On the morning of June 15, 1859, Lyman Cutlar woke up to find his potato patch under attack….by a pig. 25 year-old Cutlar was a recent arrival to San Juan Island, where he settled on land already claimed by the Hudson’s Bay Company, a British corporation with globe spanning operations who had been using much of San Juan Island as the Belle Vue Sheep Farm since 1853. While Cutlar’s only known crop was potatoes and his cultivated land may have only amounted to 1/3 of an acre (according to Charles Griffin, the farm’s manager). By contrast, the Belle Vue sheep farm was a massive livestock operation with approximately 5000 head of sheep who were pastured at sheep stations across the entire length of San Juan Island as well as numerous free ranging cattle and pigs. Today, the site of Lyman Cutlar's farm is still a working small farm, owned by the San Juan County Land Bank which preserves open land in our community and who keeps it open to the public as the Frazer Homestead Preserve.
In the past year, approximately 16 United States’ citizens, predominately gold miners who had failed to find riches during the Fraser River Gold Rush, had landed on San Juan Island and began constructing “a log cabin and a potato patch on the most valuable prairies” the Hudson’s Bay Company possessed. Though most American farmsteads were humble establishments similar to Cutlar’s, some American settlers were more ambitious, such as the settler who had landed 20 head of cattle. From the British perspective, these American settlers were squatters, illegally occupying company land located inside the British Empire.
From the American perspective, San Juan Island was part of the United States of America and the Hudson’s Bay Company was an imperious enterprise whose illegitimate claims threatened their livelihood. In fact, from a certain perspective, San Juan Island was located in both the British Empire and the USA. The Oregon Treaty, signed 13 years earlier in 1846, said that the local boundary between the two nations shall be “the middle of the channel which separates the continent from Vancouver’s Island.” In fact, there were two channels, the Haro Strait (which if it was selected would make San Juan Island part of the USA) and the Rosario Strait (which would make San Juan Island part of the British Empire). Thus, the potato patch which the pig invaded was contested ground.
This was not the first time that one of the Belle Vue Sheep Farm’s pigs had invaded Cutlar’s farmstead. But when Cutlar woke up to find a Hawaiian herdsman named Jacob laughing that the pig “was up to his old game” he picked up his gun and in “a moment of irritation” killed the pig. When Cutlar, who felt regret for killing the company pig instead of merely scaring it away, went to see Hudson’s Bay Company manager Charles Griffin, the longstanding local and global tensions collided. When Cutlar offered to pay for the pig, Griffin told him, “you Americans are a nuisance on the island and have no business here…and I shall…have you removed.” Cutlar retorted, “I came here to settle for shooting your hog not to argue the right of Americans on the island for I consider it American soil.”
Within a day’s time of Cutlar and Griffin’s dispute a group of 4 British officials showed up at Cutlar’s farm, threatening to arrest him if he did not pay the high sum of $100 (more than 6 times the hog’s value) for its death. Word of these threats spread to American officials on the mainland and 42 days later, on July 26, 1859, US forces under Captain Pickett landed at the Hudson’s Bay Company’s dock to protect American citizens on San Juan Island. The Pig War had begun!
Last updated: September 4, 2021