The Pig War - The most unusual War in History - History Key

The Pig War – The most unusual War in History

What would you say about a war triggered by a pig? That’s what happened back in 1859, when a dispute over the Canada and US border, lead to a confrontation between the United States and Great Britain. There is a background history before the confrontation moment from 1859. All started with the Oregon Treaty from June 15 1846, when the issues regarding the Oregon boundary seemed resolved, by dividing the Oregon Country/Columbia District between Britain and the United States.

As stated in the Treaty “along the forty-ninth parallel of north latitude to the middle of the channel which separates the continent from Vancouver Island, and thence southerly through the middle of the said channel, and of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, to the Pacific Ocean” (Quote from Oregon Treaty, Wikisource)

In 1856, James Charles Prevost was appointed by Britain as First Commissioner, in order to resolve several issues related to the international boundary, like the water boundary from the Strait of Georgia to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. In this mission, beside Prevost, there were also involved George Henry Richards as Second Commissioner and William A.G. as Young Secretary. On the other side, the US made Archibald Campbell First Commissioner, John Parke Second Commissioner and William J. Warren Secretary.

Map for the "Pig War" situation
Map for the “Pig War” situation © Image Source:


Both sides met several times during 1857, keeping also an intense correspondence by letter between meetings, in order to fix the water boundary problem. This aspect was discussed from October to December, with intermittent results. From the beginning, Prevost traced some clear directions to follow. The channel reported in the Treaty, must report three main qualities:

  •     It must be navigable;
  •     It must carry the boundary in a southerly direction;
  •     It must separate the continent from Vancouver Island;

The water boundary remained an open issue, considering that both sides continued to discuss it without reaching a clear solution.

‘‘It was clear what each side’s argument was and that neither would be convinced of the other. Prevost made a final offer at the sixth meeting, December 3. He suggested a compromise line through San Juan Channel, which would give the US all the main islands except San Juan Island. This offer was rejected and the commission adjourned, agreeing to report back to their respective governments. Thus ambiguity over the water boundary remained.” (quote from Scholefield, Ethelbert Olaf Stuart; Howay, Frederic William 1914)

This unclear and ambiguous situation, made both United States and Britain to claim their sovereignty over San Juan Island. The island was important on a military and strategic level.


Everything erupted exactly 13 days after the signing of the Oregon Treaty. On June 15, 1859, an American farmed named Lyman Cutlar, who had recently decided to move onto the island, found a large black pig destroying his garden. Considering that the episode wasn’t the first, the farmer lost his patience and shot the black pig, killing it on the spot. The pig’s owner, an Irishman named Charles Griffin, refused to accept a $10 compensation for the pig, asking instead a $100 bill.

Cutlar refused to pay the $100 bill, stating that the pig was caught on his land “eating his potatoes”, but Griffin had as reply “It is up to you to keep your potatoes out of my pig” (quote from Woodbury, Chuck “How One Pig Could Have Changed American History”). When Cutler was threatened by British authorities, the Americans intervened offering to Cutlar military protection. The Brigadier-General William S. Harney, in command of the Department of Oregon, deployed 66 American soldiers on the San Juan Island, in order to prevent any British landing. As response, the British sent three warships under the command of Captain Geoffrey Hornby. For several days, none of the troops attacked the other. The British Rear Admiral Robert L. Baynes, considered that “two great nations in a war over a squabble about a pig was foolish.”

Both sides received the same order: do not to fire the first shot. Considering that order, for several days the soldiers exchanged only insults, in order to break each other’s nerves and cause the first shot. But soldiers from both sides handed very well, respecting the discipline, without firing any shot.


San Juan Harbor
San Juan Harbor © Image Source:

The resolution

When the echoes from this crazy situation reached both Washington and London, US President James Buchanan negotiated with Governor Douglas in order to calm the crisis. The negotiations, led to a joint military occupation of the island, where both British and American soldiers adapted to a peacefully relaxed social life, for the next 12 years. On November 25, 1872, the British withdrew their Royal Marines from the British Camp. The Americans followed by July 1874.

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