On June 15, 1859, Lyman Cutlar, an American settler on San Juan Island, shoots and kills a pig belonging to the British Hudson's Bay Company. The shooting ignites a long-simmering dispute between the United States and Great Britain over ownership of the San Juans, as both nations send troops to occupy the island. The hostile forces face each other for more than 10 years from camps on opposite ends of the island before the dispute is settled, but the pig remains the only casualty of what comes to be known as the "Pig War."
In 1846, when Britain and the United States settled the disputed international boundary by establishing the mainland border along the 49th Parallel and allocating all of Vancouver Island to Britain, they failed to resolve the status of the San Juan Islands. The Treaty of Oregon stated that the boundary ran along the 49th Parallel "to the middle of the Channel which separated the continent from Vancouver Island" (Journeys to the Past, 39). In fact, there are two channels or straits between Vancouver Island and the mainland, with the San Juans located between them. Naturally, Americans asserted that the boundary should run down Haro Strait, the westerly of the two, giving them the islands, while the British insisted that the boundary run along the easterly Rosario Strait, leaving them the islands.
As white settlement on the islands increased, so did tensions between the two nationalities. In 1853, the Hudson's Bay Company established an extensive sheep farm on the south end of San Juan Island, angering Washingtonians. By 1858, unsuccessful American gold hunters returning from the Fraser River fields were settling on the island near the Hudson's Bay farm. The Territorial Legislature urged the U.S. Congress to evict the foreign corporations from the Territory, but Congress did not act.
Matters came to a head on June 15, 1859, when Cutlar found the pig, owned by Hudson's Bay Company manager Charles Griffin, rooting for potatoes in his garden, and shot it. When the British authorities sought to arrest Cutlar, the American settlers armed themselves and requested military protection.
The anti-British commander of American forces in the region, Brig. Gen. William S. Harney, seized the opportunity to send 66 men to the island under the command of Capt. George E. Pickett (who went on to fame as a Confederate general in the Civil War). On July 27, Pickett occupied a strategic spot near the Hudson's Bay Company wharf and farm. This angered James Douglas, governor of the Crown Colony of British Columbia, who sent three warships under Capt. Geoffrey Hornby to dislodge Pickett. Despite being heavily outnumbered, Pickett insisted he would fight to the last man if attacked. The British chose to avoid an armed clash.
Through the summer of 1859, both sides continued to send reinforcements. By the end of August, there were 461 American soldiers, who had protected their camp with an earthen redoubt on which they positioned 14 cannons. Opposing them were five British warships carrying 167 guns and 2,140 troops.
Cooler Heads Prevail
Authorities in Washington, D.C., were shocked when they learned that the pig shooting had triggered an international confrontation. Gen. Harney was officially rebuked and later reassigned for allowing the situation to get out of hand. President Buchanan sent the commanding general of the Army, Gen. Winfield Scott, to contain the situation. Gen. Scott and Gov. Douglas of British Columbia negotiated an agreement in which a token force from each country would occupy the island until a settlement was reached. The American troops remained on the south side of the island in what became known as "American Camp." On March 21, 1860, British Royal Marines established "English Camp" on Garrison Bay on the north end of the island.
San Juan Island remained under joint occupation for 12 years. In the Treaty of Washington in 1871, Britain and the U.S. agreed to have the San Juan dispute arbitrated by Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany. On October 21, 1872, the Kaiser ruled that the boundary should run through Haro Strait, giving the San Juan Islands to the United States. The Royal Marines withdrew from English Camp on November 25, 1872, concluding the "Pig War" without any casualties except the pig itself.