The Pig War began because of an American settler who shot an Irishman’s pig. Ironically, the shooting occurred out of anger since the farmer grew tired of the pig feasting on his garden. Little did he realize that this event would stir up an underlying border conflict between the Americans and British.
At Gun Made, I usually focus on offering you guides and reviews of the different guns I’ve tested. However, I thought it would be fun to veer off the path a bit and share the fascinating (and humorous) Pig War history with you.
Ready to learn more details about how a pig started a war? Let’s dive in!
What Was the Cause of the Pig War?
The Pig War occurred because of a border conflict that the United States and the United Kingdom had about the San Juan Islands. The San Juan Islands sit in the Pacific Ocean in British Columbia near Vancouver Island, Canada, and Washington, United States.
Presently, the San Juan Islands belong to the United States. And though Canadian history does include a chapter on the Pig War, they were largely spectators.
A deep-rooted conflict between the Americans and British led to the Pig War, beginning with the Oregon Treaty in June of 1846, about thirteen years before the war started. In theory, the treaty resolved an Oregon boundary dispute between the two nations since it divided Oregon and the Columbia District between American and Britain, at the 49th parallel.
However, the devil was in the details—the treaty stated that the Pacific northwest territory would divide through the middle of the channel that splits North America from Vancouver Island.
What’s the issue with that, you ask?
Well, it turned out that two straights passed through the “middle of the channel.” They were as follows:
- Haro Straight to the west of the San Juan Islands
- Rosario Strait to the east of the San Juan Islands
To complicate things, they didn’t have GPS and other instruments in the 1800s to have the accurate maps we rely on today. So, they consulted with two maps: one from 1798 and the other from 1845.
Unfortunately, neither map offered precise details of the arrangement of the Vancouver and Gulf Islands. And thus, it didn’t help the Americans and British to resolve the issue of the two straits.
International Boundary Conundrums
Let’s fast forward to 1856—ten years after the straight debacle first began. At this point, the two great nations of the U.S. and Britain went about their lives (a bit begrudgingly, we can imagine) without solving their border conflict.
Finally, the United States and Britain agreed to start a Boundary Commission. Among the many boundaries they managed, they had a particular interest in resolving the border issue from the Strait of Georgia to the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Each nation appointed three representatives: a First Commissioner, Second Commissioner, and a Secretary. In June of 1857, the six representatives had their first meeting on the British HMS Satellite ship.
If you’re bracing for a war here, you’re going to need to wait a while longer. These ship meetings ran without bloodshed, although it certainly wasn’t an agreeable type of situation. Between meetings and letters, British First Commissioner James Charles Prevost required the following:
- The channel discussed had to separate continental North America from Vancouver Island fully.
- The boundary had to pass in a southward direction.
- One must be able to navigate the channel by boat.
The British maintained that the true channel indicated in the treaty was the Rosario Strait, while the Americans stated it was the Haro Strait.
At this point, you already know that the original Treaty of Oregon lacked substance in defining the exact location of the straight. Unfortunately, such terminology discrepancies carried over during the British and American talks.
Americans declared that the “southward direction” discussed at the Boundary Commission was a general location and not a specific one. They claimed that Haro Strait is a wider passage and that its purpose wasn’t to divide North America from Vancouver Island but to divide the San Juan Islands.
The British didn’t buy this American perspective. They challenged Commissioner Prevost to show solid proof that the Oregon Treaty didn’t refer to the Rosario Strait.
Americans responded with enthusiasm. They presented two new maps, one released by the United States government and another issued by a Surveyor General of Oregon in 1852. But the British didn’t buy it, restating their case that the Haro Strait sits in a westerly direction and that its channel isn’t fully navigable.
The Attempt to Compromise
In case you’ve lost track of the years, it’s now December 1857. At that point, the British and Americans agreed with two things—that they didn’t agree and that they would never agree.
After six in-person meetings, British Commissioner Prevost proposed a compromise: they could redraw the line through the San Juan Channel. The United States would gain all islands with the exception of San Juan.
As you can probably imagine, the Americans weren’t happy with this offer. They rejected it immediately, and each nation reported back to their governments, letting them know that a deal was seemingly impossible.
Life Under Sovereignty
If your government vocabulary is rusty, sovereignty refers to a governmental body having authority over a set territory.
So, you might be wondering at this point—who had sovereignty over San Juan Island? In early 1859, both Britain and the Americans had it, and, later, joint military occupation.
We can imagine that it wasn’t a comfortable experience for either party, but each nation did what they could with their sovereignty. For the Royal Marines, this meant building a sheep ranch on the island with the Hudson’s Bay Company’s support. For the Americans, it meant sending American settlers and abandoning Fort Bellingham (about 20 miles away). Between twenty-five and twenty-nine colonists, to be exact.
If there’s such a thing as a sovereignty winner, the British get the prize. They built Fort Victoria to the west. The fort had an excellent view of the Juan de Fauca Strait, where the Haro Strait enters.
Some prominent American Civil War era soldiers like George B. McClellan believed that General William S. Harney, who commanded the Department of Oregon, conspired to initiate war with the British. General Granville O. Haller later disproved this theory, although correspondence with America’s Civil War was evident: southerners wanted to distract the north in order to gain independence.
The Pig War Really Did Involve a Pig
You’ve likely been waiting for this moment, wanting to know if the Pig War involved a real pig. Hint: it did!
Let’s travel back to June 15, 1859, keeping in mind that they signed the Oregon Treaty on June 15, 1846. Perhaps surprisingly, the thirteenth anniversary of this signing didn’t cause mass uprisings in the area. Instead, an American farmer named Lyman Cutler found and shot a pig in his garden.
In his defense, Lyman didn’t know who the pig belonged to, just that it wasn’t the first time he encountered the animal dining on tubers in his garden. He killed the pig with a gun out of anger over losing yet even more of his produce.
Unfortunately, the pig belonged to Irish-born Charles Griffin. Charles let his pigs roam freely on San Juan Island while working at the Belle Vue sheep farm during the day. And since an American killed a British pig, it didn’t go over well with the British.
Here’s how the Pig War began:
- Lyman Cutler offered Charles $10 (comparable to almost $300 in today’s money) to cover the cost of the pig he killed.
- Charles refused Lyman’s offer; he asked for $100 instead (almost $3,000 in today’s money).
- Lyman then turned from being amicable to defensive, stating that he didn’t want to pay for the pig at all since it trespassed on his property.
- The British made moves to arrest Lyman, so the Americans on San Juan requested U.S. Army protection.
There are plenty of tales about the exchange between Lyman and Charles, who lived as peaceful neighbors before the pig shooting. One of the most notable accounts is when Charles said that keeping Lyman’s potatoes out of his pig wasn’t his responsibility. Clearly, the issue wasn’t over anti-British sentiment!
Calling in the Troops
After the pig shooting, the US military sent Captain Pickett and sixty-six soldiers to San Juan to keep the British military from arriving at San Juan Island. It didn’t stop the British—they feared American squatters would destroy the island, so they sent three British warships for a standoff.
George Pickett took up occupation near the sheep farm, which happened to be facing the British Satellite ship. Realizing this was a poor location, he and his troops moved to the higher ground of Griffin Bay and set up their cannon there.
Today, both the American and Great Britain camps are historical sites, in case you ever have the opportunity to visit San Juan Island.
By August of 1859, tensions continued to remain high, and more American and British troops flooded the area. At one point, British governor James Douglas wanted his troops to engage its American counterpoints. Surprisingly, British Rear Admiral Baynes refused.
His reason? It seemed silly to go to war over a pig.
In the following days, soldiers on either side tried to provoke each other, but they never exchanged fire.
What Ended the Pig War?
Needless to say, the prominent government officials in Washington and London were displeased when they found out about the so-called Pig War. It set the stage for a potentially devastating international fiasco, which neither party wanted.
General Winfield Scott, sent by President James Buchanan, traveled from New York and arrived in San Juan to speak with the British military. Both parties decided to maintain both of their militaries in San Juan with only 100 men on the island each until their governments reached a settlement.
They set up an English Camp on the northernmost part of San Juan and an American camp on the southern side. The settlement dragged on for twelve years, but they were happy ones for British and American troops who shared each other’s holidays and enjoyed social activities together.
Over a decade later, the British gained control of the entire Puget Sound region since the Americans dealt with the Civil War. By 1871, the UK and US signed the Treaty of Washington, which resolved numerous border issues.
Both countries agreed to end the San Juan issue using international arbitration with the support of German Emperor Kaiser Wilhelm I. Ultimately, the United States won the conflict, gaining the Haro Strait. Historians often credit the diplomatic powers of Admiral Geoffrey Hornby, of the Royal Navy, with the peaceful transition.
British troops withdrew from San Juan in November 1872, and the Americans did the same nearly two years later.
Pig War Facts
Below are some fun facts related to the Pig War.
- Spanish explorer Francisco de Eliza discovered San Juan. The Spanish had no involvement with the Pig War.
- The Pig War lasted 13 years, and neither party ever fired a shot.
- No humans died during the Pig War. Only one pig died, which marked the start of the war.
Where Can I Learn More About the Pig War?
Below are some excellent resources where you can learn more about the Pig War.
San Juan Island National Park Service: Details about the Pig War’s history and how to visit San Juan Island National Historical Park.
History Link: A two-part guide offering deep insight into the motives behind the Pig War.
Historic UK: A brief, easy-to-understand summary of the Pig War.
The Pig War: Standoff at Griffin Bay: An engaging and illustrated book about the conflict by Mike Vouri.
Nicknames for the Pig War
Although Pig War is the most common term for the 1859 British American war, you may also hear people refer to it by another name. These names include:
- Pig Episode
- Pig and Potato War
- San Juan Boundary Dispute
- Northwestern Boundary Dispute
Keep in mind that there was another so-called Pig War, AKA the Customs War, and preceded World War I.
Why Was the Pig War Considered an International War?
Many people referred to the Pig War as an international war because of conflict between Americans and British occupying the same territory.
Although the Pig War had a minimal impact on international relations in the scheme of things, both American and British authorities feared global repercussions if bloodshed occurred between their troops.
In fact, the conflict stayed within the local territory for so long that the national governments became worried about international conflict once they learned about the Pig War.
The Pig War is one of the strangest wars in world history: it lasted over a decade, and the only bloodshed came from a single pig. It’s interesting to think about how British and Americans would have resolved the San Juan Island border issue had American Lyman Cutler not killed a British pig. One thing is for sure—that pig will always have a place in history books.