The Pig War: The Tale of the San Juan Island Dispute

By Norman K Archer

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San Juan Island is the largest in a chain of 172 islands, collectively known as the “San Juan Islands” that runs along the border between Canada and the United States on the southeast side of Vancouver Island.

After years of haggling, on June 15, 1846, both countries signed the Oregon Treaty, which settled the border at the 49th parallel, dipping a little to encompass all of Vancouver Island on the Canadian side. The agreement referred to what it called the “Middle of the Channel” where the San Juan Islands are located, but unfortunately, there are two channels, Haro Strait to the west and Rosario Strait to the east. And therein lies the seed of controversy. Both the United States and Britain claimed sovereignty over the Islands and to cement its claim, the Hudson’s Bay Company established a sheep ranch on San Juan, putting a stubborn Irishman named Charles Griffin in charge. Griffin loved rearing prize pigs.

The 1858 Gold Rush brought thousands of new arrivals into the area, some of whom decided to stay, including some 17 American settlers who arrived on San Juan Island to stake their claims. Among them was a obstinate farmer named Lyman Cutlar who loved growing potatoes. One day, Cutlar was horrified to see a big black pig, snuffling through his potato patch and dispatched the offending animal with his shotgun. The irate Griffin demanded compensation.

“I will give you $10 for your pig.”

“The pig was not yours to kill. You will give me $100.”

Cutlar was furious.

“It’s your job to keep your pig out of my potatoes!” he roared.

“It’s your job to keep your potatoes out of my pig!” replied Griffin and immediately reported the matter to the authorities who issued an arrest warrant. Cutlar, as an American citizen, called for military protection and the “Pig War” began. Trouble had been brewing for months, with both sides flexing their muscles, but it was a pig with a penchant for potatoes that was the final straw.

The first contingent of 66 American soldiers came up from Oregon, under the command of Captain George Pickett. Pickett was to go on to earn notoriety in the Civil War when General Lee placed him, now a Major-General, in command of a Confederate infantry division at Gettysburg in 1863. On his own initiative, he launched an attack known as “Pickett’s Charge,” which was a bloodbath. Many historians point to that ill-fated charge as the turning point in the Civil War and a major factor in the ultimate defeat of the Confederates. Pickett’s orders now were to prevent the British from landing on San Juan Island. In response, the British sent three warships to the Island. The situation continued to escalate, and, by August 1859, 461 American soldiers and 14 cannons faced five British warships with 70 guns and 2,140 men. Not one shot was fired.

Frustrated by the stalemate, Governor James Douglas in Victoria ordered the marines to attack. Their commander refused. “Two great nations in a war over a squabble about a pig is foolish,” he said. Meanwhile, on the Island, the two sides merely exchanged verbal insults.

News reached Washington, and President Buchanan sent representatives to Victoria to negotiate a peace treaty. Unfortunately, a worse selection of negotiators would be difficult to find! On the American side was General Harney, known for his foul temper and equally foul mouth. Reports of his insubordination were already piling up on Washington desks. On the British side was Governor James Douglas, “Old Square Toes” who was known never to yield one inch if he could help it.

When Buchanan learned of Harney’s unilateral and unwise actions, he replaced him with a man with diplomatic skills, Winfield Scott. When Harney heard he was being replaced, he burst into a fury and committed one last act of gross insubordination by sending military reinforcements to the Island.

Admiral Baynes, a calm and reasonable man, now represented the British position. Finally, when the dust had settled, it was agreed that the Islands would remain, for a time, under joint military custody, with no more than 100 men on each side. The British took possession of the north part of the Island and the Americans took the south. Soon, warm friendships developed between the two occupying forces, celebrating each other’s national holidays and organizing athletic competitions and games. The only threat to peace was the consumption of huge amounts of alcohol on the many festive occasions they enjoyed together. Still to this day, the British Union Jack is hoisted over what used to be the British camp.

Throughout the ensuing 10-year period of tranquility, the American forces were under the command of Major Henry Martyn Robert. This post suited his peace-loving nature well, and he filled his time indulging his favourite hobby - studying Parliamentary procedure. The fruits of his tenure on San Juan Island were published in a book he wrote that has become the standard manual still in common use, Robert’s Rules of Order.

But still, the matter of the exact boundary was unresolved. The British insisted the “middle of the channel” mentioned in the Oregon Treaty indicated the Rosario Strait, placing the San Juan Islands on the Canadian side. The Americans wanted the Haro Strait to be the dividing line, which would put the Islands under American jurisdiction.

It was decided to refer the matter to Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany for arbitration. It was generally thought that a compromise would be found by following a very clear channel that ran between the Islands, putting half of them in American hands and the remainder in British. To most people’s surprise, the three-man arbitration tribunal decreed the Haro Strait to be the border, ceding all the Islands to the Americans. Many felt that the decision was biased and was a German attempt to ingratiate their country with the Americans.

These results continued to rankle for many years in the minds of the citizens of Victoria, and the consequent dislike of Germans festered, provoking often some bitter exchanges. But disaster had been averted, and the war in which the only casualty was one large, hungry black pig was over.




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