The Pig War of 1859

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Over the course of history, humans have fought over land, honor, wealth, and religion. 

But perhaps the oddest, and dumbest war which almost ever broke out between two major world powers….was over a pig. 

A single pig. 

Learn more about the British-American conflict known as the Pig War, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily. 

If you remember back to my episode about the US-Canadian border, the British and the Americans originally set the boundary in the west on the 49th parallel.

This was how they divided up the Oregon Territory, with the exception that the British got full control of Vancouver Island. 

The area between Vancouver Island and the mainland wasn’t resolved in the treaty.  The treaty said that the border would go down the middle of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, which is what separates Washington State, and Vancouver Island, British Columbia.

The problem was, there was more than one way to define “the middle of the channel”. 

Within the Strait of Juan de Fuca are the San Juan Islands. The middle of the channel could be defined as going through the center of the islands, or it could be defined as going around the islands in the deepest part of the channel. 

It wasn’t really clear which side of the border the islands lied on. The US and Britain agreed to hold the islands in dispute and left it at that. 

However, that dispute became the basis of what became known as the Pig War. 

In the strait are several islands, the most important of which is San Juan Island. The island controlled the mouth of the strait, so both the Americans and the British wanted to control the island. 

To that end, both the Americans and the British (aka Canadians) had settlers on the island. The British Hudson Bay Company had set up a sheep ranch on the island and about 25 American settlers also had set up camp on the island. 

The incident which started everything occurred on June 15, 1859, 13 years to the day after the signing of the Oregon Treaty which explicitly left the sovereignty of the islands unresolved.

An American by the name of Lyman Cutlar, found a pig rooting around his garden eating his potatoes. This wasn’t the first time this had happened. He was so angered at the pig that he picked up his gun and shot it.

The pig belonged to an Irishman named Charles Griffin who worked for the Hudson Bay Company and was a neighbor to Cutlar. He had several pigs that he let wander around freely.

Cutlar offered Griffin $10 in compensation for the loss of the pig. Griffin refused the offer and insisted on $100. 

Cutlar then said he didn’t have to pay him anything because the pig had been trespassing on his garden and eating his crops. 

According to one account of the story, which may or may not be true, Cutlar told Griffen, “You pig was eating my potatoes”, to which Griffen replied, “It is up to you to keep your potatoes out of my pig”.

From here, to paraphrase Ron Burgundy, things escalated quickly. 

Griffen contacted the British authorities and asked that Cutlar be arrested for shooting his pig and the rest of the Americans be evicted.

The American settlers, not liking the idea of the British being able to arrest American’s on what they believed to be their soil or the idea of being forcibly removed, asked Brig. Gen. William S. Harney, the staunchly anti-British military head of the Oregon Territory, to send in troops.

On July 15, he sent Capt. George Pickett, who later became a Confederate General famous for Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg, and 63 men to the island. They set up camp near the Hudson Bay Company sheep station. 

The British Governor of Vancouver Island, James Douglas, was angered at this intrusion by the Americans, so he contacted Captain Geoffrey Phipps Hornby of the Royal Navy who was sent to San Juan Island with the 31 gun steam frigate HMS Tribune. This was soon followed by the HMS Satellite and HMS Plumper which had 31 and 21 guns respectively. 

Throughout July, the British kept bringing in marines for a possible amphibious landing. 

Hornby refused to take any action and instead waited for Rear Admiral  Lambert Baynes, who was the head of the entire eastern pacific fleet of the Royal Navy.

All the while, more Americans kept streaming onto the island. 

By August 10, not even two months after the pig was shot, there were 461 Americans with 14 cannons and five British warships mounting 70 guns with 2,140 marines and sailors staring each other down. 

Governor Douglas was adamant that Admiral Baynes land on the island. He refused to do so saying that “two great nations in a war over a squabble about a pig” was ridiculous.  

The American commanders were given basically the same order. Not to shoot first and only defend yourself if necessary. 

By the time word of this incident got back to both Washington and London, both governments ordered everyone to stand down, as this would be perhaps the dumbest reason ever to start a war. 

In negotiations, both countries agreed that the island would be jointly occupied by both militaries, with forces of 100 men each. Soon after this was resolved, the US Civil War started, and a final resolution of the conflict was put on hold. 

During the Civil War, British authorities on Vancouver island urged the British Government to take back most of the Puget Sound region as the Americans were occupied, but nothing was done.

In 1871, 12 years after the military occupation of the island, both sides agreed to international arbitration by Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, who awarded the islands to the United States

On November 25, 1872, the British withdrew from the island and the Americans rushed in to hoist an American giant flag on the flag pole at the British camp, only to find that the pole had been chopped down. 

The British government eventually replaced the flagpole in 1998, and today is the only place where a foreign flag flies on land owned by the US Federal Government, in recognition of the peaceful relations between the two countries for the last 200 years. 

There is one interesting footnote that might put the Pig War into perspective. After the 200th anniversary of the war of 1812 between the Americans and the British, historians found notes from British ministers after the war which said if there was any future war with the United States, they would abandon all of their possessions in North America, including all of what is today Canada, rather than try to fight another war. 

The cost of keeping it, in the face of a rapidly growing United States, was too great, and it would take resources away from what they considered their real prize, India.  

So, if things had turned out just a little bit differently, the nation of Canada might not exist today all because a pig got into someone’s garden.