We are all aware of the history of “disagreements” between the United States and England that resulted in the American Revolution and the War of 1812, but what do you know of the 1859 Pig War? Never heard of it? Permit me to explain.
In June 1846, the Oregon Treaty brought an end to the dispute between the U.S. and the U.K. over Oregon Country. The division of the land came “along the forty-ninth parallel of north latitude to the middle channel which separate the continent from Vancouver Island, and thence southerly through the middle of the said channel, and of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, to the Pacific Ocean.” The problem with this description was there were TWO straits: the Haro Strait, along the west side of the San Juan Islands, and the Rosario Strait, along the east side.
To complicate the matter, the available maps of the area were unclear on many of the necessary lines to determine the right of each country to claim the area. Ambiguity reigned for many years. Both the United States and the United Kingdom claimed sovereignty over the San Juan Islands. Britain’s Hudson’s Bay Company set up operations on San Juan and established a sheep ranch there. About 30 U.S. families also took up residence.
The situation came to “blows” on 15 June 1859, when Lyman Cutlar, an American farmer who had staked his claim to land on San Juan Island under the Donation Land Claim Act, discovered a large black pig, owned by an Irishman, Charles Griffin, who was employed by the Hudson Bay Company to run the sheep ranch on the island, eating parts of Cutlar’s garden. As this was not the first incident of such happening, Cutlar caught up his gun and shot the pig, killing it.
In truth, Griffin owned several pigs that he permitted to roam free. Griffin and Cutlar had gotten along until this time. Cutlar offered Griffin $10 for the pig, but Griffin demanded $100. “Cutlar believed he should not have to pay for the pig because the pig had been trespassing on his land. One likely apocryphal account has Cutlar saying to Griffin, “It was eating my potatoes”; and Griffin replying, “It is up to you to keep your potatoes out of my pig.” [Woodbury, Chuck (2000). “How One Pig Could Have Changed American History”. Out West #15. Out West Newspaper.] When British authorities threatened to arrest Cutlar, American settlers called for military protection.
The British governor, James Douglas, ordered Cutlar to pay $100. The Americans, under U.S. Army General William S. Harney, sent Captain George Pickett, who earlier had been cited for “reckless bravery,” to handle the American complaint. Pickett established the American Camp near the south end of San Juan Island, today one of two historical sites on the island, the other being the British Camp, manned by the Royal Marines on the north end of the island.
Next, the British order five warships and 2000 troops to the area. The situation continued to escalate. By August 10, 1859, 461 Americans with 14 cannons under Colonel Silas Casey were opposed by five British warships mounting 70 guns and carrying 2,140 men.Meanwhile, Harney ordered Pickett to keep the British from landing on the island. Incensed, Governor Douglas ordered his men to take the island by force.
Thankfully, British Rear Admiral Robert L. Baynes thought a war between two great nations over a pig was more than a bit ridiculous. He kept his men onboard their ships, but he had his guns trained on the American fort on the island. Local commanding officers on both sides had been given essentially the same orders: defend yourselves, but absolutely do not fire the first shot. For several days, the British and U.S. soldiers exchanged insults, each side attempting to goad the other into firing the first shot, but discipline held on both sides, and thus no shots were fired. A waiting game ensued.
When news about the crisis reached Washington and London, officials from both nations were shocked and took action to calm the potentially explosive international incident. As a result of the negotiations, both sides agreed to retain joint military occupation of the island until a final settlement could be reached, reducing their presence to a token force of no more than 100 men.
The “English Camp” was established on the north end of San Juan Island along the shoreline, for ease of supply and access; and the “American Camp” was created on the south end on a high, windswept meadow, suitable for artillery barrages against shipping. Today the Union Jack still flies above the “English Camp”, being raised and lowered daily by park rangers, making it one of the few places without diplomatic status where U.S. government employees regularly hoist the flag of another country, though this is only for commemorative purposes.
During the years of joint military occupation, the small British and American units on San Juan Island had an amicable mutual social life, visiting one another’s camps to celebrate their respective national holidays and holding various athletic competitions. Park rangers tell visitors the biggest threat to peace on the island during these years was “the large amounts of alcohol available”.
The dispute was not settled for another 13 years. Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany arbitrated the matter and presented San Juan Island to the United States.
“The dispute was peacefully resolved after more than a decade of confrontation and military bluster, during which time the local British authorities consistently lobbied London to seize back the Puget Sound region entirely, as the Americans were busy elsewhere with the Civil War. In 1866, the Colony of Vancouver Island was merged with the Colony of British Columbia to form an enlarged Colony of British Columbia. In 1871, the enlarged colony joined the newly formed Dominion of Canada. That year, the United Kingdom and the United States signed the Treaty of Washington, which dealt with various differences between the two nations, including border issues involving the newly formed Dominion. Among the results of the treaty was the decision to resolve the San Juan dispute by international arbitration, with German Emperor Wilhelm I chosen to act as arbitrator. Wilhelm referred the issue to a three-man arbitration commission which met in Geneva for nearly a year. On October 21, 1872, the commission decided in favor of the United States. The arbitrator chose the American-preferred marine boundary via Haro Strait, to the west of the islands, over the British preference for Rosario Strait which lay to their east. On November 25, 1872, the British withdrew their Royal Marines from the British Camp. The Americans followed by July 1874.” [Pig War, 1859]