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It was one of the oddest stand-offs in North American history; in 1859, an American farmer on an island in Puget Sound, in the Pacific Northwest, shot a pig that was raiding his potato field--and almost touched off the third war between the US and Great Britain in 70 years . . .

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US Troops camped on San Juan Island, Puget Sound

Today, the United States and the United Kingdom are close allies and each often speaks of their "special relationship" to each other. But in the early part of the 19th century, the two nations were bitter enemies and had already fought two armed conflicts--the American Revolution and the War of 1812, when British troops sacked Washington DC and burned the White House. In 1859, on the eve of the American Civil War, relationships between the two countries were still strained.

When the Treaty of Ghent ended the War of 1812, the border between the US and Canada (a British possession) was fixed at the 49th Parallel. However, a problem remained: in the Pacific Northwest, the area now made up by Oregon, Washington and British Columbia, both countries had sent explorers and settlers, and both countries had claimed the same territory. The US claimed ownership as far north as Russian Alaska, at the 54th Parallel, while the British/Canadians claimed ownership as far south as the lower Snake River, at the 42nd Parallel. A joint commission in 1818 was unable to resolve the competing claims, and instead compromised by allowing for "joint occupancy", in which both sides could settle in the disputed territory but neither side would attempt to take control. This was to last for a period of ten years, when another joint commission would try to settle the matter. In the event, that commission couldn't reach an agreement either, and the "joint occupancy" policy was extended another ten years, to be renewed yearly after that until some solution was reached. Both nations established forts and outposts in the "Oregon Territory", and both sides sent settlers. The US, who had established the "Oregon Trail" and whose settlements quickly outnumbered the British, at one point tried to reach a compromise by offering to extend the eastern border between the countries, the 49th Parallel, all the way to the Pacific, but Britain instead wanted to set the border along the Columbia River, which would allow Canada to maintain control of the ports in Puget Sound. Britain offered to submit the dispute to third-party arbitration, but the US refused.

When American settlers declared a "Provisional Government" in the Oregon Territory and seemed on their way to joining the United States, the border matter had to be dealt with. In the 1844 American election, the openly expansionist James Polk won the White House, and within two years, his Democratic Party was calling for the full annexation of all of Oregon. The slogan "54-40 or Fight!" appeared, signifying the American claim to all the territory south of Russian Alaska (54 degrees 40 minutes North latitude). The British responded by beefing up their naval forces in the area.

Despite all the bluster on both sides, though, neither the US nor the British wanted a repeat of the War of 1812, and in the end, they both agreed to accept the border at the 49th Parallel. To prevent the island of Vancouver from being divided, the Oregon Treaty of 1846 declared that where the 49th Parallel reached the Pacific Coast, the border between the two countries would pass south through "the channel" separating Vancouver Island from the mainland.

Apparently, however, the diplomats who had drawn up the Treaty had never been to the disputed area or talked to anyone who had been--as it turns out, there are two channels between Vancouver Island and the mainland, with a small group of islands lying in between them. Once again, both sides claimed the same territory; once again, both sides established settlements; and once again, both sides agreed on a "joint occupancy" of the islands until the issue was settled. A number of Americans established farms on the largest island, known as San Juan, while the British Canadians established a large sheep ranch nearby. Both sides came to regard the other as illegal trespassers, and tensions simmered. They finally exploded because of a pig.

On June 22, 1859, American farmer Lyman Cutlar found one of the British pigs wandering on his farm and eating his crops. Losing his temper, Cutlar grabbed his musket and shot the hog. When Cutlar refused to pay for the dead pig, the local British authorities first threatened to arrest him, then threatened to expel all the American settlers from the island. The Americans responded by asking for help from the US authorities in Oregon, and Brigadier General William S Harney (who apparently allowed his anti-British sentiments to get in the way of his good sense) sent a company of 64 armed American soldiers of the 9th Infantry Regiment to San Juan Island under the command of Captain George E Pickett. (If that name sounds familiar, it is because Pickett would in just a few years go on to join the Confederate Army and lead the greatest military disaster on US soil--Pickett's Charge.) The troops landed on July 27.

Things quickly escalated from there. The British Governor of nearby Vancouver Island, James Douglas, dispatched three British Navy warships and a group of Royal Marines, under Captain Geoffrey Hornby, with orders to avoid a conflict if possible but to eject Pickett and his forces from San Juan Island. When the British ships took up station offshore, Pickett refused to leave, and sent for reinforcements from Oregon. Hornby in turn asked for reinforcements from Vancouver. By August, the Americans, now under the command of Lt Col Silas Casey, had 460 men and 14 artillery cannons holed up in a fort they hastily constructed. The British fleet was joined by more ships and Royal Marines under the command of Rear Admiral Lambert Baynes, who quickly assessed the situation and declared to Hornby that he was not about to start a shooting war over a pig.

Meanwhile, word of the strange impasse had finally reached President James Buchanan in Washington DC, who was completely flabbergasted that the situation had gotten so out of hand. With civil war looming, the last thing Buchanan needed was another war with England. He dispatched General Winfield Scott, a War of 1812 veteran who had negotiated before with the British, to deal with the standoff. Taking the most rapid route available--by sea to Panama, crossing the isthmus by railroad, then by sea to Puget Sound--Gen Scott arrived at San Juan Island a month and a half later. He quickly took charge of the situation, reprimanded Brig Gen Harney for allowing the situation to get so out of control, and reassigned him. After negotiations with Vancouver Governor Douglas, it was decided that San Juan Island would be occupied jointly by American and British troops--the US withdrew most of its forces and left behind one company, while the Royal Marines landed a small force at the other end of the island. By March 1860, calm had been restored, and the "joint occupancy" would last uneventfully for another 11 years.

In 1871, the US and Britain agreed to allow the German Kaiser to serve as a neutral third-party arbitrator to solve the dispute, and his commission ruled in favor of the Americans. The British sheep farmers (and the Royal Marines) left, and the San Juan Islands became part of Washington Territory.

Today, the San Juan Island National Historical Park maintains the old American fort and the British Marine Camp as a monument to the successful prevention of a war that almost started because of a pig.

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The American Officer's Quarters at the San Juan Island National Historical Park. (Photo from US National Park Service.)

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