I don’t know why they called it the “Pig War”. The pig wasn’t mad at anybody. From the sketchy description we have it seems likely he was a Large Black, a breed “…known for its very docile nature, and …unaggressive temperament…”, according to Wikipedia. It would seem more logical then to call it “Lyman Cutlar’s War”, since he was the one with the musket, and he was pretty worked up on the morning of June 15, 1859, when he said he discovered the "scrofa domesticus" rooting in his potato patch. An unidentified male human was, according to Lyman, leaning on Lyman’s fence and laughing at the pig’s misdeeds. So outraged was Lyman that he immediately fetched his musket and dispatched the offending porker to Hog-Heaven, whereupon the human ran into the woods;' or so Lyman said.
Okay, it wasn’t charging Cossacks, and the pig wasn’t Napoleon from Animal Farm. But Lyman was an American and the two-toed ungulant was the property of the English owned Hudson’s Bay Company - and you get the feeling that somebody was looking for an excuse to start a shooting war.
In 1846 the United States and Great Britain thought they had avoided just this kind of trouble by agreeing to a U.S./Canadian border along the 49th parallel westward from the Rocky Mountains to the middle of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The border line on the map then made a jog to the south to allow the already settled Fort Victoria on Vancouver Island to remain on the British side of the border.
The problem was that right in the middle of the strait were the San Juan Islands, the largest of which was the 54 square miles of the island of San Juan. When the original border was drawn nobody in London or Washington knew the islands were even there. But as soon as London realized the truth, The Hudson Bay Company opened a sheep ranch, Belle Vue Farm, on the south coast of San Juan island, and notified the Americans that they now considered all of the San Juan islands to be English property.
The Americans countered, in 1853, by creating Washington Territory, and incorporating the San Juan islands into Washington's Whatcom County. Washington Territory even dispatched a sheriff to San Juan to collect taxes, and arrest the scofflaws, i.e. English citizens. But Charles Griffin, the Belle Vue Farm manager, (and owner of the aforementioned pig) treated the warrent as if it were a joke. The sheriff returned home, dragging 30 kidnapped and bleating sheep as compensation for his failure to place the British Empire under arrest.
And there the situation probably would have remained, except that in March of 1858 gold was discovered in British Columbia. This drew an instant wave of American prospectors, the vast majority of whom did not find any gold. But, over the winter of 1858/59, about 30 of the ambitious, restless but thin-blooded Americans, including one Lyman Cutlar, escaped the brutal Canadian winter along the Fraser River by moving to the more temperate coastal climate of San Juan Island. Once they reached San Juan island, and being belivers in "Manifest Destiny", they immediately started behaving as if they were the landlords, including executing English pigs for eating American potatoes.
This might be the place to point out that I think Layman Cutlar’s story is far too convenient. He claims the pig invaded his potato patch on the very anniversary of the signing of the 1846 treaty - June 15th. Secondly, he mentions a human witness and a fence, both important proof of ownership under American homesteader law. And then there was his behavior post his pork-a-cide.
Lyman offered to pay ten dollars for the deceased little ham hock, a fair price back east. But this being the wilds of British Columbia the British manager, Mr. Griffin (above), demanded one hundred dollars, a more accurate if slightly inflated quotation. When Lyman refused to even counter that offer, an arrest warrant was issued for Lyman Cutlar. And even though the warrant was never executed the local Americans appealed to their local governor of Washington Territory, for a redress of grievances.
That request eventually went to Brigadier General William Selby Harney (above), a native Tennesaen who had inherited Andrew Jacksons hatred of the British and the command of Washington Territory. Harney immediately dispatched 66 soldiers to San Juan, under the command of the mecurial Captain George Picket.
Being a hopeless romantic George Picket arrived on San Juan and announced, “We’ll make a Bunker Hill of it”, even though his orders were to avoid shooting (and evidently not remembering that Bunker Hill was an American defeat). Picket encouraged his men to taunt the British sailors and marines dispatched to keep an eye on the Americans. It seems he was also hoping to start a shooting war.
Pickett's provocative behavior led to British and then American and then to more British reinforcements, until there were five British warships with 2,000 men and 70 cannons anchored off San Juan island, facing less than 500 Americans with 14 cannons. The island had become a powder keg guarded by children playing with matches.
It was at this point that President of the United States, James Buchanan, first learned about the dead pig on San Juan…from the newspapers. He ordered 77 year old General-in-chief Winfield Scott to get out there and get things under control. The President would probably have agreed with the British Admiral who said the players on the scene seemed determined to “…involve two great nations in a war over a squabble about a pig”.
It took the ancient Scott (above) eight months to travel from Washington, D.C. down the Atlantic coast, across the Carribean, on horseback across the Isthmus of Panama and then up the Pacific coast to Washington Territory. But once there, as commanding officer, he quickly negotiated a truce. Both sides agreed to reduce their forces to 100 men each, and, at British insistance, Picket was replaced. Immediately a sensible calm was restored.
Tourists boated out from British Vancouver to observe the dueling artillery practices and stare at the soldiers, while officers from both sides shared whiskey and cigars in farm manager Charles Griffin’s home. I'm willing to bet that they also shared an occasional ham. Certain that an eventual compromise would be reached, and having the distraction of a civil war looming back in America, General Scott wasted no time in returning to Washington, D.C.
But almost the minute General Scott left Washington Territory, General Harney ordered Picket back to San Juan Island to resume his beligerant command. Clearly Harney’s intent was to stir up more trouble. But when word of Pickett’s reinstatement reached Washington, D.C., Harney was immediately relieved of his command. And that was pretty much the end of General Harney’s career. He was allowed to quietly retire in 1863, just about the time that his former junior officer, George Pickett, was directing 15,000 rebels charging across the battlefield at Gettysburg.
If Pickett had succeeded in starting a war with England over San Juan Island in 1860, I have to wonder if he would have still resigned his commission that year and joined the Confederacy. Or perhaps his and Harney’s plan all along had been to distract Washington, D.C. with a war in Washington Territory, making it easier for the South to seccede. There were plenty of Americans in 1860, including Abraham Lincoln’s new Secretary of State, William Seward, who thought a war with England would rally the south back to defense of the American Union, and a few who felt such a war would have the opposite effect.
All such ideas were pipe dreams. It is not an accident that Lyman Cutlar disappeared from history when no war was fought in defense of his potato patch. He also disappeared from San Juan island. The border dispute was finally settled in 1871, when America and England submitted to “binding arbitration”, overseen by Kaiser William I of Germany. And in 1872 The Kaiser awarded the San Juan Islands to America. So America won the islands without anybody else being killed, not even another pig.
Every morning on San Juan Island, Washington state, U.S. Park Service Rangers raise the stars and stripes over the "American Camp" on the south coast of the island, and the the British Union Jack over the north coast. And this is the only spot on American soil where the U.S. government affords honors to a foreign flag, in memory of two nations too sensible to fight a war, and of a pig who gave his life so that others might live.