Tales from the Great and Glorious Pig War of 1859


History is replete with stories of wars that were fought over the love of a woman, the quest for power, and ideological differences. In 1859 two of the world’s greatest military powers prepared for battle over a pig.

The San Juan Islands, located north of Seattle, Washington, were part of a disputed territory claimed by the United States and Great Britain. Ownership of these islands rested upon ambiguity in the description of the borders defined in the Oregon Treaty of 1846.

By 1859 Great Britain, claiming sovereignty of the islands, turned the real estate over to the Hudson Bay Company, which established a sheep ranch. The United States, also claiming legal possession, opened the islands to settlement.

Citizens of both countries maintained a relatively-peaceful co-existence until June 15, 1859. On that day American farmer Lyman Cutlar found a large black pig digging through his crops, eating his potatoes. Cutlar took decisive action to protect his crops and killed the pig, which happened to be owned by Charles Griffin, an employee of the Hudson Bay Company. Cutlar offered Griffin $10 for the loss of the pig. Griffin refused; he wanted $100.

As tension grew between the two gentlemen, Brigadier General William Harney dispatched 66 US soldiers under the command of Captain George Pickett to defend Mr. Cutlar and to prevent the British from further increasing their force on the islands. The British responded with three warships under the command of Captain Geoffrey Hornby. The Americans met this increased challenge by bolstering their force to 461 soldiers with 14 cannons. The British countered by increasing their presence to five warships, carrying 2,140 men.

On August 10, tensions seemed to have reached a breaking point. The governor of the Colony of Vancouver Island, James Douglas, gave the order for the British to send the marines ashore and to engage the American troops. Rear Admiral Robert Baynes refused to obey the order, declaring that “two great nations in a war over a squabble about a pig” was stupid.

With no shots being fired (except the shot at the pig that started the whole thing) both sides were poised on the edge of open warfare, hurling nothing more dangerous than insults back and forth.

Word finally made it back to the respective governments about the war that was about to break out on this remote patch of soil. President James Buchanan immediately sent General Winfield Scott to personally negotiate a settlement. The parties agreed to a ceasefire while the border dispute would be decided by international arbitration. During the ensuing 12 years, each nation maintained a camp on opposite sides of the island with no more than 100 men.

Ultimately the arbitrator, Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany, decided the matter in favor of the United States, and the island is US territory to this day.

One curious outcome of the Pig War, as it came to be known, was the permanent recognition of the British Camp on the north end of San Juan Island. Although the British withdrew from the island at the end of 1872, the Union Jack still flies above the British Camp, raised and lowered each day by US Park Services rangers, making it one of the few places without diplomatic status where US government employees care for the flag of a foreign nation.


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