The “Pig War” of 1859 was a confrontation between the United States and Great Britain over the location of the international border in the San Juan Islands. The conflict began when an American settler killed a pig owned by an employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company; it quickly grew to involve British warships and hundreds of troops on both sides. The root of the conflict was an earlier compromise between the two nations that resulted in American and British settlers sharing the disputed islands. Though called a war, it never actually degenerated into an armed conflict, and there were no human casualties. In late 1859, the two sides agreed to a joint military occupation of the islands; this lasted until 1872, when the San Juan Islands became part of US territory.
San Juan Islands
The San Juan Islands are an archipelago in the Pacific Northwest between the US state of Washington and Vancouver Island, British Columbia. The islands include Orcas Island, San Juan Island, Lopez Island and Shaw Island. They are part of the traditional lands of the Coast Salish people. Spanish explorer Francisco de Eliza first charted the islands in 1791 and gave them the “San Juan” name. The following year, both the Spanish and British (under George Vancouver) further explored the area. British and American settlement soon followed.
The Pig War is rooted in the Oregon boundary dispute. Throughout much of the early to mid-19th century, the United States and Great Britain disagreed over the exact location of the Oregon Territory’s northern boundary. The Anglo-American agreement of 1818 allowed citizens of both countries to share the disputed territory and provided both nations access to the region’s navigable waterways.
The Oregon Treaty of 1846 partly resolved the issue, but the wording was vague. The treaty stated that the border between the two countries would extend along the 49th parallel of latitude due west until the “middle of the channel that separates the continent from Vancouver Island” and then south along the channel to the Juan de Fuca Strait and then to sea. The problem was that there were two channels, Rosario Strait and Haro Strait, but the treaty did not specify which one; the San Juan Islands lay between the two channels. The British preferred to use Rosario Strait, which would leave the San Juan Islands in their territory. The Americans preferred Haro Strait, which left the islands in their territory.
British settlement of San Juan Island began in earnest when the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) set up a salmon-curing station in 1851; this was followed by a sheep farm in 1853, the same year the Americans made their claim to San Juan Island. By 1859, between 14 and 30 American settlers had also taken up residence there. British authorities considered the Americans illegal squatters.
On 15 June 1859, a pig wandered into the vegetable patch of an American farmer named Lyman Cutler (or Cutlar). This was not the first time the pig had been in Cutler’s patch, rooting for potatoes. Cutler decided he had had enough and shot the offending swine. The pig was owned by Charles Griffin, a British employee of the HBC, who confronted Cutler. Though Cutler offered $10 in compensation, Griffin demanded more money and ultimately reported Cutler to the British authorities, who threatened to arrest him.
In response, the local American military commander sent 64 troops to the island to defend the American settlers. This led James Douglas, governor of Vancouver Island, to send British frigate HMS Tribune to the island, with instructions to dislodge the American troops. It was soon joined by other warships. Tensions increased as the Americans requested additional reinforcements from the mainland. By mid-August, American forces comprised more than 400 soldiers and eight cannon; British forces in the area included five warships and more than 1,000 men. While the Americans constructed gun fortifications, the British conducted cannon drills. A major conflict seemed inevitable.
Royal Navy officers played an important role in defusing the situation. Despite pressure from Governor Douglas, Captain Geoffrey Phipps Hornby of HMS Tribune decided not to land any marines until the arrival of his superior officer, Royal Navy Rear Admiral Robert L. Baynes. When Baynes arrived in August, he was shocked by the situation and told Governor Douglas that he would not "involve two great nations in a war over a squabble about a pig.” Apparently, other officers felt much the same. Despite mounting tensions, British and American officers were on friendly terms, socializing and attending church services together.
Negotiation and Resolution
When news of the confrontation reached Washington, D.C., American president James Buchanan sent General Winfield Scott, commander in chief of the US Army. He instructed Scott to negotiate with Governor Douglas and bring about a peaceful conclusion to the dispute. Scott had helped resolve border disputes between the two countries in the 1830s.
Scott arrived in the San Juan Islands in October 1859. He and Douglas agreed to reduce the number of troops, guns and warships in the area; each nation would leave a small token force and share responsibility for the contested islands until they could find a permanent solution. The joint military occupation continued for the next 12 years. For part of that time, the United States was embroiled in the American Civil War (1861–65).
In 1871, the United States and Great Britain negotiated the Treaty of Washington to settle several claims between the two countries, including ownership of the San Juan Islands. They asked German Kaiser Wilhelm I to help settle the issue. The kaiser organized a three-person committee that met for about a year in Geneva, Switzerland. In October 1872, it decided that the islands were American territory.