The Pig War of San Juan Island
There was only one casualty in this war - a pig. Yet its death could have changed the course of history and was pivotal enough to involve both American and British warships and troops. It all started on what is the present day island of San Juan in Washington state. When American farmer, Lyman Cutlar, was asked why he shot and killed Englishman Charles Griffin's pig he said "It was eating my potatoes". Cutlar claimed he had previously complained about Griffin's pig in his potato garden. To that Griffin responded "It is up to you to keep your potatoes out of my pig".
It was all a matter of unclear boundaries. When the Oregon Treaty of 1846 was signed, it was meant to establish the boundary between the United States and Canada. It went west from the Rocky Mountains to the coast. The treaty defined the 49th parallel which separated the two countries and all seemed well and good. Until it reached the channel off of Vancouver island. There things got mucky. The document stipulated that the boundary ran down the middle of the main channel. The Americans thought this to be Rosario Strait on the east side of San Juan Island. The British believed it was the Haro Strait on the west side of the island. Maps available at the time were unhelpful. This left tensions high and San Juan Island in limbo.
Both countries claimed sovereignty over the San Juan Islands. During this time Britain's Hudson Bay Company established several facilities on the island. At the same time a group of Americans came to the island, built homes and settled there. San Juan Island was a strategic point militarily because of its location. To both sides the stakes were high.
On the morning of June 15,1859 exactly 13 years after the Oregon Treaty was signed, American Cutlar shot Griffin's pig. Now you wouldn't think the killing of a pig would be such a large matter but tempers were already short on San Juan Island. Cutlar offered to pay $10 for the pig which outraged Griffin. Then British authorities threatened to arrest Cutlar. His fellow Americans called for help from the U.S. military. They got it.
The military commander of the Department of Oregon dispatched sixty-six American soldiers of the 9th infantry to San Juan Island. They were under the command of Captain George Pickett. The British responded by sending three warships under the command of Captain Geoffrey Hornby. Both countries were worried about the invasion and occupation of the island by the other. And things only got worse.
Though no shots were ever fired, the scene was potentially explosive. The situation escalated and by August 10, 1859 over 460 Americans with fourteen cannons stood opposed to five British warships carrying over 2000 men and mounting at least 70 guns. For several days soldiers from both sides traded insults and tried to get the other to take the first shot. Somehow cool heads prevailed and guns remained silent.
When word of the situation on San Juan Island reached Washington and London, officials were shocked to learn that the potentially explosive international incident was caused by a pig. Then U.S. President James Buchanan quickly dispatched General Winfield Scott to investigate and hopefully calm the crises. Scott had successfully negotiated other border disputes in the past. Eventually after several meetings with Vancouver's Governor Douglas both sides agreed to keep a small military presence on the island until a settlement was reached. It all came down to who owned the San Juan Islands - the British or the Americans.
This went on for 12 years spanning the U.S. Civil War period. Two camps were set up on the island with a token 100 men. The "British Camp" was established along the shoreline on the north end of San Juan Island. The "American Camp" was in the meadows on the south end. During this time everyone got along great and it was believed the biggest threat to the island was the liberal consumption of alcohol.
In 1871, the Treaty of Washington was signed by Great Britain and the United States. It dealt with various issues concerning both nations including the decision to finally resolve the dispute over San Juan. The situation was turned over to Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany who was to serve as an international arbitrator. It was referred to a commission who met in Geneva for almost a year. Finally on October 21, 1872 the commission voted in favor of the United States setting the boundary via the Haro Strait. In November of that year troops from both sides were quietly withdrawn.
SOME FACTS -
The Pig War is a fairly modern iteration. At the time it was referred to as the "San Juan Affair" or the "San Juan Difficulty" or the "San Juan Imbroglio".
The Pig War was the last time the United States and Great Britain opposed each other on U.S. soil.
General George Pickett who was commander of the American troops during The Pig War went on to lead the well-known Pickett's Charge in the battle of Gettysburg during the Civil War.
San Juan County has more miles of shoreline (375) than any other in the United States.
John Wayne was a frequent visitor to San Juan Island.
The Pig War is commemorated in San Juan Island National Historical Park. http://www.nps.gov/sajh/index.htm