Monday, June 17, 2024

The Pig War

In the annals of American history, few conflicts are as curious and bloodless as the Pig War. This peculiar dispute, centered around a wayward pig and the remote San Juan Island in Washington State.

On my trip to Washington in April, I stayed on San Juan Island for a few days. A beautiful place! And a different kind of history than my part of the country.

San Juan Island, is between Vancouver Island and the mainland of Washington State. In the mid-19th century, this idyllic location became the unlikely flashpoint for a territorial dispute between two powerful nations. The Untied States and Great Britain.

The Treaty of Oregon, signed in 1846, ostensibly resolved boundary issues between British North America and the United States. However, the treaty's language was vague, particularly concerning the boundary through the waterways around the San Juan Islands. As a result, both American and British settlers claimed the land, leading to a tense coexistence on the islands.

On June 15, 1859, tensions boiled over in the most unexpected way. Lyman Cutlar, an American farmer, found a large pig rooting through his garden eating his potatoes. This wasn't the first time the pig had caused trouble, and in a fit of frustration, Cutlar shot the animal for tresspassing. The pig's owner, Charles Griffin, was an Irishman working for the Hudson's Bay Company, which represented British interests in the region.

Griffin was understandably upset and demanded compensation from Cutlar. Accounts vary, but it is said that Griffin wanted Cutlar to pay for the pig. He refused because the pig was tresspassing. This disagreement escalated quickly, with British authorities threatening to arrest Cutlar, prompting him to seek protection from American military forces.

American Camp

In response to the incident, Brigadier General William S. Harney, the U.S. Army's commander of the Department of Oregon, deployed 66 American soldiers under Captain George Pickett to San Juan Island. Pickett's arrival and declaration that the island was American territory escalated tensions further.

Not to be outdone, the British dispatched three warships under the command of Captain Geoffrey Hornby to the island. 

The American camp was near the south end of San Juan. For a few tense weeks, British marines and American soldiers faced off, guns at the ready, over the fate of the island and, indirectly, over a dead pig.  

The situation contiued to escalate. By August, 461 Americans and soldiers with 14 cannons were opposed by five British ships mounting 70 guns and 2140 men. It had the potential to explode into a full-blown war between the United States and Britain.

British Camp

Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed. The leaders on both sides recognized the absurdity of going to war over a pig and sought a peaceful resolution. Negotiations commenced, and it was agreed that both nations would maintain a military presence on the island until a final boundary could be determined.

For the next 12 years, the island was jointly occupied by British and American forces. This period was marked by remarkable cooperation and camaraderie between the two camps. The soldiers celebrated holidays together, visited each other’s camps, and even formed joint social clubs. The joint occupation of San Juan Island is often remembered as a model of peaceful coexistence.

The Pig War officially ended in 1872 when the boundary dispute was settled in favor of America. British troops left the island in 1872. Both sides were sad to see friends leave. American soldiers left in 1874.

The Pig War is a reminder of the sometimes absurd nature of human conflicts. It highlights how miscommunications and minor incidents can escalate into major diplomatic disputes.

The sites of the American and British camps are preserved as part of the San Juan Island National Historical Park, serving as a testament to this unique episode in history.

Visitors can walk through the grounds of the camps, imagining the lives of soldiers who once faced each other across a potential battlefield, and who, instead, forged a bond of mutual respect and friendship. The story of the Pig War, with its blend of humor, absurdity, and diplomacy, continues to capture the imagination and offers timeless lessons in the importance of negotiation and understanding.


Julie Lence said...

What an interesting piece of history. I guess people will fight over just about anything. Thank you for sharing, T.K.

GiniRifkin said...

Oh, that was a great post. Humans are capable of such greatness and such foolishness. loved it.

Ruthie Manier said...

I enjoyed reading about the Pig Wars. I live in the PNW and am just a Ferry ride away and have traveled to Friday Harbor a few times but had never heard about this funny piece of history before now. The owner should of kept his pig at home. The other man should of held his temper. Lol, some people…