"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, October 21, 2019

The Dead Pig War

Via historic-uk.com

It is, of course, common knowledge that one of the precipitating factors of World War I was the murder of Franz Ferdinand and his wife. However, it is largely forgotten that another cold-blooded assassination very nearly sparked an armed conflict between America and Great Britain.

This week, let us remember the Great Dead Pig War of 1859.

The main stage for our little drama was San Juan Island, just off the coast of Washington state. The Donation Land Claim Act of 1850 granted 160 acres of the island to any white male citizen over the age of 21. One of the men taking advantage of this bounty was one Lyman Cutler. Cutler's efforts to prospect for gold in California had ended in failure, and he saw San Juan as his second chance to strike it rich on the West Coast.

Although he didn't know it at the time, when Cutler arrived on the island in April 1859, he was walking into an international hornet's nest. Both the United States and Great Britain were claiming San Juan as their territory, which was seen as a vital military strategic point. This led to a very irritable state of affairs between American settlers and the British Hudson Bay Company, who ran a sheep ranch on the island. Cutler, as well as most of the Americans on the island, were also unaware that legally, the Donation Land Claim Act did not apply to disputed areas such as San Juan. They may have believed they were rightful landowners, but, in reality, they were just squatters.

The land claimed by Cutler just happened to be in the middle of an area used by the Bay Company as a sheep run. Resenting this latest example of what they saw as brazenly illegal encroachment by the Americans, the Company opted to simply ignore Cutler's presence and continue to use the land as they pleased.

Matters reached the crisis point on June 15, 1859, when Cutler was greeted by the sight of a pig owned by Bay Company employee Charles Griffin merrily foraging through the settler's potato patch. This was hardly the first time his garden had been raided by Griffin's pigs, and for Cutler, this was the last straw. He grabbed his rifle and shot the intruder dead.

The Bay Company was as thoroughly sick of the sight of Cutler as he was of them. They indignantly demanded $100 from him as compensation. Cutler told them to pound sand. The British called for Cutler's arrest. Insults and threats began to fly from both sides. It was a perilous moment in the relations between their two countries. It was a situation that called for an objective mediator, a calming presence offering clear thinking and exquisite tact.

Instead, what everyone got was General William S. Harney.

Harney was the commander of the U.S. Army's Oregon Department. When he arrived on the island a few weeks later, the Pig Assassination was at the top of the many complaints the American residents leveled against the British. Harney was a protege of Andrew Jackson, and fully shared his mentor's hot temper, impulsive nature, and fiery antipathy towards the British. He saw the incident as a perfect opportunity to settle a number of scores. He summoned a detachment of infantrymen from Fort Bellingham, led by the equally hotheaded Captain George Pickett. Harney and Pickett made it clear they were out to teach the Bay Company a lesson. "We'll make a Bunker Hill out of it," Pickett boasted. They considered San Juan to be American territory, under American laws, and they dared the British to make something of it.

The British did. They retaliated by sending three warships to the island, with guns pointed squarely at the American camp.

Both nations entered into a game of "chicken." The Americans responded to these ships by bringing in artillery and an additional 400 soldiers. The British answered this with two more warships. Fortunately, everyone lacked any higher authority to go any further, so they held off on actually firing any shots. The British Rear Admiral Robert Baynes moaned that he could not believe the two nations were going to war "over a squabble about a pig." Both sides merely stared each other down uneasily, hoping that their own show of force would intimidate the other into backing down.

This uncomfortable standoff lasted until September, when word of the conflict finally reached the American President, James Buchanan. He sent to San Juan General Winfeld Scott, a man with a reputation for wisely managing sticky diplomatic situations.

It was a wise move. Scott managed to negotiate a joint occupation of the island. Each nation had 100 of their troops occupying different ends of the island, with the tacit agreement to just stay well out of each other's way.

Once the provocative influences of Harney and Pickett had been removed, peace gradually returned to San Juan, with the representatives from both nations learning to live in harmony with each other. In 1872, the long-simmering issue of who owned the island was finally resolved, with the United States legally securing the territory.

What became of Griffin's other pigs seems to be lost to history. One would think the very least they deserved was a memorial statue.


  1. I don't know whether it's fortunate or not that most of history is made by more significant differences. In the end, I don't suppose it matters to those affected. (Captain Pickett in this story later became the General Pickett of 'Pickett's Charge' fame in the U.S. Civil War.)

  2. A swine is a terrible thing to waste.


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