June 15, 1859 – Outbreak of The Pig War

On this day in history, the so-called “Pig War” broke out between the United States and the British Empire over a disputed boundary between Vancouver Island and the North American mainland.

According to the 1846 Treaty of Oregon, the border between the U.S. and Canada was supposed to run through “the middle of the channel” separating the U.S. mainland from Canada’s Vancouver Island. But 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, and each established farms on them.

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Lyman Cutlar, one of the American homesteaders, had a potato farm that the British claimed was inside their sheep pasture. On this day in history, Cutlar found a British pig eating tubers in his potato patch. It was not the first time this happened, and Cutlar had had enough, grabbing his rifle and killing the pig. Cutlar then offered the Irishman running the sheep ranch, Charles Griffin, $10 in compensation, but Griffin demanded $100. Tensions escalated.

British authorities threatened to arrest Cutlar and moreover forcibly remove all the American settlers from the islands. The Americans demanded military protection, which arrived in the form of about 60 United States infantrymen led by Captain George Pickett, who later gained fame as a Confederate General in the most famous battle of Gettysburg, “Pickett’s Charge” (during which no one could actually claim to have seen Pickett himself).

When American soldiers landed in the San Juan Islands, the Governor of Vancouver responded by sending gunships and Royal Marines. Captain Pickett then called for, and received, reinforcements along with cannon. The British bolstered their own forces with more ships and marines.

Capt. Pickett's first camp was located just west of the Hudson's Bay Company dock (left center).The above watercolor was done by a Royal Navy midshipman 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 Collection of Western Americana, Beinecke Book and Manuscript Library

Capt. Pickett’s first camp was located just west of the Hudson’s Bay Company dock (left center).The above watercolor was done by a Royal Navy midshipman 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 Collection of Western Americana, Beinecke Book and Manuscript Library

No shots were actually fired, however, while each side waited word from their governments. President James Buchanan, who had enough trouble trying to stave off a Civil War, sent a negotiator to the San Juans and soon most of the troops on both sides withdrawn. Thus the conflict ended with only one casualty: the pig.

From then on, the San Juans remained peaceful under joint military occupation until 1872, after an international arbitration committee, which met in Geneva for nearly a year, gave the territory to the Americans.

On November 25, 1872, the British withdrew their Royal Marines from the British Camp. The American troops were gone by July 1874.

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