The Pig War

Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:18 am

A guest post by author, Anne Clare

In spite of its name, ‘The Pig War’ didn’t have much to do with farm animals. Rather, the unfortunate demise of a pig who ventured into the wrong garden in 1859 almost led to an armed conflict between Britain and the United States.  As the pig was just the catalyst to the conflict, we need to back up a few decades before expounding on the problem with the porker.

The Pig WarIn the early 1800s, multiple countries had sent explorers to the Pacific Northwest coast of North America. These explorers laid claim to territory in the New World. However, as there weren’t markings on property lines, Britain, Spain, Russia and the fledgling United States all ended up with overlapping claims.  By 1819, Spain was out of the running for Pacific Northwest real estate, thanks to the Transcontinental Treaty. President James Monroe’s 1823 speech outlining ‘the Monroe Doctrine’ warned Russia that seeking interests on North American soil would not be tolerated. This left Britain and the United States to work out their conflicting claims.

Both nations had reasons why they felt their claim was more legitimate. On the British side, Captain James Cook had conducted important explorations of the coastal areas of the territory. One of his crew members, George Vancouver, returned and became the first non-Native to explore Puget Sound, giving it its name in the process. The Hudson Bay Company (which had also absorbed the Northwest Company) had been active in the area for years, establishing trade and putting down roots.

The Pig War. Map showing relation of San Juan Island (in white) to the United States territories and those of Great Britain including Vancouver's IslandHowever, the Americans had the Lewis and Clark ‘Corps of Discovery’ exploration to point to, and the subsequent setting up of trading posts and forts. A decade before Lewis and Clark reached the Pacific, Thomas Gray, sailing from Boston, had explored and named the Columbia River. The idea of ‘Manifest Destiny’ – that the United States not only would expand, but was meant to expand to the Pacific – bolstered the voices calling for the Oregon Territory to become officially American territory.

Britain and the United States had already agreed to set their borders from Minnesota to the Rocky Mountains along the 49th parallel. Why not, moderate American voices asked, agree to just keep this same line all the way to the Pacific? (This would also conveniently give the U.S. Puget Sound, which would be America’s first good deep water harbor on the Pacific.)  No. The Hudson Bay Company also recognized the value of Puget Sound, and the Columbia River was a valuable waterway for their trading endeavors. The 49th Parallel was too far to the north for their plans.

The Pig War. Map of San Juan Island showing locations of the American and British garrisons (American and English Camps).However, by 1843 so many American families had moved west along the Oregon Trail and begun settling in the Oregon Territory that they set up a provisional government to keep the territory in order. Possession is nine tenths of the law, right?  As the debate wore on, some American voices clamored that a border on the 49th parallel wasn’t nearly enough land anyway. President James K Polk won his 1845 election on the slogan “54 40 or Fight!” In other words, he called for a border that went up to 54 degrees, 40 minutes, which would extend the United States’ border all the way north to Alaska, Or Else!

The British were understandably not fond of this slogan and began to prepare for the worst. Among other preparations, they sent two spies, a Lieutenant Warre and a Lieutenant Vavasour, to the Columbia River to keep an eye on things.   However, once in office (and by a slim margin of votes) President Polk wasn’t really feeling the “fight” part of his slogan. No, the conflict, when it came, was not at the dictates of Washington DC.

In 1846, Britain and the United States signed The Treaty of Oregon in London. This treaty finally positioned the border between the two nations on the 49th parallel from the Rocky Mountains west – at least, until it hit the water. Then the line would swing south through the middle of the channel which separates the continent from Vancouver Island, leaving the island a British possession. Finally, the border would continue to the Pacific through the strait of Juan De Fuca. Problem solved.  Except that the treaty did not specify which channel the border should pass through—Haro Strait nearer Vancouver Island, or Rosario Strait nearer the mainland.

The San Juan Islands lay between those two straits and, naturally, both Britain and the United States claimed them as their rightful property and began trying to establish their claims through action.

Belle Vue Sheep Farm during the height of the Pig War crisis in September 1859. At far right is the British magistrate, John De Courcy. Next to him is the US Civil Magistrate from Whatcom County, Henry Crosbie.The Hudson Bay Company at Fort Victoria, only seven miles from San Juan Island, had set up salmon curing stations on the island. When the United States claimed the island, the HBC upped its game and established the Belle Vue Sheep Farm as well.

American settlers – eighteen of them – established their own claims, settling in and building homes right in the middle of sheep grazing land. (Of course.) Tensions mounted. The settlers were confident that the US government would recognize their claims, while the British were equally sure that these new residents were no better than squatters.

Finally, on June 15, 1859, came the incident that brought the tensions to the breaking point, and for which the conflict is named; American resident of San Juan Island, Lyman Cutlar, found a British company pig in his garden. He shot and killed it.

This did not go over well.

Deck of steam corvette HMS Satellite. The Satellite transported the British magistrate, John DeCourcy from Victoria to San Juan Island. The ship was a frequent visitor to Griffin Bay during the crisis.The British authorities threatened to evict all of the Americans from the island, except Cutlar, whom they wanted to arrest.  The Americans dug in their heels and refused but sent messages to the American authority in the territory, Brig Gen William S Harney. He sent a company of 64 infantrymen under Captain George E Picket (who would later be a well-known name in the American Civil War).  Pickett encamped his men just north of the British sheep farm, near the HBC wharf on Griffin Bay.  Word of the situation reached Vancouver Island and the ears of the British Governor, James Douglass. In response, Douglass sent Captain Geoffrey Phipps Horn and his 31-gun steam frigate, the HMS Tribune, to San Juan Island. They were ordered to get rid of Pickett without bloodshed…if possible. The Tribune was soon followed by the HMS Satellite with her 21 guns and the HMS Plumper with her 10, plus 46 Royal Marines and 15 Royal Engineers.  Faced with almost one ship gun for each of his men, Pickett still refused to withdraw. He did, however, request reinforcements.

In the meantime, the British did not take aggressive action, waiting for the commander of British naval forces in the Pacific, Rear Admiral R Lambert Baynes, to arrive.  While I don’t know anything else about Admiral Baynes, I think his reaction to this situation speaks well of him. According to the National Park Service site for San Juan Island, Baynes was “appalled and advised Douglass that he would not “involve two great nations in a war over a squabble about a pig.”  On the island, Pickett received his reinforcements—171 men and a replacement commander in the form of Lt Col Silas Casey. Casey tried to parley with Baynes, but after Baynes refused to leave his ship (or perhaps after seeing the 84 guns on Baynes’ ship, the HMS Ganges) Casey also sent word asking for more reinforcements.  By the end of the month, 461 Americans were encamped in the woods just north of the sheep farm, supported by some 14 field cannons and an earthen redoubt housing eight 32 lb naval guns. They waited.

The British also waited, drilling and firing their guns into the island’s bluffs.

The Pig War. The English Camp on San Juan IslandAmong the absurdities of this absurd situation, tourists still came via boat to visit the island. Officers on both sides attended church together on the Satellite and socialized.  At last, the story of the conflict reached Washington DC and President James Buchanan. He hurriedly dispatched General Winfield Scott, a veteran of the War of 1812 and also a veteran of calming down border disputes.  In the end, both parties agreed to withdraw their reinforcements. Britain and the United States would share San Juan Island in a joint occupation until the matter was finally resolved. The Americans would leave one company of soldiers on the island, and the British would keep one warship in Griffin Bay. (In March of the next year, the Royal Marines would also land on the north coast in Garrison Bay and establish what became known as ‘the English Camp’.)

The temporary solution worked, though with one thing and another keeping the decision-makers occupied – including the American Civil War – the temporary solution dragged on for twelve years.  In 1871, Britain and the United States agreed to let Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany arbitrate their dispute. He gave the project to a three-man commission, who met on the subject in Geneva for nearly a year. On October 21, 1872, they ruled in favor of the United States. This set the final boundary between the U.S. and British – now Canadian – territory.  On November 25, 1872, the Royal Marines withdrew from ‘English Camp’ and by July of 1874 the final U.S. troops left ‘American Camp’.

And so, the Pig War ended – a war in which the only casualty was a pig and in which diplomacy triumphed.

The Pig War. American Camp, San Juan Island

Many thanks to Mike for allowing me to stop by today, and to you for reading!

A couple of side notes
If you make your way across the continental United States to Washington state, you can visit San Juan Island National Historic Park and see the sites of the English and American camps. If you’re very fortunate, you might also see the local orca whales passing by in the blue waters of Puget Sound. If visiting is a bit too much of a trek, the National Park Service site has wonderful pictures and lots of information.

The story of the Pig War is also featured in numerous books for adults and children, including the 2020 picture book ‘The Pig War: How a Porcine Tragedy Taught England and America to Share’ by Emma Bland Smith.


A bit about Anne Clare

Anne Clare, authorIn the spring of 2017, Anne Clare settled her children down for their afternoon nap, tiptoed into the living room and began a blog – The Naptime Author.  There she shares real stories from the Second World War and reflections on writing – go take a look.  She also manages to be a teacher, organist, choir director – and a few other things.

Anne Clare has published two novels set during World War Two – Where Shall I Flee? And Whom Shall I Fear?


Where Shall I Flee? by Anne Clare

Where Shall I Flee?
1944 – Lieutenant Jean Hoff of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps and infantryman Corporal George Novak have never met, but they have three things in common. They are both driven by a past they’d rather leave behind.  They have both been sent to the embattled beachhead of Anzio, Italy.

And when they both wind up on the wrong side of the German lines, they must choose whether to resign themselves to captivity or risk a dangerous escape.

Where Shall I Flee? follows their journey through the dangers of World War II Italy, where faith vies with fear and forgiveness may be necessary for survival.

Whom Shall I Fear? by Anne ClareWhom Shall I Fear?
1943.  All that Sergeant James Milburn wants is to heal. Sent to finish his convalescence in a lonely village in the north of England, the friends he’s lost haunt his dreams. If he can only be declared fit for active service again, perhaps he can rejoin his surviving mates in the fight across Sicily and either protect them or die alongside them.

All that Evie Worther wants is purpose. War has reduced her family to an elderly matriarch and Charles, her controlling cousin, both determined to keep her safely tucked away in their family home. If she can somehow balance her sense of obligation to family with her desperate need to be of use, perhaps she can discover how she fits into her tumultuous world.

All that Charles Heatherington wants is his due. Since his brother’s death, he is positioned to be the family’s heir with only one step left to make his future secure. If only he can keep the family matriarch happy, he can finally start living the easy life he is certain he deserves.

However, when James’s, Evie’s and Charles’s paths collide, a dark secret of the past is forced into the light, and everything that they have hoped and striven for is thrown into doubt. Weaving in historical detail from World War II in Britain, Italy and Egypt, Whom Shall I Fear? follows their individual struggles with guilt and faith, love and family, and forces them to ask if the greatest threat they face is really from the enemy abroad.


Note from Mike
I’d like to thank Anne for that delightful article about an amusing incident in history that I certainly knew nothing about before.  It is curiously uplifting – particularly in today’s uncertain world.  If you don’t know Anne’s work, do make a point of visiting The Naptime Author.

All of the images in this piece are in the public domain via the US National Park Service, with the exception of the header image, which has been assembled using images from Pixabay. As usual, links that take you to Amazon may result in commission being paid to A Bit About Britain if you buy anything; I would encourage you to do that.

Anyone interested in the difference between ‘English’ and ‘British’ should take a look at What does Britain mean?.

Please follow this link if you are interested in guest posting.

72 thoughts on “The Pig War”

  1. Hi Anne and Mike – excellent post about ‘a War’ I’d come across when I was living up on Vancouver Island recently … history is amazing. Cheers Hilary

  2. A fascinating story, and one I knew nothing about. Thank you for enlightening us, and showing that fighting isn’t necessary to solve problems.

  3. As a Seattle resident I can say that the area in which the “war” took place is a lovely place to visit and/or vacation; but there’s little or no Drama to be found there. Go for the island life, the seafood, the climate (at least in the summer).

  4. We stayed at Friday Harbor a few years ago and visited English Camp where we heard about the Pig War, but not in this much detail, so thank you for filling in some gaps. It’s a fascinating slice of history, and wouldn’t it be nice if all wars could cause so little damage to life (pace the poor pig!)

    1. It’s such a lovely area, isn’t it? I’d like to make it back to those islands again.
      I’m glad you enjoyed the history. I find it encouraging to read about times when diplomacy was successful!

      1. Yes, we loved it there. We rented an apartment in Friday Harbor for a few days, went whale watching (with only limited success) and toured the island. A great time, but then I loved all our time in WA!

        1. It does look lovely there. And wouldn’t it be great if all disputes could be settled like this. Mind you, it amused me that the Kaiser was selected to arbitrate and that it took so long to reach a conclusion.

  5. artandarchitecturemainly

    Yes an absurd situation, but I am only half surprised that tourists still arrived to visit the island. I fully understand that officers wanted to fulfil their religious and social responsibilities, but there are clearly times for people to take a bit of extra care!! Anyhow, even although it took half a generation, diplomacy did eventually triumph.

    If only communities knew about diplomacy today.

    1. It reminds me of the beginning of the American Civil War, when spectators came to the Battle of Bull Run!
      And I completely agree- it was refreshing to study a piece of history with a peaceful ending.

    1. I feel the same way. I’ve been to the islands a couple of times, and visited these sites with my brother as a teenager, but had no idea what the fortifications he were all about!

    1. Yes indeed! I’m sure when he went into the garden for an innocent snack, he had no idea that he’d end up on someone’s table (? I’d assume?) and nearly causing a war!

      1. I guess he was going to end up on someone’s table at some point, so he at least achieved some immortality. Except we don’t know his name – a minor omission in the tale, possibly? 🙂

        1. Honestly, my husband’s the Civil War guy, and I’d have to ask him. All I recall is the phrase “Pickett’s charge,” and I seem to recall that it didn’t go well. (Now I have to look him up…quick search seems to agree with me. American Battlefield Trust mentions him weeping for the loss of over half his division 🙁 )

  6. Anne did a great job of telling this story, one i have always loved. I have visited this historic site and gorgeous island many times. Things can be settled amicably!

  7. This was so fun to read, very educational too! To me, the funny thing is that I view Americans as British in many ways since many of us carry genes from the UK as I do. ❤️

    1. Thank you John! It is interesting, isn’t it, especially in these very early conflicts how closely connected the ancestry of the two nations was- I wonder if that helped to resolve things or made people more inclined to be stubborn?

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