The British-American Pig War

Lyman A. Cutler, being duly sworn, deposes and says … that on or about the 15th of last June he shot a hog belonging to … Mr. Griffin, and immediately informed him of the fact, stating it was done in a moment of irritation, the animal having been at several times a great annoyance, and that morning destroyed a portion of his garden.… That same afternoon, Mr. Griffin, in company with [Alexander Dallas, of the Hudson’s Bay Company] came to his house.… Mr. Dallas stated this was British soil, and if Cutler did not [pay] … one hundred dollars he would take him to Victoria … for trial.


In 1859 Lyman Cutler affected a border in today’s state of Washington by shooting a pig. Because it was a particular pig, at a particular place, at a particular time, its demise brought the United States and Great Britain to the brink of war.

This particular pig lived on an island whose possession was disputed by the United States and Britain. The San Juan Islands, named by Spanish explorers prior to the arrival of British settlers, are a cluster of small islands between Canada’s Vancouver Island (then under British rule) and the state of Washington. Possession of the islands was unspecified in the 1846 treaty that divided the Oregon Country, a region mutually claimed by the United States and Britain. The land was divided by an extension of the 49th parallel from the crest of the Rocky Mountains “to the middle of the channel which separates the continent from Vancouver’s Island, and thence southerly through the middle of the said channel” (see “James K. Polk” in this book). Though the negotiators were informed that islands in the waterway could result in ambiguity regarding “the middle of the channel,” neither side knew the geography well enough, nor wanted to wait for information that might crack a fragile treaty that had taken decades to negotiate.2

The pig (image based on available data) (ca. 1856-1859) (photo credit 32.1)

Disputed San Juan Islands

As it turned out, there were two comparable channels. The Haro Strait passed between the San Juan Islands and Vancouver Island; the Rosario Strait passed between the San Juan Islands and the United States. A British-American boundary commission was formed, but its members were unable to agree as to which channel constituted the boundary and thus which nation possessed the islands. The reason they couldn’t agree was because the islands were of strategic value to both nations.

That the particular time was significant is borne out, first, by the fact that there had already been an event similar to that involving the pig—this one involving sheep—which did not escalate to the brink of war. It had occurred in 1853–54, when the Hudson’s Bay Company landed 1,300 sheep on San Juan Island to provision its personnel on the mainland and Vancouver Island. The company assumed that the island was part of Britain’s Canadian territory under its proprietorship. When the Hudson’s Bay Company was informed by the Territory of Washington that it had failed to pay the tariff for the sheep it had imported into the United States and that the company owed property tax for the land it used on the San Juan Islands, Britain disputed the Americans’ claim to jurisdiction. In response, the Washington Territory sent a sheriff, who seized thirty some sheep that were then sold to recover the unpaid taxes.

Not surprisingly, Britain’s regional governor, James Douglas, had some words for Isaac Stevens, the governor of the Washington Territory. “A person named Barnes, who styles himself Sheriff of Whatcomb County,” he wrote to Stevens, “did abstract a number of valuable sheep, which they put into boats, and were about to depart with the same when Mr. Griffin returned and, demanding restitution of his property, was menaced with violence.”3 Mr. Griffin turned up again in the 1859 dispute. Charles J. Griffin, the Hudson’s Bay Company’s manager of the livestock on San Juan Island, was the neighbor whose pig Lyman Cutler shot. Like the sheep, Griffin’s pig was the property of the Hudson’s Bay Company. The element that had prevented the sheep incident from spiraling out of control surfaced as Governor Douglas’s letter proceeded to calm down: “Wisdom and sound policy enjoin upon us the part of leaving the question to the decision of the supreme governments, and of abstaining from enforcing rights which neither party is disposed to acknowledge.”

Five years later, however, the parties involved did not calm down. This difference resulted in large part from the arrival, in 1858, of General William S. Harney as the new commander of the U.S. military in the region. General Harney had shown himself to be effective in war, but, as an earlier news report illustrates, he was not a man disposed to calm down. “A fellow by the name of Harney … murdered a Negro woman [his slave, Hannah] by whipping her to death in St. Louis,” the Boston Liberator reported in September 1834. “It has been stated by … the coroner’s inquest that, from the circumstantial evidence and the testimony of individuals to Harney’s own confessions to them, that this horrible act was committed … for successive days.… Harney is … an officer connected with the army and has fled to Washington.” Over the course of his military career, Harney was court-martialed four times: twice for insubordination, once for refusing to return a stolen horse, and once for maliciously flogging a soldier.4

General William S. Harney (1800-1889) (photo credit 32.2)

Harney learned of the pig incident three weeks after it had happened and even then by chance. In early July 1859, having paid a courtesy call on Governor Douglas at Vancouver Island, Harney noticed an American flag flying on nearby San Juan Island. Knowing the island’s possession to be under dispute, he went to investigate. It turned out that the flag had not yet been lowered from the American residents’ Fourth of July celebration—but not entirely by accident. There was considerable excitement among the islanders, Harney discovered, about a recent dustup over a pig. Harney was told about Cutler, the produce-poaching pig, the confrontation with Griffin, and the Hudson’s Bay Company bigwig who had threatened to have Cutler arrested and put on trial.

Harney knew that such a trial, if it took place uncontested by the United States, would undermine American claims to the San Juan Islands. He therefore issued orders to his aide, Captain George Pickett, stating that he was to land a company of men on San Juan Island:

First: to protect the inhabitants of the island from the incursions of the northern Indians.… Second: … [T]o afford adequate protection to the American citizens … and to resist all attempts at interference by the British authorities.… This protection has been called for in consequence of the chief factor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, Mr. Dallas, having recently … threatened to take an American citizen by force to Victoria for trial by British laws.

On July 27 Pickett landed on the island with sixty men. But Harney’s orders hadn’t stopped there:

The steamer Massachusetts will be directed to transport your command.… [T]ake into consideration that future contingencies may require an establishment of from four to six companies retaining the command of San Juan harbor.

Meanwhile British Governor Douglas also knew that, if no effort were made to prosecute Cutler or to object to the presence of American troops, it would undermine Britain’s claim to the San Juan Islands. He therefore issued orders to his aide, John de Courcy, to arrest Cutler.

Upon Courcy’s arrival on the island, he and Pickett drew their lines in the sand and reported back to their respective superiors. This time Governor Douglas did not calm down, most likely because, this time, the USS Massachusetts was lurking in the harbor with additional troops. Consequently, Douglas matched that move and upped it. He ordered the arrival of two warships, with a combined total of fifty-two guns, and a third ship with a detachment of troops.

General Harney responded by ordering the arrival of additional American ships and troops. Within eight weeks, one man’s shooting of a pig had escalated to sixty heavily fortified American troops, backed by 400 offshore reinforcements, facing British battleships aiming 167 cannons at them and transporting some 2,000 troops.

Hotheadedness, however, was only one of the elements that had turned Cutler’s bullet into a diplomatic bomb. Another difference between the 1854 and 1859 incidents was that in 1859 the United States was on the verge of its Civil War. Though General Harney was a slave owner, and a brutal one at that, he strongly opposed secession. There is reason to believe that, with the nation on the brink of implosion, he saw both political and military value in the San Juan Islands.

Militarily, if the United States possessed the San Juan Islands, it could control the shipping channels between Vancouver Island and the mainland of Canada. With that control, commerce in western Canada would be at the mercy of the United States. Should the United States seek to acquire Canada, taking possession of the San Juan Island would provide an excellent military wedge.

Harney may have sought to drive that wedge of conquest at that point in time for political reasons as well. Historians have speculated that he hoped to divert Southern secessionist passions into American expansionist passions.5 This view is buttressed by his selection of Captain Pickett to lead the landing force on San Juan Island. George E. Pickett came from a long-prominent Virginia family. His buoyant personality added popularity to prominence. In the years ahead, Pickett would become a Confederate general most known to posterity for Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg, that charge being the high-water mark of the Confederacy. If this wild idea of invading Canada was Harney’s intention, he would not have been the only high-ranking government official to entertain it. Secretary of State William Seward would soon propose it to President Lincoln as a last-ditch effort to avoid the Civil War.

Once Harney’s reports arrived in Washington, cooler heads prevailed. President James Buchanan dispatched Adjutant General Winfield Scott to assess the situation firsthand, with the aim of preventing war. “Harney considers San Juan Island as part of the Washington Territory,” General Scott reported to his superiors. “If this does not lead to a collision of arms, it will again be due to the forbearance of the British authorities, for I found both Brigadier General Harney and Captain Pickett proud of their ‘conquest’ of the island.” In response, the secretary of war sent General Scott a one-sentence message: “The Adjutant General will order Brigadier General Harney to repair to Washington city without delay.”

The War Department officially censured General Harney. The Washington Territory, on the other hand, nominated him for president of the United States. General Scott, meanwhile, working with British governor Douglas, stabilized the military situation by agreeing to a troop presence by both nations on the island.

With the military standoff carefully managed, diplomats were able to take control of the dispute. As they did so, the number of British and American troops was steadily reduced to a token presence. Those remaining came to exchange pleasantries, play cards, share adult beverages, and even celebrate Christmas together at a large dinner while waiting for the diplomats to complete their task.6

The wait lasted twelve years. In 1872, under arbitration headed by Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm, the San Juan Islands were deemed to lie within the boundaries of the United States. The decision was based on the records of the original 1846 boundary negotiations, during which England had sought to have the boundary along 49th parallel turn south through the channel only to keep Vancouver Island in British possession, never mentioning any possession of the San Juan Islands.

Today this segment of Washington State’s boundary remains on the map, an artifact of Lyman Cutler’s triggering the Pig War, the only casualty of which was the pig.

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