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Pig War of 1859

Tensions fueled by the United States' territorial ambitions in the Pacific Northwest and Great Britain's determination to preserve her commercial empire, nearly escalated into an armed clash between U.S. and British forces in 1859 over possession of the San Juan Islands. The crisis was resolved peacefully through a combination of restraint, diplomacy, and arbitration.

The "Pig War", as the confrontation on San Juan Island came to be called, had its origin in the Anglo-American dispute over possession of the Oregon Country, that vast expanse of land consisting of the present states of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, parts of Montana and Wyoming, and the Province of British Columbia.

The bucolic, green and very beautiful San Juan National Historical Park is on San Juan Island in the Puget Sound. On one end of the island is "English Camp." "American Camp" sits on the other end, allowing our two countries to glare at each other across this small, hilly and forested island for nearly thirteen years in what is known as "The Pig War." The short version concerns a farmer - American - that was possibly squatting on land claimed by the Hudson Bay Company, who also owned a few pigs. The farmer was unhappy when these British pigs kept rooting up his potato patch until he finally shot one. The situation then quickly spiraled out of control.

An Anglo-American agreement of 1818 had provided for joint occupation of the Oregon Country, but by 1845 both parties had grown discontented with this arrangement. The British, determined to resist the tide of American migration sweeping across the Rocky Mountains, argued that the Americans were trespassing on land guaranteed to Britain by earlier treaties and explorations and through trading activities of the long-established Hudson's Bay Company.

Americans considered the British presence an affront to their "manifest destiny" and rejected the idea that the great land west of the Rockies should remain under foreign influence. Both nations blustered and threatened, but wiser counsels eventually prevailed and in June 1846 the Oregon question was resolved peacefully.

The Oregon Treaty of 1846 gave the United States undisputed possession of the Pacific Northwest south of the 49th parallel, extending the boundary "to the middle of the channel which separates the continent from Vancouver's Island; and thence southerly through the middle of the said channel, and of Fuca's straits to the Pacific Ocean." But while the treaty settled the larger boundary question, it created additional problems because its wording left unclear who owned San Juan Island.

The difficulty arose over that portion of the boundary described as the "middle of the channel" separating the British colony of Vancouver's Island from the mainland. There were actually two channels: one, Haro Strait, nearest Vancouver Island, and another, Rosario Strait, nearer the mainland. San Juan Island lay between the two. Britain insisted that the boundary ran through Rosario Strait; the Americans proclaimed it lay through Haro Strait. Thus both sides considered San Juan theirs for settlement.

As early as 1845 the Hudson's Bay Company, based at Fort Victoria, had posted a notice of possession on San Juan Island. In 1851 it established a salmon-curing station there and, two years later, a sheep ranch called Belle Vue Farm. About the same time, the Territorial Legislature of Oregon (which then included the present State of Washington) declared San Juan Island to be within its territorial limits, and in January 1853 incorporated it into Island County. In March 1853, Washington Territory having been created, San Juan Island was attached to Whatcom, its northernmost county.

By 1859 there were about 18 Americans on San Juan Island. They were settled on redemption claims which they expected the U.S. Government to recognize as valid, but which the British considered illegal. Neither side recognized the authority of the other. Tempers were short and it would take little to produce a crisis.

That crisis came on June 15, 1859, when an American settler named Lyman Cutlar shot and killed a pig belonging to the Hudson's Bay Company because it was rooting in his garden. When British authorities threatened to arrest Cutlar, American citizens drew up a petition requesting U.S. military protection. Brigadier General William S. Harney, the anti-British commander of the Department of Oregon, responded by sending a company of the 9th U.S. Infantry under Captain George E. Pickett (of later Civil War fame) to San Juan. Pickett's 66-man unit landed on July 27 and occupied a commanding spot near the Hudson's Bay Company wharf, just north of Belle Vue Farm.

James Douglas, governor of the new Crown Colony of British Columbia, was angered at the presence of American soldiers on San Juan. He had three British warships under Captain Geoffrey Hornby sent to dislodge Pickett but with instructions to avoid an armed clash if possible. Pickett, though overwhelmingly outnumbered, refused to withdraw.

Throughout the remaining days of July and well into August, the British force in Griffin Bay (then San Juan Harbor) continued to grow. Captain Hornby, however, wisely refused to take any action against the Americans until the arrival of Rear Admiral Robert L. Baynes, commander of British naval forces in the Pacific. Baynes, appalled at the situation, advised Douglas that he would not "involve two great nations in a war over a squabble about a pig."

Meanwhile, Pickett had been reinforced on August 10, by 171 men under Lieutenant Colonel Silas Casey, who now assumed active command. This meager force still seemed inadequate to face the growing concentration of British vessels and men, so Harney ordered in additional reinforcements. By August 31, as many as 461 Americans, protected by 14 cannons and an earthen redoubt, were opposed by three British warships mounting 70 guns and carrying 2,140 men, including bluejackets (sailors), Royal Marines, artillerymen and sappers. The general did not realize that the more than 1,500 sailors were not armed to fight on land except in extreme circumstances; that this chore was reserved for the 400 Royal Marines and Royal Engineers scattered throughout Vancouver Island and British Columbia.

When word of the crisis reached Washington, officials there were shocked that the simple action of an irate farmer had grown into an explosive international incident. Alarmed by the prospects, President James Buchanan sent General Winfield Scott, commanding general of the U.S. Army, to investigate and try to contain the affair.

Through correspondence with Governor Douglas, Scott arranged for each nation to withdraw its reinforcements, leaving the island with a single company of U.S. soldiers and a British warship anchored in Griffin Bay. Scott proposed a joint military occupation until a final settlement could be reached, which both nations approved in November. Harney was officially rebuked and afterwards reassigned for allowing the situation to get so out of hand. Casey's reinforcements were withdrawn, save for one company under the command of Captain Lewis Cass Hunt. Hunt would be replaced in command by Pickett the following April. Meantime, on March 21, 1860, British Royal Marines landed on the island's northwest coast and established on Garrison Bay what is now known as "English Camp."

San Juan Island remained under joint military occupation for the next 12 years. In 1871, when Great Britain and the United States signed the Treaty of Washington, the San Juan question was referred to Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany for settlement. The kaiser referred the issue to a three-man arbitration commission who met for nearly a year in Geneva. On October 21, 1872, the commission, through the kaiser, ruled in favor of the United States, establishing the boundary line through Haro Strait. Thus the San Juan Islands became American possessions and the final boundary between Canada and the United States was set. On November 25, 1872, the Royal Marines withdrew from English Camp. By July 1874, the last of the U.S. troops had left American Camp. Peace had finally come to the 49th parallel, and San Juan Island would be long remembered for the "war" in which the only casualty was a pig.

The peaceful, joint occupation of San Juan Island challenged U.S. soldiers and British Royal Marines to cope with the drudgery of 1850s military life in an isolated environment. Physical remains are tangible reminders of the occupation and reveal the layout and function of the military camps.

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Page last modified: 05-07-2011 02:34:22 Zulu