That time we went to war with the Americans over a pig

Within sight of the Saanich Peninsula, a seemingly laughable dispute over a pig risked exploding into world war

By Tristin Hopper
July 18, 2020

That time we went to war with the Americans over a pig

Within sight of the Saanich Peninsula, a seemingly laughable dispute over a pig risked exploding into world war

By Tristin Hopper
Jul 18, 2020
Photo illustration by Tristan Pratt. On the left is George Pickett, the commander of US forces sent to defend San Juan Island. On the right is founding British Columbia governor James Douglas.
Photo illustration by Tristan Pratt. On the left is George Pickett, the commander of US forces sent to defend San Juan Island. On the right is founding British Columbia governor James Douglas.

That time we went to war with the Americans over a pig

Within sight of the Saanich Peninsula, a seemingly laughable dispute over a pig risked exploding into world war

By Tristin Hopper
July 18, 2020
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That time we went to war with the Americans over a pig
Photo illustration by Tristan Pratt. On the left is George Pickett, the commander of US forces sent to defend San Juan Island. On the right is founding British Columbia governor James Douglas.

While Vancouver Island generally feels a kinship with its nearby neighbours who happen to live under the Stars and Stripes, COVID-19 has brought a rarely seen level of border tensions to Cascadia. Free travel between the BC and Washington State remains suspended indefinitely, and as covered by The Capital, the mere act of driving an American-plated motor vehicle on Vancouver Island is apparently a matter of local controversy. So, in that spirit, we decided to revisit the time in 1859 when, within sight of the Saanich Peninsula, a simple disagreement over a pig almost led to world war. 

First came the shellfire, then the muskets: As their comrades were systematically obliterated by explosions or cut down screaming by musket balls, the orders for the men remaining were to simply continue walking towards the people shooting at them. It was July 3rd, 1863 at the Battle of Gettysburg, and 12,500 Confederate soldiers had been dispatched on one of the most foolhardy attacks of the Civil War: A massed assault across open ground against entrenched Union positions. 

And the man who had ordered it all, and would soon have his name made a byword for futile bloodshed, was Virginia-born Major-General George Pickett.

As he surveyed the carnage of “Pickett’s Charge,” the Confederate officer may have reflected on how dramatically his life had changed from only four years before when, in the uniform of his now-enemy the United States, his job had been to stare down a force of armed Vancouver Islanders over the honour of a pig. 

American farmer Lyman Cutlar had simply been trying to protect his potatoes when he leveled his musket at an invading pig on San Juan Island and fired. The pig had “been at several times a great annoyance,” Cutlar would write later, but he had unknowingly killed what would prove to be one of the most consequential pigs in history. 

Cutlar had shot the pig on disputed ground; the 1850s equivalent of Cyprus or Kashmir. The British had laid claim to San Juan Island first, using it to set up a Hudson’s Bay Company sheep and pig farm. Cutlar, along with about a dozen other Americans, had trespassed onto the island after failing to make it rich in the Fraser goldfields, and proceeded to brazenly dig up their own plots on the farm’s sheep runs. 

A contemporary satellite image showing San Juan Island, which lies just off the eastern coast of the Saanich Peninsula (Google Earth).

From the British perspective, this wasn’t just a friendly misunderstanding between neighbours: Cutlar was a squatter who had decided to dig his potatoes obnoxiously close to an existing pig farm, and then felt justified in shooting whatever got past his poorly made fencing. So, when Cutlar tried to smooth over the shooting by offering payment for the HBC hog, he was instead met with an eviction notice. 

The US response was immediate: Sixty soldiers were dispatched from what is now Bellingham, Washington to challenge British authority on the island. They were shortly joined by another 461 men under the command of the aforementioned George Pickett, who proceeded to entrench a menacing array of artillery around the Hudson’s Bay Company settlements. 

A drawing of Belle Vue Farm, the Hudson's Bay Company's San Juan Island settlement, created around the time of the Pig War (United States National Park Service).

From Victoria, an enraged BC Governor James Douglas responded by dispatching three British warships to the island, and ordering marines aboard to prepare for an amphibious landing to “clear” the American encampment. 

This was the era of Pax Britannica, a 100-year period of relative world peace secured by Great Britain’s dominance of the world’s oceans and trade. While the United Kingdom had no qualms about starting lopsided wars with all manner of Indigenous peoples, this was a time where the Colonial Office in London treaded gingerly around the prospect of taking on a great power such as the United States. After all, it had been only 44 years since Great Britain had fought the War of 1812 to protect its British North American colonies from the US, yielding little more from the conflict than a costly and politically unpopular draw.  

But nobody appears to have told these delicate diplomatic considerations to Douglas, who appeared determined that American blood should be spilled on the “British” soil of San Juan Island. 

In the annals of Canadian history, it’s difficult to find a leader more aggressively anti-American than James Douglas. A man of mixed race married to a Metis woman, Douglas had already shored up his colony against US invasion by inviting a class of immigrant virtually guaranteed to be suspicious of American power: Black settlers. Starting in 1858, some 800 black Americans fled the segregation of California to settle in and around Vancouver Island. The first volunteer militia unit formed to defend British Columbia, in fact, was an all-black corps. 

Douglas had balked at the arrival of American miners into the Fraser Canyon during the 1858 Gold Rush, and had virtually endorsed the actions of the region’s Nlaka'pamux people when they began killing American miners in retaliation for their incursions into the territory. 

“The Americans had brought with them their crude attitude towards Native Americans. When the natives had shown their resentment at being brushed aside by the miners, the Americans had simply gunned them down and set fire to their villages,” wrote author E.C. Coleman in his definitive account of the Pig War. 

When Indigenous counter attacks followed against Fraser miners, Douglas curtly reminded the Americans that they had never been welcome to settle in the area in the first place and that “the Laws would protect the rights of the Indians no less than those of the white men.”

A few years later, when the United States was in the depths of the Civil War, Douglas would advocate a full-scale invasion of what is now Washington State.

Henry Jackson, the US Senator for Washington State from 1953 to 1983, holding what is believed to be the shotgun that started the Pig War (Source).

As the Pig War escalated, the BC Governor may have been acting against the wishes of London, but he was confident that in any fight with the United States the region’s native peoples would have his back. 

“You are perhaps not aware of the intense hatred existing between the Indians and the Americans,” wrote Douglas to Rear Admiral Robert Baynes, the region’s top British naval commander. The devastating smallpox epidemics of 1862 were still months away, and First Nations power remained substantial throughout what is now known as the Salish Sea. 

Furthermore, the US Army had just wrapped up a series of brutal wars against Indigenous groups in what is now Washington State. Attack the Americans, assured Douglas, and they would be immediately joined by immeasurable native warriors keen on revenge.

The spectre of all-out Indigenous assault was something with which Douglas directly threatened the Americans, writing in one letter to the governor of the Washington Territory that if the San Juan conflict were to escalate, Douglas could not “restrain the wily savage from deeds of blood.”

Douglas may have been acting against London's interests to keep nice with the Americans, but he certainly seemed to be representing the will of his colonial constituency. In the midst of the crisis, the British Colonist declared the American actions an existential threat to their young colony, writing “every new feature in the movements of the forces of the United States, in relation to the occupation of San Juan, indicates a disposition to fortify, colonize, and render it as much a part and parcel of the United States, as San Francisco.”

The American side, too, wasn’t a model of restraint. Many in the US ranks, including George Pickett, were veterans of the Mexican-American War, having helped to seize land from California to Wyoming from a force of more than 80,000 soldiers. Compared to that, a faceoff with an isolated British colony seemed like little more than a military formality. 

A drawing of Pickett's Charge showing Confederate troops setting out over extensive open ground to attack entrench Union positions in the distance. Although spared one shooting war in 1859, George Pickett would soon be caught up in the bloodiest conflict in US history (United States Library of Congress).

This was also a country unsettlingly committed to the idea that they deserved any piece of the Western Hemisphere they could get their hands on. The concept of Manifest Destiny had been popularized only 14 years before, holding that the United States was ordained by God to eventually rule over the whole of North America. The term’s inventor, newspaper editor John O’Sullivan, had been specifically referencing the lands around San Juan Island when in 1845 he cited “the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us.”

Tactically, British Columbia probably would have won any shooting war over San Juan Island. British naval power easily outgunned the American presence in the Pacific, and Pickett had foolishly set up his camp in such a way that made it a sitting duck for naval gunfire. However, while the Pig War may have seemed like a minor skirmish over territory that both the United States and Britain viewed as distant wilderness, it was not unprecedented that similar disputes had escalated into major wars.

A hundred years before, a young British officer in Colonial Virginia named George Washington had been sent to settle a minor territorial dispute with the French that wasn’t all that different from the 1859 quarrel on San Juan Island. The inexperienced Washington ended up opening fire on a French patrol, inadvertently sparking an all-out world war between France and the UK that left tens of thousands dead. 

And of course, within less than two years of the Pig War, the first shots of the American Civil War would be sparked by an eerily similar scenario: The ownership of a disputed island. When Confederate guns opened up on federal positions at Fort Sumter in April, 1861, they too might have believed that they were simply mopping up a minor real estate skirmish, rather than sealing the fate of 600,000 Civil War dead. 

But while James Douglas may have wanted a final showdown for the fate of the Pacific Northwest, perhaps the only reason San Juan Island isn’t currently littered with 1850s-era military cemeteries was thanks to the intervention of a figure who has often appeared throughout history to cool Canadian passions with the US: A dispassionate British admiral. 

Sir Geoffrey Thomas Phipps Hornby, commander of the British forces sent to face Pickett, ultimately ignored Douglas’ orders to assault San Juan Island, arguing that it all seemed a bit much in a dispute that had started with a dead pig. Hornby would ultimately be instrumental in arranging a joint military occupation of the island: For the next 12 years a place that had previously been little more than a Hudson's Bay Company sheep run would now host British and American encampments locked in permanent standoff.

Officer's quarters pictured around 1865 at the British military encampment on San Juan Island (Source).

One of the American commanders in the dispute would later write that British negotiations had "saved us from a war, a war in which the commercial interests of 50 million souls, of the same race, would have been destroyed, not to speak of the horrible consequences in other respects."

It was a decision that undoubtedly saved lives, but also hoodwinked British Columbia at the negotiating table. The Pig War would not fully be settled until 1871, when an arbitration by Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm I drew the US-Canadian border through Haro Strait, ultimately making San Juan Island, now home to 7,000 people, the US possession it is today. Reportedly, the concession was won because Americans had remembered to send a German-speaking negotiator.

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