather straightforward, the situation because slightly more complicated when it came to a set of islands situated to the south-west of Vancouver. Around this region the treaty stated that the border be through ‘the middle of the channel separating the continent from Vancouver’s Island.’ As you can see from the map below, simply drawing a line through the middle of the channel was always going to be difficult due to the awkward positioning of the islands.

An early map of San Juan
One of the largest and most important islands in this area, San Juan Island (highlighted in the map above), was of notable significance due to its strategic position at the mouth of the channel. As such, both the US and the UK claimed sovereignty of the island and citizens from both countries began to settle there.

By 1859 the British had a significant presence on the island, bolstered with the recent arrival of the Hudson’s Bay Company who had set up a salmon-curing station and a sheep ranch on the island. Meanwhile, a contingent of between twenty to thirty US settlers had also recently arrived on the island and made it their home.

Judging by reports of the time, both sets of islanders actually got along rather well. However this was not to last, as on June 15th 1859 a pig belonging to the British accidentally wandered onto the land of Lyman Cutlar, an American farmer. When Cutlar noticed the pig eating some of his potatoes he was incensed, and in a fit of rage shot and killed the pig.

A large black pig

The pig was actually owned by a British employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company called Charles Griffin. Griffin owned quite a few pigs and was well known for letting them roam freely across the island, and this was probably not the first time that one of them had trotted onto Cutlar’s land.

When Griffin found out about the death of the pig, he went to confront Cutlar. According to some rather sketchy reports, the conversation went something as follows:

Cutlar: “…but it was eating my potatoes!”
Griffin: “Rubbish. It’s up to you to keep your potatoes out of my pig”.

Cutlar did, however, offer to pay Griffin a sum of $10 in compensation for the dead pig but this was refused. Instead Griffin reported Cutlar to the local British authorities who threatened to arrest him, much to the anger of the local American citizens who subsequently drew up a petition requesting US Military protection.

This petition was received by General William S. Harney, the commander of the Department of Oregon. Harney’s anti-British views were well known at the time, and without much of a second thought he sent a 66-man company of the US 9th infantry to San Juan on July 27th 1859.

William S Harney portrait
General William S. Harney

Upon hearing of this news, James Douglas, the governor of British Columbia, decided to send three British warships to the area as a show of force. During the following month there was a stand off, with both sides slowly increasing their military presence in the area and with the US 9th infantry refusing to budge, even thought they were massively outnumbered.

Robert Baynes portraitIt was not until the arrival of Admiral Robert L. Baynes (pictured to the right), Commander-in-Chief of the British Navy in the Pacific, that things were to change. When he finally arrived, James Douglas ordered Baynes to land his troops on San Juan Island and to engage the US 9th infantry. Baynes refused, famously stating that he would not “involve two great nations in a war over a squabble about a pig”.

By this time, word has finally reached both Washington and London about the escalating crisis. Officials on both sides of the Atlantic were shocked that a dispute over a pig had grown into a stand off involving as many as 3 warships, 84 guns and over 2,600 men.

Concerned that this was to escalate even further, both sides quickly began negotiations, eventually deciding that both the US and Britain should maintain a presence of no more than 100 men each on the island until a formal agreement could be met.

The British subsequently set up camp on the north of the island, with the Americans being based on the south of the island. It was not until 1872 that an international commission led by Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany decided that the island should fall entirely under American control, and as such the dispute was finally laid to rest.

Today, both the British and American camps can still be visited in the San Juan Island National Historical Park. Interestingly, this is the only place in a U.S. national park where a foreign flag is regularly hoisted over US soil, and both the flag and the flagpole were provided by the British government as a sign of friendship.

This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Attribution: Chris Light

This image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Attribution: Chris Light

Published: 21st February 2015.

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