That Time The U.S. And Britain Went To War Over A Pig

Published February 6, 2018
Updated February 14, 2024

Along the Rockies and the Pacific coastline, on a small shared island, the United Kingdom and United States turned a small land dispute into a heated, full-fledged confrontation.

Pig War

National Park ServiceThe American camp on San Juan Island during the Pig War, during which American and British forces nearly came to blows over a dead pig. 1859.

Almost 100 years after the Revolutionary War ended, the United States and Great Britain almost went to war again in the so-called “Pig War.” This time, the conflict arose not over questions of self-governance or taxation, but the death of a swine in a tiny, contested corner of the world.

In 1859, an American farmer shot a British pig on tiny San Juan Island, in the northern part of present-day Washington State. As tensions over the pig mounted, British warships gathered off the coast, and defiant Americans began to set up a military camp. For a brief moment, it seemed that the two nations might go to war over a pig killed while eating potatoes.

Fortunately, this conflict had just one casualty: the pig.

The Dispute Over San Juan Island

In 1846, the United States and Britain signed the Oregon Treaty to officially decide the borders between the United States and British North America (Canada). But its ambiguous language caused problems.

Treaty Of Oregon Borders

Pfly/Wikimedia CommonsAs this map shows, there are multiple channels which run south between the United States and Canada.

Though the treaty placed the “line of boundary” between the United States and Britain at the 49th Parallel — as it is to this day — it also stated that the border would run “through 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.”

This posed some problems. There is not one channel leading south to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, but several. Rosario Strait cuts between the San Juan Islands and the mainland, Haro Strait lies between the San Juan Islands and Vancouver Island, and the four islands of the San Juans themselves are also bisected by channels. Which channel did the treaty makers mean?

As History Link notes, the treaty makers were probably aware of the ambiguous language. They possibly believed that establishing firm borders was more important than questions about a cluster of unimportant islands.

But as time went on, British and Americans made claims to San Juan Island. The British Hudson Bay Company (HBC) lay claim to the island as early as 1845, and established a salmon-curing stations along the island’s western shoreline in 1851. When Washington Territory claimed the islands for the U.S. in 1853, the HBC defiantly established Belle Vue Sheep Farm.

The sheep farm was lucrative, but also threatened by more than a dozen Americans who tried to stake claim on farm property. The Americans expected that the U.S. government would back up their claims; the British were given authority to “warn off” the “squatters.”

Belle Vue Sheep Farm

National Park ServiceA watercolor of Belle Vue Sheep Farm, as it appeared around the time of the Pig War.

Then, an American farmer shot and killed a British pig.

Inside The Bizarre ‘Pig War’ Of 1859

On June 15, 1859, an American named Lyman Cutlar noticed a pig rooting around in his potato patch. It wasn’t just a pig — it was one of the Berkshire boar brought to the island by Charles John Griffin, the manager of Belle Vue Sheep Farm. And Cutlar had tried — and failed — to drive it off before.

This time, he took matters into his own hands. Enraged by the HBC herdsmen who stood by and snickered as the pig snacked on his potatoes, Cutlar raised his gun and fired.

As History Link reports, Cutlar quickly regretted his quick temper. He told Griffith what had happened and offered to replace the pig. But tempers flared when Griffith told him the boar had been worth $100. Cutlar protested that the animal could not be worth more than $10.

Berkshire Boar

Wikimedia CommonsA Berkshire boar like the one killed by Cutlar, triggering the Pig War.

Cutlar told his fellow Americans that Griffith wanted to arrest him. They responded on July 4 by giving speeches, firing their guns, and raising an American flag outside the cabin of deputy customs collector Paul Hubbs.

When U.S. General William S. Harney heard about what happened — legend has it he noticed the American flag billowing in the wind as he sailed through the San Juans — he sent future Confederate general George Pickett to provide backup. Picket and dozens of soldiers arrived at the end of July.

Picket came armed with a proclamation: “This being United States territory, no laws, other than those of the United States, nor courts, except such as are held by virtue of said laws, will be recognized or allowed on this island.”

George Pickett

Public DomainBefore “Pickett’s Charge” made him famous in the Civil War, George Pickett played a role in the Pig War of 1859.

To the British this, of course, could not stand. James Douglas, the governor of British Columbia, sent three ships to back up the British claim: the 31-gun steam frigate HMS Tribune, captained by Captain Geoffrey Phipps Hornby, and the warships HMS Satellite and HMS Plumper.

Pickett informed Hornby that if the British troops attempted to land on San Juan Island, he would stop them. As a result, the American forces on San Juan slowly grew into the hundreds, as some 3,000 British soldiers sat waiting right off the coast. The two sides were at a stalemate.

But as the British conducted drills, and the Americans amassed canons, cooler heads began to prevail.

How The Pig War Came To An End

When British Admiral Robert L. Baynes arrived on the scene, he purportedly told Douglas that he would not “involve two great nations in a war over a squabble about a pig.” Meanwhile, news of the Pig War had reached Washington D.C., where it alarmed President James Buchanan.

British Troops Leaving San Juan Island After Pig War

Public DomainBritish troops evacuating San Juan Island in 1872, after the island was deemed to be American — and not British — territory.

He sent General Winfield Scott, who embarked on a six week journey from New York to San Juan to settle the conflict. He and Douglas worked together and arranged for both nations to withdraw their troops.

War had been averted.

But the question of San Juan Island still remained. It was not resolved until 12 years later, when the United States and Great Britain signed the Treaty of Washington. With the German kaiser presiding, it was decided that the U.S.-Canada border would run through Haro Strait. San Juan Island was, thus and forevermore, American territory.

Today, San Juan Island is known for its panoramic views and local produce — and for the dubious honor of nearly starting a war over a dead pig.

Enjoy this article on the Pig War of 1859? Read about Calvin Graham, World War 2’s youngest soldier. Then take a look at 48 snapshots of life in the real Wild West.

Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.
Aimee Lamoureux
Aimee Lamoureux is a writer based in New York City who holds a Bachelor's in history from New York University. Her work has also appeared on Grunge, Mashed, and RealClearHistory.
Cite This Article
Fraga, Kaleena. "That Time The U.S. And Britain Went To War Over A Pig.", February 6, 2018, Accessed April 23, 2024.