How a naughty pig made America and Britain go to war
While we like to talk about the “special relationship”, it’s fair to say that Britain and America have had their share of disagreements over the years. Maybe it’s the combination of inherent British snobbery coupled with American refusal to say aluminium properly, or maybe it was the whole horrible taxation/subservience to the crown thing, but there have been several moments when the two countries have failed to see eye to eye. Most of these flare-ups have a fairly good explanation. One exception is the Pig War of 1859.
By the mid-19th century, old Anglo-American rivalries were gradually beginning to fade. The wounds of 1776 seemed to be healing, and despite occasionally prickly diplomatic relations, open hostility looked to be turning to grudging passive aggression. But, as events would soon prove, friendship can be a fragile thing. All it takes is an errant animal in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The story actually begins several years earlier, in the summer of 1846. Though the United States had won their independence from Britain more than half a century earlier, there were still several issues that remained unresolved. One of the most contentious centred around a group of small islands lying in the strait of water separating British-owned Vancouver Island and mainland United States. The cluster was claimed by both nations, prompting a standoff that had both sides scratching their heads.
The heart of the issue was the dispute over where the international border would be drawn. The British favoured a dividing line that would give them dominion over the three largest islands in the group - Orcas, Lopez and San Juan. Unsurprisingly, the Americans were after the exact opposite. In an attempt to diffuse the situation, the Oregon Treaty was drawn up - declaring that the boundary would be drawn “along the forty-ninth parallel of north latitude to the middle of the channel which separates the continent from Vancouver Island, and thence southerly through the middle of the said channel, and of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, to the Pacific Ocean". Problem, apparently, solved.
Unfortunately, despite the expert diplomatic legalese on display, it was still unclear where the middle of the channel actually was. One interpretation gave control of the three islands to America, and the other to Britain. Even contemporary maps could not really help, as the area was still relatively unknown and cartographers were still relatively useless. The two nations argued vociferously for their version of events and exasperated politicians attempted to force the other side to give in. In essence, the Oregon Treaty had accomplished nothing.
Though sovereignty was still very much up in the air, it wasn’t long before settlers began to circle. From the British side, Hudson’s Bay Company began to establish operations, and by 1856 had established a sheep ranch on the tactically significant island of San Juan. Not long after, a group of 25 to 30 settlers had arrived from the United States. Both sides viewed each other with suspicion.
Despite the obvious awkwardness of the situation, everything was remarkably peaceable. Contemporary accounts reveal a surprising level of affection between ranchers and settlers, and friendly trade and interaction were relatively common. Though the diplomats continued to argue, it looked like the citizens themselves might well be the solution to finding common ground. Unfortunately, this was all ruined by a naughty pig.
It was the 15th of June, 1859, when American farmer Lyman Cutlar stared out at his potato patch. As a poor settler, scratching an existence from the untilled earth of the Pacific Northwest, his potatoes were his pride and joy. He had nurtured them from seedlings and guarded them from wind, rain and wandering Englishmen. So, when he saw a large black pig nose-deep in his garden, he was understandably furious.
This was not the first time this particular pig had given him grief. He had had to defend his brood from the hungry beast on several occasions and had thought he had finally seen it off. As he saw the pig standing there with a mouthful of his obliterated potatoes, he realised with a bellow how wrong he had been. Blinded by rage, he seized his rifle, aimed at the pig and fired. With a surprised oink and a squeal, it collapsed in a cloud of chomped tubers.
As it turned out, the pig had been owned by a Mr Charles Griffin, an Irishman who had moved to the island in order to run the sheep ranch. He had made a habit of letting his pigs roam freely across San Juan, which had brought them into conflict with several settlers and Mr Cutlar’s crops.
As compensation for the loss of his pig, Cutlar offered Griffin a $10 goodwill gesture. An angry Griffin dismissed this out-of-hand, and demanded that the fee instead be increased to $100. This reply caused Cutlar to take offence, believing that the pig should never have been in his garden in the first place. According to contemporary sources, the dispute led to a famous exchange, where Cutlar angrily shouted, “[the pig] was eating my potatoes”, before Griffin retorted that, “it’s up to you to keep your potatoes out of my pig.”
What seemed initially like a squabble over nothing soon escalated into a full-blown international catastrophe. British authorities, angered by the response of Cutlar and the honour of the dead pig, threatened to arrest the American farmer. In response, the settlers called for military protection from the mainland. This arrived in the form of Captain George Pickett and 66 of Oregon’s finest, who were given strict orders to prevent any more British from landing on the island. Alarmed, the British ranchers demanded their own response.
Rather than send a force of equal size to stop the threat of an American “squatter invasion” in San Juan, the British decided to dramatically overreact. Before long, three royal warships had arrived, bristling with crack squadrons of British marines, cannon and musket. Unsurprisingly, the 66 American soldiers were a little alarmed. They too demanded back up. By the 10th of August, 461 Americans and 14 canons were looking nervously at a British force of 2,140 troops on five ships, mounting 70 guns. Things were awkward, to say the least.
The strangeness of the situation was not lost on the commanders. When British Rear Admiral Robert L. Bayers was asked to engage the American forces, he curtly responded that “two great nations in a war about a squabble over a pig was foolish”. Both sets of military leaders seem to have agreed that the situation, though incredibly tense, was also inherently ridiculous.
Orders from both sides remained very clear. Soldiers were to defend themselves and their position to the death, but under no circumstances fire the first shot. This led to a series of increasingly bold attempts from opposing soldiers to goad and provoke enemy ranks to fire. Lewd insults, gestures and language were part and parcel of life on the front. Despite the provocations, discipline held. Not a single shot was fired.
Eventually, the pig-based standoff in the Pacific reached the ears of American President James Buchanan. Panicked by the prospect of full-blown conflict with Britain and aware of rising domestic tensions, Buchanan commanded that his lackeys reach an agreement with the British forces. After much grumbling, a final settlement was agreed, where a joint military occupying force of no more than 100 men from either side would remain on San Juan in order to keep the peace. The Pig War was over.
Human history has seen wars fought over many strange things. In some ways, it was inevitable that livestock would become involved at some point. If nothing else, the Pig War proves the lengths that farmers will go to protect their potatoes. Maybe we should all pay closer attention to "no trespassing" signs in the future and steer clear of any tempting-looking potato patches.