In 1859, the United States and the United Kingdom almost went to war, all because of a pig. Of course, we don’t typically think of pigs as instigators of international conflict, but apparently settlers in what is now Washington state took their swines seriously. Here is a short account of one of the stranger and lesser known confrontations in American history – the Pig War.
Two Nations at Odds
The United States and the United Kingdom have long been close allies, but this was not always the case. Back in the early 19th century, the two nations were often at odds with each other. Remember the American Revolution and the War of 1812?
One of the disagreements between the two countries was a longstanding boundary dispute pertaining to land in the Pacific Northwest. The signing of the Oregon Treaty in 1846 was supposed to bring clarity to this dispute, but instead it only complicated things. The treaty set the US/British American (now Canada) border at the 49th parallel, but was vague when it came to the San Juan Islands, which are located southwest of Vancouver Island. According to the treaty, the border of this region was set as ‘the middle of the channel which separates the continent from Vancouver Island’.
Check out a map though. With so many islands and different straits, it was unclear just what channel the treaty was referring to. Due to this ambiguity, both the United States and United Kingdom claimed the San Juan Islands as their own.
One of the largest and most important islands in the region was San Juan Island itself, which was considered to be a significant strategic position. By 1859, Britain’s Hudson’s Bay Company had established operations on San Juan Island. All the while, American settlers also began staking their claim to the island.
By now you might be wondering where pigs come into this story. On June 15th, 1859, Lyman Cutlar, an American farmer, found a large pig roaming around his garden eating potatoes. Upset at the pig, he shot and killed it. This wasn’t any old pig though. It belonged to Charles Griffin, an employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Feeling bad for what he had done, Cutlar offered Griffin $10 in compensation. When Griffin demanded $100 instead, Cutlar had a change of heart and offered to pay nothing. He felt the pig had been trespassing on his land. When British authorities threatened to arrest Cutlar, American settlers called for military protection.
Send in the Troops
Initially, 66 American soldiers were dispatched to San Juan Island in order to help quell any dispute. To counter, the British sent three warships to the island. Things only continued to escalate. By August of that same year, as many as 461 Americans and five British warships had arrived at the island.
Ultimately, military officers on both sides decided that starting a war over a pig was a bit silly. Both sides were ordered to defend themselves, but not to fire the first shot. For many days, British and US soldiers exchanged insults instead of gunfire, trying to tempt the other side into firing. No one ever did.
Pig War Resolution
News of the conflict eventually reached Washington, D.C. and London. Officials from both nations were absolutely opposed to any sort of international incident. Both sides quickly began negotiations. It was decided that the US and Britain would each keep a presence of no more than 100 men on the island until a more formal agreement could be reached.
The British ultimately set up camp on the north side of the island, while the Americans settled on the south side. During this time of joint occupation, the two sides actually got along pretty well. Both camps would often drink or celebrate holidays together. Who wants to fight when you’re on the beautiful island of San Juan?
In 1872, Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany was brought in as a 3rd party to settle the dispute of the San Juan Islands. He decided that the islands should fall entirely under American control. On November 25 of that same year, the British withdrew their soldiers from the English Camp. American soldiers followed suit in July, 1874.
Today the Union Jack still flies above the English Camp, now part of San Juan Island National Historical Park. Each day, park rangers raise and lower the flag, one of the few places where US government employees regularly raise the flag of another country. The park stands as a reminder of the international crisis that was almost started because of a hungry pig.