On June 15, 1859, American farmer Lyman Cutlar walked outside of his home on San Juan Island, off the coast of what is now Washington state, and saw a pig rooting around in his potato patch. This wasn’t the first time he had seen such a thing, and Cutlar, fed up, shot the pig dead.
Cutlar had received a land grant on the island as part of the Donation Land Claim Act. This was enacted in 1850, shortly after the signing of the Oregon Treaty, which finally settled a dispute between the United States and Great Britain over who had dominion over Oregon Country lands. However, the treaty hadn’t been conclusive, and had neglected to assign the San Juans to either side. Therefore, both pushed for their people to settle on and till these lands, hoping that having active citizens there would increase the validity of each of their claims.
In 1846, the Pacific Northwest was split in three by the resolution of an expansionist conflict, whose participants included not only Great Britain and the United States, but also Russia and Spain. Britain definitively controlled everything from Fort Simpson, now part of Canada’s Western Territories, down to Fort Langley, now part of British Columbia. Just south of that was a disputed area, stretching to just below the southernmost reach of the Snake River in present-day Idaho. The US had claimed everything up to the Snake River’s origin in western Wyoming, but also possessed some territory up north of Fort Langley. South of it all was the Mexican border.
James K. Polk had campaigned in 1844 under the promise of conquering the entire Pacific Northwest, but once he was elected President, saw the wisdom in avoiding simultaneous war with both Britain and Mexico. Instead, he sent representatives to sign the Oregon Treaty, establishing a definitive border along the 49th line of latitude. However, it was an awkward solution, leaving an exclave—a small slice of American land surrounded on all sides by a British border—at Point Roberts, and failing to include the San Juan Islands at all.
It was a tense situation from the very start, but it all came to a head when Lyman Cutlar shot that thieving pig. The pig belonged to Charles Griffin, an Irish-born farmer who also raised livestock on his own little slice of San Juan Island. Griffin confronted Cutlar, who offered him $10 in compensation. Such a price insulted Griffin, who demanded $100 by retort. The spat worsened, and before long, British authorities were calling for Cutlar’s arrest.
A group of American citizens circulated a petition to secure military protection for Cutlar, and Brigadier General William S. Harney, well aware of the existing international tensions as the commander of the Department of Oregon, granted their request. He sent Captain George Pickett to the small island with 66 men to prevent British ships from landing. Pickett, confident as ever, was quoted as saying, “We’ll make a Bunker Hill of it.”
In response, Captain Geoffrey Hornby of the Royal Navy sent three warships to the island. By now, his concern was less so arresting Cutlar, and more so preventing the American soldiers who had gathered there from occupying and eventually laying claim to the island. The British troops set up a camp on the north shore, and the Americans on the south. For many months, the two sides gazed at each other across the island, yet not a single shot was fired. By August 10, 1859, there were 461 Americans on San Juan Island, accompanied by 14 cannons, and 2,140 Brits with five warships docked, all a powder keg waiting for a spark.
The situation had grown to the point that it could no longer be contained within San Juan Island’s shores. The governor of the British Colony of Vancouver Island, James Douglas, ordered Captain Hornby to get rid of the Americans by any means necessary, but stressed that he would prefer to avoid armed combat. Hornby, however, decided to wait until his commanding officer Rear Admiral Robert L. Baynes arrived to assess the situation. Baynes eventually did make it to San Juan Island, took one look at how rapidly and dangerously such a minor scuffle had escalated, and declined to give any orders.
Meanwhile, word of the brewing conflict reached Washington, D.C., where it landed on the desk of President James Buchanan. That September, he sent Army General Winfield Scott to Vancouver Island to negotiate with Governor Douglas. They reached a resolution: each side would maintain a military presence of no more than 100 men on San Juan Island until a permanent solution could be reached.
Unfortunately, that permanent solution would be far longer in the making. Beginning in April of 1861, the United States Army’s attention was held back east by a little domestic dispute that came to be known as the Civil War. Although occupied elsewhere, the Army kept up its base of 100 men on San Juan Island. The American men would often visit the British camp to celebrate holidays, or vice versa, and the two groups would sometimes meet in the middle to hold athletic competitions. There were those in London who lobbied for an army to march on the region while the Americans couldn’t spare the manpower, but that plan never came to fruition. What had once looked like imminent war on San Juan Island had become a docile alliance, interrupted only by friendly competition.
By 1866, a year after the Civil War had died down, the Colony of Vancouver Island had joined up with the Colony of British Columbia to create a larger entity. In 1871, they both joined the burgeoning Dominion of Canada. With so much more potential for growth to the northeast, their interest in the San Juan Islands began to wane.
That same year, American and British representatives met to sign the Treaty of Washington, which, among other disputes, resolved to settle the Pig War with a decision determined via international arbitration. German Emperor Wilhelm I was selected as arbitrator, hearing arguments from both sides. The American politician George Bancroft spoke eloquently, eventually winning the San Juan Islands for his people. A marine boundary was established along the Haro Strait, west of the San Juans, per Bancroft’s suggestion. British troops withdrew by the end of November, although American troops remained until July 1874.
Although the Donation Land Claim Act had long since expired, Americans were still allowed to settle the San Juan Islands, which remain part of Washington State to this day. Both the American and British fortifications there are still standing as part of a national historical park, and are open to visitors. The former British camp is one of the few non-diplomatic sites outside of that nation where the UK flag is raised and lowered each day.
Calling the incident a war is somewhat inaccurate, since there was only one shot fired and one casualty of the entire affair, if you count the shot that killed poor Charles Griffin’s pig. Still, it’s fascinating to consider how such a personal argument between two men could escalate into such a wide-ranging international incident, with thousands of soldiers waiting on one tiny island ready to fire at each other over the death of one farm animal. Ultimately, it amounted to a show of force for both Britain and the US, not a century off of the latter’s independence from the former. If fighting had ever erupted, the Pig War could’ve been world-changing, but it wound up bloodless, simply resolved, and easily forgotten.