The Pig War over the San Juan Islands

In 1859, a wandering pig on San Juan Island brought the United States and Britain to the brink of war.

HBC sheep farm on San Juan Island, September 1859

HBC sheep farm on San Juan Island, September 1859

The roots of the ‘Pig War’ go back to the Oregon Treaty of 1846 which drew a boundary between the American and British territory along the 49th parallel. Britain was allowed to keep Vancouver Island which dipped below this point, but ownership of the San Juan Islands was left unresolved.

The treaty makers in London failed to notice that the san Juan Islands bisect the Strait of Georgia into two channels—the Haro Strait running west of the islands, the Rosario Strait on the east. In a hurry to sign the treaty, the nations agreed to hold the islands “in dispute” until a boundary was decided upon that would be agreeable to both nations.

Hoping to establish possession, the Hudson’s Bay Company set up outposts on San Juan Island in 1849 and 1850. In 1853, Charles Griffin and 1,300 sheep were stationed there. The Americans threatened to seize the sheep because they were illegally imported into “American” territory. Two years later, a group of U.S. officials absconded with 34 sheep in lieu of taxes that the Hudson’s Bay Company had refused to pay.

Nothing serious developed until June 1859, when American settler Lyman Cutler got tired of a pig that was in the habit of rooting through his potato patch. Cutler took out his rifle and shot the pig dead. But this happened to be a HBC pig. Once Cutler realized his mistake, he offered to replace it, but Griffin demanded compensation of $100 and he wanted Cutler removed from the island.

HBC steamship Beaver arrived with Chief Factor Alexander Dallas who threatened to take Cutler to Victoria to stand trial for his crime. Cutler picked up his rifle and dared Dallas to try it.

The Americans sent in their steamer Massachusetts to safeguard their interests, while the Royal Navy (based in Esquimalt) sent in their 21 gun steam corvette Satellite. The Americans arrested Cutler before the British had a chance.

Tensions increased. Shortly afterward, Captain Pickett arrived with 60 American soldiers. Pickett posted a notice which proclaimed that the San Juan Island was United States territory and “no laws other than those of the United States will be recognized or allowed on the island.”

The British responded by sending in two warships, Tribune and Plumper and a force of 775 men. Commander Geoffrey Phipps Hornby had orders from Douglas to expel the Americans from San Juan Island, but he decided to hold back, knowing this conflict could start a war.

In the fall of 1859, it was agreed there would be joint occupancy of the islands. This remained until 1871 when the fate of the San Juan Islands was put to arbitration.