If we think about wars fought between Canada under British rule and the United States, we focus on the War of 1812 for the most part, but there was another war and it happened only eight years before Canada became a country.
It is known by many names, including the San Juan Boundary Dispute, the Northwestern Boundary Dispute, but the best name of them all is The Pig War. It is a war that would involve 461 soldiers and 14 cannons on the American side, and 2,140 soldiers, five warships and 70 cannons on the British side. The war would last for four months.
By the end of it, a pig would be dead.
Before we get to the war, lets step back a few years to 1846 when the Oregon Boundary Treaty would establish the border between British territory and the United States through the Strait of Juan de Fuca on the British Columbia coast. The agreement would split the mountain at the 49th parallel, continue west, then south, then west again, through the middle of the channel that separates the continent of from Vancouver Island.
In between the continent and Vancouver Island were three islands called Orcas, Lopez and San Juan, collectively known as San Juan Islands. These islands had been explored first by the Spanish, who named the islands, and then were further explored by the British and the Americans, along with the Russians, over the coming centuries. By the early 1800s, neither Russia nor Spain cared about the islands anymore, but the United States and Britain did, somewhat.
Captain James Prevost, a British official, would see the importance of this small island and say that losing such an island in a border dispute would “prove fatal to Her Majesty’s possessions in this quarter of the globe.”
Seeing the value of the, both sides laid claim to the islands. The United States felt that the border went through the western Haro Strait, which put all three islands in their territory, while the British said the border went through the eastern Rosario Strait, which put the islands in their territory.
Sir John Pelly, the head of the Hudson’s Bay Company, spoke on behalf of the British stating, “I know there is one close round Vancouver’s Island, but I believe the largest to be the one Vancouver sailed through, and I think this is the one which should be the boundary.”
The British actually offered to cede the islands, except for San Juan, to the Americans but the Americans rejected this offer.
On the island, there were few people and more animals than anything. There were shepherds on the island who worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company sheep farm, and there were American farmers. The Hudson’s Bay Company had also set up a salmon curing station there in 1851. On Dec. 15, 1853, the Hudson’s Bay Company transported 1,300 sheep, and a few pigs, to the island to start a sheep ranch. In 1854, sometimes cited as 1855, an American agent attempted to collect U.S. taxes from the company and seized 34 breeding rams when they refused to pay taxes. News of this incident would actually reached the Secretary of State in Washington, William Marcy, and he wrote the governor of the territory, Isaac Stevens, telling him to stop local officials from confronting the British until the boundary dispute was resolved.
In 1856, at the Joint Boundary Commission, the location of the border could not be agreed upon but the two sides agreed to avoid conflict and resolve the matter in a diplomatic manner.
No one really through too much about it at the time but in 1858, gold was discovered along the Fraser River and to deal with the huge amount of prospectors coming into the area, 16,000 in total, it was found that the island of San Juan was strategically important as a guardian of the gateway towards the Fraser and Puget Sound.
Things continued to remain calm, even with a few Americans landing on the island and deciding to settle there despite the disputed nature of the islands.
That is until a pig made an unfortunate decision on June 15, 1859, exactly 13 years to the day after the adoption of the Oregon Treaty.
The pig, owned by a British-Canadian, walked across the island and ate the vegetables in the garden of an American settler. The American, named Lyman Cutlar, had arrived the previous year and dug up a third of an acre on the sheep run owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company and claimed it as his property. He did this under the Donation Land Claim Act of 1850, which was used to promote homestead settlements in the Oregon Territory and since he felt the island belonged to America, he staked that claim, choosing 160 acres. He also didn’t make good fences and the pig got his fill of potatoes. Cutlar, angry that the pig was eating his food, shot the pig. An agent with the Hudson’s Bay Company, named Charles Griffin, upon finding out about this, then demanded restitution for the killed pig. Cutlar offered $10, which would be $280 today, to compensate for the pig but Griffin wanted $100, or $2,800 for the pig. Cutlar, seeing that offer, then stated that he should not pay for the pig because the pig had been on his land. A story, that may or may not be true states that Cutlar said “It was eating my potatoes” and Griffin responded “It is up to you to keep your potatoes out of my pig”
For this reason, the war is sometimes called the Pig and Potato War.
Griffin apparently also said, “It is no more than I expected. You Americans are a nuisance on the island and you have no business here. I shall write Mr. Douglas and have you removed.”
Cutlar, according to his own account, remained calm and responded, “I came here to settle for shooting your hog, not argue the right of Americans on the island, for I consider it American soil.”
Now, this was not the first time a pig had made it to the poorly fenced garden and Cutlar had complained Hudson’s Bay Company employees and had driven pigs away before. According to Cutlar, a hired hand with the Hudson’s Bay Company was standing nearby laughing at the situation.
British authorities then threatened to arrest Cutlar, and the American settlers there called for military protection.
Against all odds, the situation began to escalate and General William S. Harney, who was the commander of the U.S. Army in the Pacific Northwest, sent 60 soldiers under the command of Capt. G.E. Pickett to occupy the island. He was given orders to prevent the British from landing. The island would be occupied by American troops beginning on July 27, 1859. Pickett would put up a procolomation on the dock that said.
“This being United States territory, no laws, other than those of the United States, nor courts, except such as are held by virtue of said laws, will be recognized or allowed on this island.
At this point, the 31-gum steam frigate, the HMS Tribune, came to the island to remove Pickett but were ordered to avoid an armed conflict. The ship was commanded by Capt. Geoffrey Hornby and he was soon joined by the HMS Satellite and HMS Plumper. Pickett refused to withdraw and wrote to Harney for assistance.
Through August, Hornby continued to get more marines, most of whom had recently fought in China, but refused to take any action against the Americans.
With these troops now on the island, and many American prospectors swarming into the colony, the public outcry at Fort Victoria reached a fever pitch. J.S. Helmcken, the speaker of the Legislative Assembly, would state “We must defend ourselves for the position we occupy today would make the iron monument of Wellington weep and the stony statue of Nelson bend his brow”
General Harney refused to remove his troops from the island as three British war ships began to patrol around the island.
James Douglas, the Governor of the Colony of Vancouver Island then ordered Rear Admiral Robert Baynes to land his troops on San Juan Island and engage the Americans. Baynes refused stating that it would result in two great nations going to war in a squabble over a pig and that the entire situation was foolish.
By Aug. 10, 1859, there were 461 Americans with 14 cannons on the island, with five British warships patrolling the waters, loaded with 70 cannons and 2,140 men. The Americans had recently added 171 men under Lt. Col. Silas Casey. On that same day, Pickett and Casey went to Victoria to parley with Baynes, a veteran of the War of 1812, but Baynes, who was on the HMS Ganges, refused to leave his 84-gun ship. Casey and Pickett then returned to the island and asked for more men.
On both sides, the commanding officers were given orders to defend themselves but under no circumstances fire the first shot. Instead of firing bullets at each other, the British and Americans spent several days yelling insults at each other in an effort to make the other side fire the first shot.
President James Buchanan then sent General Winfield Scott, a veteran of the War of 1812, to investigate and contain the situation. Scott had experience with calming border disputes so he was a good man for the job. He would arrive in the area in October and the two sides would negotiation and reach an understanding on the island, at least for the time being.
Amazingly, the pig would be the only death in this conflict and tense negotiations were held over the next few months until General Harney was removed along with the American troops and the two countries agreed to jointly occupy the island until the dispute could be settled in a diplomatic manner. During this time, each side maintained a presence of no more than 100 men each on the island.
This agreement allowed for detachments of soldiers to exist on opposite sides of the island and it would last for over a decade until after the Civil War.
The English and the Americans were actually good neighbours to each other. On July 4, the Americans invited the British to come to their side to celebrate, and the British returned the favour by inviting the Americans to celebrate the birthday of Queen Victoria.
Interestingly, it would be given to German Emperor Wilhelm I of Germany to decide on the matter through arbitration. Wilhelm referred the issue to a three-man arbitration commission who met in Geneva for a year. On Oct. 10, 1872, he awarded all the San Juan Islands to the United States, choosing the Haro Strait border, settling the Pig War, and establishing the border between the United States and the new Canadian province of British Columbia.
In the decision, it was stated:
“Most in accordance with the true interpretations of the treaty concluded on the 15th of June, 1846, between the Governments of Her Britannic Majesty and the United States of America, is the claim of the Government of the United States that the boundary-line between the territories of her Britannia Majesty and the United States of America should be drawn through the Haro Channel.”
On Nov. 25, 1872, the British withdrew from the island.
One interesting aspect of the island is that you can find the San Juan Island National Historical Park and it is the only place in a U.S. National Park where a foreign flag is hoisted on a regular basis over U.S. Soil. The flag and the flagpole were provided by the British government as a symbol of friendship.
Information comes from CanadasHistory.ca, Wikipedia, Historic-UK.com, National Park Service, HistoryAnswers.co.uk, Modern Farmer, Atlas Obscura,