The Pig War

Speaking of British pigs, did you know that Britain and America nearly got into a shooting war over British pigs in 1859? Actually it was just a British pig, which was owned by an Irishman by the name of Charlie Griffin and shot by an American settler by the name of Lyman Cutler. The whole episode transpired on San Juan Island, at tiny five-mile-long piece of land off the Washington State coast not far from Seattle. I know the story because I spent many months there after I graduated college, tending bar and doing my best to hide from work, responsibility and the grownup life generally.

Anyway. In 1859 the ink had barely dried on the Oregon Treaty, which gave the territory that now comprises the States of Oregon, Washington and Idaho to the United States. It was a neat and tidy arrangement in most respects, save for the area of Puget Sound which is full of little islands and waterways. Figuring out who exactly owned what up there was complicated work, better left for some other day, even though both the U.S. and the British had an interest in the matter. Whoever owned the strategic point of San Juan Island commanded virtually all water traffic between the Pacific Ocean and the City of Vancouver…a not-insignificant thing. Still everyone was mostly content to kick the can down the road on the problem until circumstance demanded.

Griffin’s pig provided just such a circumstance. At the time the British-owned Hudson Bay Company was running a sheep farm on San Juan. Griffin was one of its employees. Cutler was one of a handful of American homesteaders that also called the island home. Since both the Brits and the U.S. claimed sovereignty over San Juan, they all had about the same right to be there. So the story goes Griffin, though a competent sheep farmer, wasn’t a particularly effective pig manager, wont to let his animal roam in whatever pasture it liked. All too frequently that pasture was Lyman Cutler’s potato patch. Cutler tolerated it at first, but eventually, having tired of chasing off the porcine pest, he pulled out his gun and shot it. Griffin heard the shot and immediately ran over to Cutler’s farm where he found his pet pig lying dead on the ground. Local lore has it that the exchange went like this:

Cutler: You should have kept your pig out of my potatoes!

Griffin: Well you should have kept your potatoes out of my pig!

Cutler offered Griffin ten dollars to make amends, but Griffin was so outraged that he demanded one hundred. When Cutler wouldn’t pay, Griffin marched off to the British authorities and tried to have Cutler arrested and prosecuted. When the other American homesteaders heard that the British were about to enter what they considered American territory, they called in the army for protection. It wasn’t long before a company of soldiers under the command of Captain George Pickett — the last-in-his-class graduate of West Point who would one day lead the disastrous “Pickett’s Charge” at Gettysburg — landed on the island. In response the British sent three warships.

Things escalated from there. Soon the U.S. Army was dug in on San Juan with 500 troops and a dozen cannons. The Brits had five warships with 70 guns and two thousand men waiting offshore. On August 10, 1859 Vancouver Governor James Douglas over on the British side gave the order to engage the American force, to which Rear Admiral Robert L. Baynes responded “Are you stupid or something? We’re about to go to WAR over a PIG!” Or something to that effect. Back in Washington D.C. President Buchanan had roughly the same reaction. He immediately dispatched General Winfield “Ol’ Fuss and Feathers” Scott (so named because he wore every badge, buckle, sash and ribbon allowed by military regulation) to negotiate a settlement.

In the end the two sides agreed to joint military ownership of the island. The British set up their camp near the northern point and it’s still there, run by the park service, just down the beach from Roche Harbor Resort where I once poured drinks. The Union Jack is still hoisted and lowered there every day, one of the few spots on American territory where a foreign flag is ceremonially raised. And the occupants of Roche Harbor fire a ceremonial cannon as the American flag is lowered each night, just to remind any remaining Brits in the area who’s boss.

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