By Chuck Woodbury
One of the America’s most unusual wars involved only one casualty – a pig – and yet it could have changed the course of history. The bizarre conflict took place on San Juan Island and involved American and British troops, and even warships.
The Pig War began on June 15, 1859, when an American settler named Lyman Cutlar shot and killed a trespassing pig belonging to Englishman Charles Griffin of the Hudson Bay Company. “It was eating my potatoes,” said Cutlar, who had already warned Griffin to keep his pig out of his potato patch. “It is up to you to keep your potatoes out of my pig,” was Griffin’s reply.
Normally, the shooting of a pig would be a small matter, but American and British tempers were short in those days. Both the United States and England claimed the San Juan Islands; ill-defined boundary lines were to blame.
When British authorities threatened to arrest pig-killer Cutlar, his fellow Americans called for U.S. military protection – which they got in the form of the 9th Infantry.
The Brits responded by dispatching three warships under the command of Capt. Geoffrey Hornby.
Forces on both sides grew, but guns remained silent. A month passed without incident. British Rear Adm. Robert L. Bayes, commander of British Naval forces in the Pacific, did his best to avoid war. He would not, he said, “involve two great nations in a war over a squabble about a pig.”
Yet, the scene remained tense and potentially explosive. By August 10, American forces numbered 461; British forces numbered 2,140 with five warships.
When word reached Washington, officials were shocked that the shooting of a pig could cause such an international incident. President James Buchanan dispatched General Winfield Scott, commanding general of the U.S. Army, to investigate and hopefully contain the potentially deadly affair.
Scott got both sides to agree to restrain their guns while a solution was worked out. During this time, both countries kept token forces on hand – at what are now National Historic Sites called American Camp and British Camp.
The paramount issue was who owned San Juan Island – the Americans or the British.
For twelve years, including the Civil War period, the issue was debated. It wasn’t until 1872 that the question was put to a third party for a decision. On October 21, Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany declared the San Juan Islands American property; land north of the 49th parallel was Canadian, to the south it was American. A month later, British troops departed.
To visit San Juan Island, you’ll need to hop a ferry from Anacortes in USA or Sydney on Vancouver Island, B.C.
And so ended the Pig War. If things had gone differently – and war had actually begun – who knows what would have happened. Would the angry British have then sided with the Confederacy in the Civil War? If so, how would that have affected that war’s outcome? Would it have swung the balance of power toward the South?
If so, the world would be a far different place today – and all because of a hungry pig in a potato patch.
You can learn more about the Pig War by touring San Juan Island National Historical Park, open year-round except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Admission is free.