It is of little surprise that few people have heard of the 19th-century conflict ‘The Pig War’ that occurred between the United Kingdom and the United States. This conflict, variously known as the Pig Episode, the Pig and Potato War, the North-western Boundary dispute, and the San Juan Boundary dispute, is probably the most ridiculous reason two countries ever fought one another.
This was a conflict that occurred while trying to establish the international border in the San Juan Islands between the State of Washington in the United States and Vancouver Island in British Colombia in Canada. However, this conflict somehow lasted fifteen years from 1859 until it was resolved in 1874.
And in all that time there was only one casualty: a pig. How did this all come about? And what, if anything, can we learn from this?
The root of this problem can be found in the Oregon boundary dispute from the early 19th century. It was an issue between the United Kingdom and the United States over the exact location of the Northern boundary of Oregon as a state. In 1818, the Anglo-American agreement had hoped to avoid these issues by allowing citizens of both countries to use the territory and allow both countries to use the vital waterways.
However, this did not solve the tensions that were rising between the two countries. In 1846 another treaty was signed. Called the “Oregon Treaty” it claimed that the boundary would extend across the 49th parallel line of latitude west until “the middle of the channel that separates the continent from Vancouver Island”. From here the treaty said the border would go south to the Juan De Fuca Strait before going into the sea.
Despite these quite descriptive terms, there was quite a problem. Two different straits could be applied to the treaty, the Rosario Strait and the Haro Strait. The San Juan Islands lay right between them.
Unsurprisingly both countries chose the strait that suited their needs. The Americans favored the Haro Strait whilst the British chose the Rosario Strait. This interpretation meant that each thought they owned the territory of the Islands.
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Before the matter had been resolved, the British took things into their own hands and began settling on the San Juan Islands by setting up a salmon-curing station through the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1851. By the time the Americans sought to claim the land in 1853, the British had already set up a sheep farm.
However, the Americans were not to be so easily deterred. Taking after the British, Americans began to settle on the Island and by 1859, there were around 14 to 30 American settlers. Both sides considered the presence of the other to be illegal.
The Tension Grows
On the 15th of June in the summer of 1859, a British-owned pig stumbled into the vegetable patch of the American farmer, Lyman Cutler. This wasn’t the first time that this had happened as the pig was looking for delicious potatoes to snack on in the burning sun.
This was, however, the final straw for Lyman who shot the pig and saved his crops. Unfortunately for Cutler, this pig belonged to Charles Griffin, an employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company.
Lyman Cutler was sought out by Griffin to demand compensation and despite offering a $10 fee for the pig by Cutler, Griffin demanded more and reported him to the British authorities. Britain threatened to arrest Cutler if he could not find a suitable amount of money to offer in compensation.
Not willing to see one of their own subjects be treated in such a manner, the American government sent in a military commander with 64 troops to defend American settlers on the San Juan Islands. Seen as an act of aggression by the British government, they sent James Douglas, the governor of Vancouver Island with the British Frigate Tribune in order to fend off the American troops. Other warships were also soon involved.
In true tit-for-tat fashion, the American government requested support from the mainland and by mid-August boasted a force of over 400 soldiers and 8 cannons. The British meanwhile had over 1,000 men and at least 5 warships. The conflict began to seem inevitable as the American forces built fortifications and the British practiced their cannon maneuvers.
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Whilst Governor Douglas pushed the British to land on the Islands, the captain of the Tribune, Geoffrey Phipps Hornby refused to land until Admiral Robert L. Baynes arrived. It was not until the end of August that this happened, and Baynes was reportedly mystified that such an escalation had happened over the killing of a pig.
A Storm in a Tea Cup?
When news of the conflict finally reached US president James Buchanan, he ordered his commander-in-chief, Winfield Scott to negotiate with Governor Douglas to bring about a peaceful resolution. This was a shrewd move as Scott had been involved in the negotiations about borders as far back as the 1830s.
By October 1859, Scott began negotiation with Douglas. Neither wanted to start an all-out armed conflict but neither would give up their possession of the land. They finally agreed to reduce the number of troops, guns, and warships in the territory, though they would not remove them completely.
A token force of 100 men would be left on each side and they would work together to share responsibility for the island until a solution arrived. The British established a camp in the North whilst the Americans took the South.
Many reports suggest that during this time. The American and British camps got on well together. They would visit each other’s camps and celebrate each other’s national holidays. Little did they know that this stalemate would go on for another 12 years. To put this into perspective America fought and concluded its own civil war while embroiled in this stand-off.
Finally, in 1871, the Treaty of Washington was signed to not only deal with the issue of the San Juan Islands but many other disagreements between the two nations. The German Kaiser Wilhelm I helped to resolve the issue by creating a three-person committee to settle it in Geneva. This process took a year but in 1872, the Islands were finally declared American territory.
Today you can still visit the two camps and see the British flag hoisted on foreign soil. A sign of friendship and stubbornness over pigs and potatoes.
Top Image: How could a pig start a 15 year war? Source: Barbara C / Adobe Stock.
By Kurt Readman
Dougherty, P. 2010. The International Boundary Commission first meets on June 27, 1857. Available at: https://www.historylink.org/File/9328
Johnson, B. 2022. The Pig War. Available at: https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofBritain/The-Pig-War/
Matthews, T. 2003. The Pig War Of San Juan Island. Available at: https://web.archive.org/web/20080709060607/http://www.wahmee.com/pigwar.html
Noakes, T. C. 2021. The Pig War. Available at: https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/pig-war
Oldham, K. 2003. Lyman Cutlar touches off Pig War between U.S. and Great Britain on June 15, 1859. Available at: https://www.historylink.org/File/5037
Woodbury, C. 2019. How one pig could have changed American history. Available at: https://web.archive.org/web/20130806211449/http://www.outwestnewspaper.com/pigwars.html