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This Day in History: The Pig War

On this day in 1859, an American farmer shoots a pig. The incident nearly sparks open warfare between the United Kingdom and the United States. The conflict that followed has come to be known as the “Pig War.”

“The killing of the pig was the spark that almost set aflame an all-out war between Britain and the United States on the northwest coast of North America,” historian Rosemary Neering explains. “But the standoff on San Juan Island could have been the Sheep War, or the Customs Inspector War, or the You’re Too Damned Arrogant War . . . . [The pig was] one of those small incidents that have much larger repercussions.”

The U.S. Army builds the Roberts Redoubt, a fortification thrown up during the Pig War. It was meant to keep the British warships at bay. (National Park Service painting)

Tensions had been building for some time as both American and British Canadian pioneers sought to claim the thriving marine lands near the northwestern tip of modern-day Washington State. The Oregon Treaty of 1846 was supposed to resolve boundaries issues between the two countries—except it didn’t.

The treaty set the boundary at the 49th parallel from the Rocky Mountains to the sea. Once over water, the boundary was to continue westward “to the middle of the channel which separates the continent from Vancouver’s Island.” Unfortunately, “the middle of the channel” was a flawed description: It could refer either to Haro Strait or to Rosario Strait. One interpretation gave Britain claim to San Juan Island. The other gave the island to the United States.

Uncertainty hung over the area for years. A British company had thousands of sheep grazing on the island, but American settlers were there, too.

Matters came to a head on June 15, 1859, when American farmer Lyman Cutlar found a pig rooting in his garden. The pig had “been at several times a great annoyance,” he said. He shot the pig, which turned out to be owned by a local British man, Charles Griffin.

As the story goes, Griffin confronted Cutlar, who protested that the pig was eating his potatoes. Griffin is said to have responded: “Rubbish. It’s up to you to keep your potatoes out of my pig!” Whether or not that exact exchange happened, Cutlar offered reimbursement. It was refused, and Cutlar was threatened with arrest.

Cutlar had no intention of being arrested, and he sought military protection from Brig. Gen. William Harney, of the Department of Oregon.

American soldiers were dispatched to the island, so the British responded with warships and Royal Marines. The two sides faced off against each other, occasionally upping the ante with new reinforcements or with military drills. Matters threatened to get ugly.

The situation had spiraled out of control, leaving officials in D.C. shocked. General Winfield Scott was dispatched to handle the problem, but it was October before he arrived. Nevertheless, Scott helped to calm the situation, as did Rear Adm. R. Lambert Baynes, commander of British naval forces in the region. Baynes had already expressed his horror at involving “two great nations in a war over a squabble about a pig.”

Ultimately, a joint military occupation of the island was agreed to, and each side withdrew most of their reinforcements.

Would you believe the joint occupation continued for more than a decade? Finally, the two countries submitted to international arbitration by Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm I. That arbitration would ultimately rule in favor of Americans, and the 1872 ruling made San Juan Island part of the United States.

At least reportedly, the America-friendly ruling may have occurred because Americans remembered to send a negotiator who spoke German.

“Peace had finally come to the 49th parallel,” a National Park Service website concludes, “and San Juan Island would be long remembered for the ‘war’ in which the only casualty was a pig.”

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