The Pig War

Black and white painting of a ship landing on a barren bay. There are other ships in the area
Capt. George E. Pickett's first camp was located just west of the Hudson's Bay Company dock (left center).A Royal Navy midshipman painted this illustration while standing on the deck of HMS Satellite. The date on the back of the painting reads July 27, 1859 -- the very day Pickett landed.

Yale University Beinecke Library

 

San Juan Island National Historical Park celebrates how individuals and nations can peacefully resolve disputes. In the mid-1800s Great Britain and the United States settled ownership of our island through peaceful arbitration.

In June 1846, the Treaty of Oregon was signed in Washington, D.C., setting the boundary on the 49th parallel, from the Rocky Mountains "to the middle of the channel which separates the continent from Vancouver's Island” then south through the channel to the Strait of Juan de Fuca and west to the Pacific Ocean.

 

Difficulty arose over language. The "channel" described in the treaty was actually two channels: the Haro Strait, nearest Vancouver Island, and the Rosario Strait, nearer the mainland. The San Juan Islands lay between, and both sides claimed the entire island group.

As early as 1845, the Hudson's Bay Company, based at Fort Victoria, claimed San Juan Island, only seven miles across the Haro Strait. By 1851 the company established salmon-curing stations along the island's western shoreline. By 1853, Wasington Territory claimed the islands as U.S. possessions. In response, the HBC in December 1853 established Belle Vue Sheep Farm on San Juan Island's southern shore. While this move was politically motivated, the island's natural attributes made the farm highly profitable. The flock in a mere six years expanded from 1,369 to more than 4,500 scattered in sheep stations throughout the island.

Reports of the island's good soil and bountiful resources by Northwest Boundary Survey naturalists quickly circulated among American settlers on the mainland. By spring 1859, 18 Americans had settled on claims staked on prime HBC sheep grazing lands. They expected the U.S. Government to recognize their validity, but the British considered the claims illegal and the claimants little more than "squatters" or trespassers. Tempers grew shorter by the day.

The crisis came on June 15, 1859, when Lyman Cutlar, an American, shot and killed a company pig rooting in his garden. When British authorities threatened to arrest Cutlar and evict all Americans from the island as trespassers, a delegation sought military protection from Brig. Gen. William S. Harney, the anti-British commander of the Department of Oregon. Harney responded by ordering Company D, 9th U.S. Infantry under Capt. George E. Pickett (of later Civil War fame) to San Juan. Pickett's 64-man unit landed on July 27 and encamped near the HBC wharf on Griffin Bay, just north of Belle Vue Sheep Farm.

 

Vancouver Island Governor, James Douglas, was at first dismayed, then angered by Pickett’s landing. He ordered Captain Geoffrey Phipps Hornby, RN, commanding the 31-gun steam frigate HMS Tribune, to dislodge Pickett, but to avoid an armed clash if possible. Hornby was soon joined by two more warships, HMS Satellite and HMS Plumper Pickett refused to withdraw and wrote Harney for help.

Throughout the remaining days of July and well into August, Hornby accumulated more marines; the majority veterans of amphibious landings under fire in China. However, Hornby wisely refused to take any action against the Americans until the arrival of Rear Admiral Lambert Baynes, commander of British naval forces in the Pacific. Baynes, appalled at the situation, advised Douglas that he would not "involve two great nations in a war over a squabble about a pig."

 

Meanwhile, Pickett was reinforced on August 10, by 171 men under Lt. Col. Silas Casey, who assumed command and, with Pickett in tow, went to Victoria to parley with Baynes. The old admiral (a veteran of the Battle of New Orleans in 1815) refused to leave his 84-gun ship of the line, HMS Ganges, to call upon Casey aboard a lighthouse tender. A disappointed Casey took note of the Ganges’ size and on his return to San Juan pleaded for more men.

By August 31, 461 Americans were encamped in the woods just north of Belle Vue Sheep Farm, protected by 14 field cannons. Eight more 32-pounder naval guns were removed from the USS Massachusetts to be emplaced in a redoubt excavated under the direction of Lieutenant Henry M. Robert (future author of Robert’s Rules of Order).

While the Americans dug in, the British conducted drills with their 52 total guns, alternately hurling solid shot into the bluffs and raised rocks along Griffin Bay. It was all great fun for tourists arriving on excursion boats from Victoria, not to mention the officers from both sides who attended church serves together aboard the Satellite and shared whisky and cigars in Charles Griffin’s tidy home.

But when word of the crisis reached Washington, officials from both nations, unaware of the bizarre atmosphere on San Juan, were shocked that Cutlar’s pig murder had grown into a potentially explosive international incident. Alarmed by the prospect, President James Buchanan sent General Winfield Scott, U.S. Army commander and also a War of 1812 veteran, to investigate and try to contain the affair. Scott had calmed two other border crises between the two nations in the late 1830s.

 

Following a six-week passage from New York via the Isthmus of Panama, Scott arrived in the San Juan’s in October. Communicating with Douglas via messenger, the two leaders arranged for each nation to withdraw reinforcements, leaving the island with a single company of U.S. soldiers and a British warship anchored in Griffin Bay.

Scott proposed a joint military occupation until a final settlement could be reached, which both nations approved in November. Harney was officially rebuked and eventually reassigned for allowing the situation to needlessly escalate. Casey's soldiers were withdrawn, save for one company under the command of Capt. Lewis Cass Hunt. Pickett returned to replace Hunt the following April. Meanwhile, on March 21, 1860, British Royal Marines landed on the island's northwest coast and established on Garrison Bay what is now known as "English Camp."

 

San Juan Island remained under joint military occupation for the next 12 years. In 1871, when Great Britain and the United States signed the Treaty of Washington, the San Juan question was referred to Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany for settlement. The kaiser referred the issue to a three-man arbitration commission who met for nearly a year in Geneva. On October 21, 1872, the commission, through the kaiser, ruled in favor of the United States, establishing the boundary line through Haro Strait. Thus the San Juan Islands became American possessions and the final boundary between Canada and the United States was set. On November 25, 1872, the Royal Marines withdrew from English Camp. By July 1874, the last of the U.S. troops had left American Camp. Peace had finally come to the 49th parallel, and San Juan Island would be long remembered for the "war" in which the only casualty was a pig.

Want to learn more? Read former park Historian Mike Vouri's The Pig War: Standoff at Griffin Bay (Second Edition, 2013), available on park partner Discover Your Northwest's online store and in bookstores throughout the Pacific Northwest.

 
  • black and white photograph of a grey haired man in a U.S. Military Uniform

    General William Harney

    General William Harney nearly started a war on San Juan Island, but his life was filled with actions that would shock modern people

  • Black and white photograph of a man in a military dress uniform

    Winfield Scott

    Winfield Scott's decisive actions prevented a war from breaking out in the San Juan Island

  • Black and white headshot of a man with Mutton Chops

    James Douglas

    James Douglas's aggressive posture nearly caused America and Britain to fight a war over the San Juan Islands

Last updated: November 12, 2022

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