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The Pig War

Standing on the Oak Bay waterfront, the last thing you think of is war. Before you is an expanse of sea and sky, with the San Juan Islands off in the distance. Small boats bob in the water, and the occasional freighter glides by. It is a scene of peace and tranquility, far removed from the conflicts of the world. But war almost did erupt here. Britain and the United States nearly came to blows over the San Juan Islands. And the immediate cause was a runaway pig.

The origin of this dispute lay in the early nineteenth century. The Hudson’s Bay Company had pushed west in its search for furs, and established its headquarters on the lower Columbia River. By 1810 the British had a claim on the “Oregon territory”, which was all the land west of the Rockies between the latitudes of 42º and 54º40´. But American settlers were moving into the southern Oregon territory. The Hudson’s Bay Co. knew it would not be able to hold on to this region for long. So it sent a Company employee, James Douglas, up the coast to scout for a new headquarters. He found an ideal spot on southern Vancouver Island, and in 1843 Fort Victoria was established.

Three years later the British and American governments came to an agreement over the Oregon territory. By the Oregon Treaty of 1846 the boundary between British and American territory was to be the 49º parallel west of the Rockies. When it hit water, it would go to the middle of the main channel between the mainland and Vancouver Island. Then it would plunge south, and follow the middle line out through the Strait of Juan de Fuca. But unfortunately the negotiators did not know their geography. There were two main channels between Vancouver Island and the mainland: Haro Strait and Rosario Strait. Between them lay the San Juan Islands. Until one channel was chosen the Islands were up for grabs.

For several years it didn’t matter. Settlement was so sparse that the border was of little concern. Things changed in 1853, when the Company established a sheep farm on San Juan Island. It sent over 1300 sheep, under the care of Charles John Griffin. This aroused the local American customs officers. They demanded Griffin pay a duty on the sheep. When Griffin ignored them they confiscated some of the sheep. James Douglas, governor of Vancouver Island, wrote to Governor Stevens of Washington Territory, bitterly protesting this action. Stevens in turn wrote to the U.S. State Department asking for direction. The State Department said in effect to cool it, and do nothing until a formal settlement was made. And there matters lay for the next few years.

In 1856 the British and American governments appointed negotiators to determine the boundary. But even as they got to work the situation began to change. Gold was discovered in the Fraser River, and American miners poured into British Columbia. Some, not finding gold, decided to settle instead. To accommodate them American surveyors arrived on San Juan Island, and began laying out farmsteads. This of course increased boundary tension, and made some sort of incident inevitable.

The spark for the hostilities was a runaway pig. An American, Lyman Cutler, had settled on one of the farmsteads. He was growing crops right beside the Company’s farm. There were pigs on the Company’s farm and they were used to running wild. Cutler built a fence, but the pigs got in and started eating his crops. Cutler complained to Charles Griffin, who responded that the entire area belonged to the Hudson’s Bay Co. Cutler replied that he had been assured this was American territory, and his farm had been laid out by an American surveyor. Griffin ignored this, and continued to let the pigs run wild. On June 15, 1859 a pig broke into Cutler’s place, and started rooting in his crops. Enraged, Cutler grabbed his rifle and shot the pig. Cutler then went over to Griffin, told him he had shot the pig, and offered ten dollars in compensation. He also said he would shoot any other animals found in his garden. Griffin replied that this was a particularly valuable pig, and worth more like one hundred dollars.

Griffin reported this incident to James Douglas, who sent his son-in-law, A.G. Dallas, over to investigate. Douglas also assured Griffin he had his full support. Gradually this incident cooled down, and for the next few weeks lay dormant. And then General William Harney arrived on the scene.

The key to this whole dispute, and why it erupted, is the strange personality of William Harney. Born in Tennessee in 1800, he had joined the U.S. Army at seventeen, and served many years with distinction. By the time of the San Juan Island dispute he had risen to the rank of brigadier-general. But his judgement was often questionable. He had in the past ordered operations that were risky to the point of recklessness. Once, for example, he had invaded Mexico on his own initiative and had been cut off by Mexican troops. In the ensuing debacle he had lost several men and his entire pack train. But such incidents did not deter him. If he thought he was right he did what he wanted. He disobeyed the orders of one superior, General Winfield Scott. Only political connections saved him from court martial. But although he could be disobedient, he demanded absolute obedience from his own subordinates. He was appointed head of the U.S. Army’s Columbia District in 1858, and within months had produced chaos in his office. Anything he deemed a slight was worthy of court martial. His superior, General Scott, tried to move him to another position. But he insisted on staying in the Pacific Northwest. And that, of course, made him commander of the San Juan Islands.

A few weeks after the pig incident Harney made a tour of the islands. When he heard of the situation he immediately sent 66 troops to San Juan Island. He picked as his commander a favourite of his, Captain George Pickett. He also declared American laws to be in force on the islands. This roused James Douglas. Douglas sent over three British warships to the island, commanded by Captain Geoffrey Hornby. He also insisted British laws prevailed. He picked a Justice of the Peace to enforce those laws. Pickett responded by appointing his own Justice of the Peace. The situation continued to escalate. Harney sent more troops, and they soon totalled 461. Douglas in response sent two more warships. There were now five British warships in front of the American camp, with a combined force of 2,140 men. A wrong move could have triggered an explosion.

The situation remained tense until early August. Then the British regional commander, Rear-Admiral R. L. Baynes, arrived. He realized at once this was a conflict they could not win. Thanks to the gold rush British Columbia’s population at the time was mostly American. And with American forces to the south the British presence was simply not strong enough. On the American side, the American forces on San Juan Island had a new commander, Colonel Silas Casey. He warned Harney that British warship guns could destroy their camp. These men understood the dangers and kept a tight rein on their troops. No shots were fired.

In early September the British and American governments learned of this situation. Neither wanted war in this region. With a possible civil war looming President Buchanan did not want any trouble with the British government. He was most displeased with Harney’s precipitous action. On the British side they had many entanglements in Europe, and were not keen on war. Buchanan sent the head of the U.S. Army, General Winfield Scott, to investigate. Knowing Harney as he did, he had a head start on the situation. After setting up headquarters in Port Townsend he immediately began negotiations with James Douglas. Douglas, now that he was dealing with someone other than Harney, began to relax. He and Scott came to an agreement that each country would have a modest military presence on San Juan Island, until such time as the two countries could work out a formal settlement. There would be no more than one hundred troops for each country, which would keep each country’s citizens safe and protect the island from marauding northern Indians. Scott informed Harney of this settlement, and urged him to accept a transfer of duty. He said the British, as a condition for a final settlement, would probably insist that Harney be relieved of his duty. Harney said that without a direct order he would not go.

Scott now left the region and went back to Washington. But before he left he put a small contingent of American troops on San Juan Island, under the command of Captain Lewis Hunt. With Scott out of the way Harney saw his chance again. He ordered Lewis and his troops off the island, and installed a company of his own under George Pickett. Harney then had Pickett turn over the government of San Juan Island to Washington Territory, and inform the British commander of the fact. He seemed determined to accomplish a de facto annexation.

But Harney had gone too far. The British commander informed Governor Douglas of what had happened, who in turn informed the British government. When the British told the American president, he was furious. On June 8, 1860 Harney was relieved of his command. He was ordered to report to Washington and given a minor new post. When the Civil War broke out he was given no further command. He retired in 1863.

The original agreement was now in force again. The British and the Americans set up camps at opposite ends of the island, with 100 soldiers apiece. Relations from the start were very amiable. The two groups would have the occasional social or sporting event together. The officers, in particular, thoroughly enjoyed each others’ company. Each group policed its own nationals, and each, when they caught a lawbreaker of the other nation, turned him over to that nation. This was of course a temporary situation, and nobody expected that it would last. But in the U.S. the Civil War broke out in 1861, and lasted four years. After that came the years of Reconstruction. Britain had many issues of its own. The San Juan Islands were causing no problem, and were not high on anyone’s agenda. It began to seem as if it would never be resolved. Eventually, though, the two countries realized they had to act. In 1872 they picked an independent arbitrator, the Kaiser of Germany. They asked him to make a binding decision as to what “main channel” should be. The Kaiser referred the question to a panel of three academic experts. They came out 2-1 in favour of Haro Strait. The decision was accepted, and the boundary dispute was finally over.

On the island the decision was greeted with mixed emotions. The military camps had been neglected, and many men were happy to be leaving. As well, there was often too little to do. But the troops had become part of the social fabric. An article in an American military journal even said “Socially, our officers will regret the departure of their British associates, however they may rejoice at... our...title to the island”. On November 21, 1872, the British flag was lowered for the last time. The original disputants were long gone, and their bellicose threats a distant memory. Common sense had prevailed, and the only victim had been the famous pig. The troops could sail away, secure in the knowledge that a dispute had been settled in the best possible way. But the British connection was gone for good.

For further reading:

The Pig War by Keith A. Murray
Central Library Local History Room
Call number: 979.774 MUR

San Juan: The Powder-Keg Island by Jo Bailey-Cummings and Al Cummings.
Central Library Local History Room
Call number: 979.774 BAI

Outpost of Empire: The Royal Marines and the Joint Occupation of San Juan Island by Mike Vouri.
Call Number: 979.77403 VOU

The Pig War: The Journal of William A. Peck Jr. by William A. Peck Jr.
Central Library Local History Room
Call number: 979.77403 PEC

Also the library has a clipping file on the Pig War in our Local History Room.

Stephen Ruttan, Local History Librarian
March, 2010