The Pig War

Britain and the United States have had their fair share of hostile engagements over the last few centuries; however one of the strangest engagements between the two nations was that of the Pig War.

San Juan Island, by James Madison Alden

San Juan Island, by James Madison Alden

In 1846 Britain and the United States agreed the boundary between the United States and British North America (modern day Canada) under the Oregon treaty, however the delineation went through San Juan island (located between Seattle and Vancouver), and each side had a different interpretation of which part of the island was theirs, leaving the island in dispute.

By 1845 Britain’s Hudson’s Bay Company had claimed ownership of the island and began building agriculture infrastructure on the island, although in the same year the Washington territory was created, which claimed the island as part of that territory.

By 1859, 29 Americans were living on the island, on land which Britain had claimed, which they regarded as illegal. In June of 1859, one of the American farmers shot and killed a pig belonging to an Irish farmer (Charles Griffin) working for the Hudson’s Bay company after he discover the pig eating his potatoes, the Irish farmer demanded compensation for the death of the pig, although the American offered $10, Griffin demanded $100. When the American farmer refused to pay, the British threatened to arrest him

In light of the British threat, the other American settlers on the island sought help from American General William S. Harney, commander of the Department of Oregon. Harney was a bit of a ‘hothead’ with anti-British sentiment so he dispatched the Ninth infantry to the island.

At the same time James Douglas, the Governor of the Crown colony of British Columbia, dispatched a naval force to protect British interests, he did however order his force to avoid conflict if possible, despite his anger over the situation. When Rear Admiral Baynes of the British Royal Navy arrived, he was shocked to find that the two nations were about to go to war over a pig.

Over the next few months the British had moved five warships and over 2,000 troops into the area, squared off against the 450 American soldiers who had established their cannon forces on the island.

Once word of the conflict had reached Washington and London, the respective nation’s leaders were shocked to learn what had transpired. President Buchanan sent General Scott to diffuse the situation, resulting in the US and Britain withdrawing most of their forces. Both nations agreed to joint military occupation of the island over the next 12 years until ownership could be settled by arbitration, which was eventually ruled in favour of the Americans.

Despite the aggression, and almost break out of war, the only casualty suffered in the conflict was the pig.