The History Thread Fights the Pig War

From 1859 to 1872, the United States and the United Kingdom were technically in a low-grade conflict sparked by a dispute over a pig.

Both nations claimed the island of San Juan, in the Salish Sea, between Vancouver on one hand and Washington on the other. Both nations had colonial interests installed on the island. One of these, an American by the name of Lyman Cutlar, raised crops. Another, a sheep herder for the Hudson’s Bay Company named Charles Griffith, had some pigs along with his other livestock.

On June 15th, Cutlar discovered that one of Griffith’s boars was eating potatoes out of his garden, and one of Griffith’s farmhands standing and laughing. So enraging was this, that Cutlar took his rifle and shot the pig dead.

Cutlar offered ten dollars for the dead pig as compensation, but Griffin demanded one hundred, more than Cutlar might have expected to make in months. Cutlar protested. After all, the pig was culpable; it had been eating his potatoes. Griffin is said to have retorted, “It is up to you to keep your potatoes out of my pig.”

It is here that things began to rapidly spiral out of control.

The next day, a representative of the Hudson’s Bay Company arrived at Cutlar’s house to arrest him and take him to Victoria for trial. Cutlar pointing his gun at the man, allowed that he might one day be taken to Victoria, but not alive. The Hudson’s Bay man left alone.

Nonetheless, the attempt by the British to arrest an American citizen prompted a military response: 34-year-old Captain George Pickett was dispatched along with sixty-six men and orders to keep the British from landing. In early August, three British warships under Captain Hornby arrived. “I have 1,100 men on board the ships ready to land tonight,” Hornby informed Pickett.

Pickett, displaying the same military acumen that had earned him the last place among his fellow graduates at West Point, was unmoved by the overwhelming numbers. “I will fight you as long as I have a man,” he said.

The Englishman left with a threat of attack, and Pickett deployed his small force along the shore. “We’ll make a Bunker Hill of it,” he told his men, offering them these words of reassurance, “and don’t be afraid of their big guns.”

But the British held off on recreating their victory, preferring to escalate instead. By August 10, both sides had increased their forces, so that five hundred American soldiers and fourteen cannon sat staring at the five British warships and two thousand men sitting just offshore. James Douglas, Governor of Vancouver Island, ordered Rear Admiral Robert Baynes, now commanding the British forces, to attack and seize the island. Baynes refused the order flat out, declining to lead, as he put it, “two great nations in a war over a squabble about a pig.”

Eventually, negotiations were opened, and a temporary agreement was reached: both countries would occupy the island with one hundred troops each, the British in the north, and the Americans in the south. Each side would rule over its own citizens. For twelve years, something like a peace reigned on the island. American, meanwhile, plunged into the Civil War, no doubt contributing to their suppressed appetite for war with the British. On San Juan, the two sides would meet to celebrate holidays like American Independence Day, and to organize sporting competitions, the Americans learning to play football, the British learning baseball. Henry Martyn Robert, the eponymous author of Robert’s Rules of Order, spent a portion of his military service assigned to San Juan. Allegedly, the greatest threat to the security of both nations was the large amount of alcohol that flowed freely on the island and among the troops.

In 1871, the matter of which nation owned San Juan was referred to the newly-minted Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany for arbitration. The Kaiser’s three-man commission spent a year figuring out the answer, eventually deciding in favor of the United States. In November 1872, British troops left the island to their American counterparts. Today, the British Camp is one of the few places where the American National Park Service hoists the flag of a foreign nation.