The Pig War


(This column was first published in the June 18, 2001 Buffalo News.)


     In early June I made my first foray into Washington state where I spent a week at the University of Washington Marine Laboratory on San Juan Island. It was a wonderful experience and I will write more about it in upcoming columns, but this week I review briefly the time when this remote island captured headlines across the civilized world.


     This column then is about what came to be known as our "Pig War" with Great Britain. I doubt that you studied this episode in your history classes.


     In the early 1800s the vast but largely unpopulated region now divided between Canada and the United States -- the so-called Oregon Country -- was open to settlement by both British and Americans, an arrangement that would obviously lead to difficulties.


     Finally and despite President Polk's belligerent "54-40 or Fight" claim to the whole region, an 1846 treaty set the western U.S.-Canada boundary where it is today, at the 49th parallel. But with an exception: the British were ceded all of Vancouver Island.


     Unfortunately this left a small group of islands between Vancouver Island and mainland Washington still undetermined. Both countries laid claim to San Juan and other nearby islands.


     In the early 1850s the British Hudson's Bay Company established a salmon-curing station and a sheep ranch on San Juan where some two dozen Americans were already established. This placed the rival claimants only a few yards apart. (The whole island is only about fifteen miles long.)


     No love was lost between the two groups, recollections of the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 still lingering, so it didn't take much to precipitate a crisis.


     That confrontation came when on June 15, 1859, an American settler named Lyman Cutlar killed a pig that was rooting in his garden. That pig belonged to the Hudson's Bay Company.


     British authorities threatened to arrest Cutlar and the Americans sent for help.


     Enter the first of the famous Americans to take part in this odd little adventure. Captain George Pickett -- later as a Confederate Major General to lead the unsuccessful uphill charge at Gettysburg -- arrived with a small command of soldiers.


     In response to this tiny force the British dispatched three warships. But Pickett, outnumbered 2140 to 461 and undergunned with cannons 14 to 167, refused to budge.


     Fortunately for both sides, the British senior officer, Rear Admiral Robert Baynes, advised the governor of British Columbia that he would not "involve two great nations in a war over a squabble about a pig."


     Next to appear on the scene was Commanding General Winfield Scott. Scott had recently led our forces to remarkable victories in the Mexican War. Here, however, he acted solely as a statesman. He and Baynes agreed to a reduction in forces and the temporary establishment of separate army posts. Those outposts, the English Camp near the north end of the island and the American Camp near the south end, now constitute San Juan Island National Historical Park.


     And so the island remained divided until the Treaty of Washington was signed by Great Britain and the United States in 1871. Remarkably, that treaty assigned the decision about ownership of the islands to Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany. On October 21, 1872, he ruled in favor of the U.S., establishing the international boundary between the San Juan Islands and Vancouver. A month later the British peacefully departed.


     The Pig War stands in stark contrast to most confrontations as an episode that, despite the early threat of military action, was settled through negotiations between reasonable leaders.


     And happily -- except for the animal itself -- the only casualty was a pig.-- Gerry Rising