The Pig War (or battle for San Juan Island)
Over the centuries, there have been countless instances of soldiers crossing over disputed borders and getting shot by the enemy. But pigs? Well, there’s only one recorded time a wandering porcine has been the cause of all-out fighting between warring nations, and that happened on San Juan Island in the summer of 1859. While nobody was ultimately killed – apart from the poor beast whose demise triggered the whole affair – the so-called Pig War put in serious jeopardy the fragile peace negotiated between the British and the Americans.
The skirmish had its roots in the Oregon Treaty, an agreement drawn up between the Brits and the Americans in order to bring a long-standing border dispute to rest once and for all. Under the terms of the deal, the border between the two countries would be drawn along the 49th parallel. While this might have seemed like a good idea in theory, in practice it proved less straightforward, and nowhere more so than in the coastal area around Vancouver. It’s here that San Juan Island is found and, while it might not be much to look at, its position at the edge of the Hudson Bay meant that both America and Britain skated a claim to it. So, people of both nations came to settle on the same island. What could possibly go wrong?
For a while, nothing did go wrong. The Brits were happy curing salmon and rearing sheep, while their American neighbors were also settling the land. But then one day, a pig belonging to the British settlers wandered onto the land of Lyman Cutlar and started eating some of his precious potatoes. Cutlar, an American, was not impressed. He grabbed his rifle and shot his pig, much to the annoyance of the animal’s rightful owner, Charles Griffin of the Hudson Bay Company. The British gentleman declined an offer of $10 in compensation for his lost pig, instead reporting Cutlar to his own people’s authorities and requesting his arrest. Needless to say, the Americans on San Juan Island were shocked at the over-reaction and quickly called for the protection of their military.
Rather than backing down, America’s General William S. Harney sent 66 men to the island as a show of strength. This in turn prompted the Governor of British Columbia, James Douglas, to deploy three warships to the area. Douglas also called on the Commander-in-Chief of the British Navy in the Pacific, Admiral Robert L. Baynes, to come ashore and fight the American troops. Quite sensibly, the Admiral refused, famously saying that he would never “involve two great nations in a war over a squabble about a pig”. But the matter was not resolved there. Officials in Washington and London, keen to prevent bloodshed but not wanting to lose face, came to an agreement: each nation was to station no more than 100 men on San Juan Island for the foreseeable future.
That arrangement only came to an end in 1872. Then, Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany – evidently more a diplomat than his son – led talks that eventually gave all of San Juan Island to America. Today, the island is a National Historical Park, with both nations’ camps preserved as a testament to the fragility of peace.