The Pig War

The Pig War was not so much a war and was only coincidentally related to a pig.  A story of how a nascent empire and an established one nearly came to blows, the Pig War crisis reveals the lengths to which bureaucratic systems can go to preserve the status quo; thankfully, in this case, that was a good thing.  In short, the ownership of the San Juan archipelago, and San Juan Island in particular, was left unclear after the ratification of the Treaty of Oregon between the United States and United Kingdom.  British and American colonizers jointly occupied the island for a number of years in peace (with both sides claiming the other was doing so illegally) until an American named Lyman Cutlar shot a pig owned by the British Hudson Bay Company.  Fearing reprisal, American General William Selby Harney ordered troops to be landed on the island, to which British Governor James Douglas dispatched the Royal Navy (RN).  Tense months of demands and counter-demands followed while the national governments were slowly informed of the circumstances.  Eventually, a stand-down occurred, and life returned to a new joint occupation until the question of ownership was finally decided by a commission appointed by German Emperor Wilhelm I.

The Pig War was not so much a triumph of individuals choosing peace as bureaucracies restraining individuals from pursuing war.  It seems clear that Gen. Harney and Gov. Douglas were both perfectly content with colliding their two nations headlong into armed conflict.  Harney had instigated the creation of a petition from American colonists that gave him a pretext to send a company of soldiers to San Juan Island, to which Douglas dispatched a 31-gun ship of war.[1]  Their continued bellicose posturing throughout the crisis was restrained only with great effort by the likes of Rear Adm. Baynes (RN), Capt. Hornby (RN), and Secretary of War Drinkard (US), and Secretary of State Cass (US).   These retraining actors also reveal that the peaceful resolution of the incident was due more to British forbearance than to American compromise.  An American shot a British subject’s pig, and the injured party sought legal recourse rather than “frontier justice;” the Americans landed a company of infantry in disputed territory, the British sent a warship to monitor and prevent further landings so diplomacy had time to occur; the Americans refused to return the island to the status quo while awaiting a final outcome, the British abided; when additional American troops did finally land, the British didn’t flinch; once the immediate tensions had stabilized, the British even invited Washington Territory Gov. Gholson aboard HMS Satellite for tea.[2]

The chaos Harney and Douglas were inciting was exacerbated by slow communications back to the respective national capitals in Washington, DC and London.  No transcontinental telegraph line yet existed on either the American or British (Canadian) sides of the border, so messages were carried by ship to Panama, across the isthmus by railroad, and thence up the coast again by steamer.[3]  Complicating communication further for the Americans was the decentralization of political/civilian and military centers of power.  While Washington, DC had hosted Congress since 1800 and the President since 1801, Army headquarters was elsewhere.  A distinctly unmoored and mistrusted governmental organ at the time, “army headquarters were in New York because Winfield Scott, the commanding general, wanted to live there.”[4]  Indeed, it appears this decentralization of power was intentional on the part of Scott.  Vouri writes: “But most of all he [General Scott] liked being as far as possible from Washington City, which, to his mind, had for too many years been overrun with Democrats.”[5]  The overt politicism and patronage that existed in the old army is startling to a modern reader used to the army being, at least ostensibly, non-partisan.  William Harney was permitted to carry on with his “shenanigans” because of his Democratic affiliation, resulting in his outright protection by both Presidents Jackson and Polk in the face of courts-martial.[6]

While centered on Griffin Bay, San Juan Island, the story of Pig War touches places from Victoria, Bellingham, Olympia, Port Townsend, and Vancouver (WA), all the way to the major cities of the Atlantic seaboard and the isle of Great Britain.  Within the geographic purview of IslandHistories.com, the place-based story-telling runs as deep as one is willing to dig.  The Haro and Rosario Straits can tell not only what defines the word “channel” in the context of a treaty, but, can be used as a vehicle to reveal histories of shipping and military traffic by sea, the voyages of Quimper, Eliza, and Vancouver, and the prosperous transportation networks of First Nations peoples.  Indeed, further location and shared interpretation of First Nations’ settlements in and around the islands is critical to the work of reconciling our Euro-centric present with our indigenous past.  Stories of American settlement are rich in Bellingham and its environs where interpretation opportunities exist for “Pickett House” (the home that George Pickett had constructed for himself and his wife) and old Fort Bellingham.  Similarly, Victoria tells stories of British/Canadian settlement.  The home of Gov. Douglas, the seat of the Legislative Council, and its famed Inner Harbour all make for fascinating narratives.  Nearby, Esquimalt Harbour homeported the Royal Navy’s Pacific Station, an interesting choice of location given its potential provocation to American sensibilities.  Taverns, shops, and houses of ill-repute were soon erected near the military encampments, perpetuating the eternal story of vice’s tight grip on human life (pun intended).  Of course, if the Royal Marines had decided to land on Orcas Island instead of sharing San Juan with the American army, would the human geography of the islands be noticeably different today?

The Pig War incident generated countless stories and experiences worth sharing and allows the historian insight into the United States’ and United Kingdom’s diplomacy and imperialism in the mid-19th Century.  Individuals made choices, systems and institutions responded, and ultimately no human life was lost.  A terrifyingly close brush with war was averted in spite of powerful men’s offended pride.


[1] Mike Vouri, Pig War: Standoff at Griffin Bay (Seattle: Discover Your Northwest, 2016), 68 and 91

[2] Ibid., 52-53, 69, 91, 110-111, 129, and 138

[3] Ibid., 173-174.

[4] Ibid., 183.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 174.

One Reply to “The Pig War”

  1. You did a good job capturing the slow communications and lack of factual information that often occurred throughout the pig war. Also, you captured how these forces were still diplomatic and cordial through it all. Good Work!

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