Jean Godden: My favorite war

The city councilwoman explains her favorite historical scuffle, which may or may not have revolved around a pig.
Crosscut archive image.

The boundaries of the Pig War.

The city councilwoman explains her favorite historical scuffle, which may or may not have revolved around a pig.

Saturday, June 15, was a significant anniversary — one most of us neglected to celebrate.  It was, in fact, the 154th anniversary of the defining incident of the Pig War, my favorite war (but more about that later).

On that long-ago day, Lyman Cutler, a U.S. settler on San Juan Island, accosted a pig rooting in his potato patch. It wasn’t the first time the neighboring Hudson Bay Company’s livestock had strayed into Cutler’s garden, a frequent irritation. But it was the final indignity.

The enraged Cutler got out his gun and shot the pig. Later that day he would apologize to Charles Griffin, manager of the company’s Bell Vue Farm, offering to pay him $10, an amount Cutler thought about right.

Griffin, alas, was having none of it. One thing led to another, and, in no time, hotheads became involved. U. S. General William S. Harney of the Department of Oregon, well-know for his dislike of the English, ordered his subordinate, Col. George Pickett — later of Civil War Gettysburg fame — to leave his command at Fort Bellingham and establish a base on San Juan Island. 

Hudson Bay's Griffin, meanwhile, reported the pig incident to James Douglas, governor of Vancouver Island (he also happened to be Hudson’s Bay Factor in Vancouver). Douglas, having no affinity for Harney — a man he felt “spent a lifetime warring against Indians” — and outraged over attempts by Whatcom County to tax the company farm, sent his son-in-law to check things out.

Underlying the dispute was confusion over whether San Juan belonged to the U.S. or to Great Britain. An earlier settlement had clouded ownership. Was the international borderline located along the de Haro Channel? Or was the line farther to the East at Rosario Channel?

The confrontation continued to escalate. Pickett arrived heading a group of 50 men and promptly set up camp on the South end of the island. Soon they were facing three armed British warships anchored off the west side of the island.

Learning that Harney was planning to reinforce the American garrison with 450 men, Douglas ordered Capt. Geoffrey Hornby to land. But Hornby disobeyed, backed up by British Rear Admiral Lambert Baynes. Baynes said he’d “rather shed tears than to shed one drop of blood.”

U.S. President James Buchanan was dismayed to learn of the dispute, unwelcome at any time and especially when the U.S. was dealing with turbulent North-South tensions. The president sent Gen. Winfield Scott (“old fuss and feathers”) to resolve matters. Scott, skilled as a peacemaker, gained the trust of Douglas and was able to work out joint occupation of San Juan Island until the issue of sovereignty could be settled. The hope was it could be resolved by arbitration.

Resolution, however, was slow in coming. With the Civil War about to erupt and the Prussian War between Germany and France changing the power structure of Europe, the San Juan dispute languished for the next dozen years. 

Meanwhile, the two opposing forces faced one another on the island with some equanimity. The commanders made a practice of declaring a truce at Christmastime, an opportunity for feasting together. There were casualties during that time, but not hostilities. Above the British Camp, high on a nearby hill, there is a cemetery with hand-hewn crosses. During the occupation, a dozen men succumbed to various misadventures: drowning, knife fights and illnesses.

Some years ago, I signed up for a University of Washington short class on the Pig War, a weekend long seminar with lecturers from the UW’s history department. We stayed in the UW’s Fisheries dormitories and ate at restaurants on the island. We toured the British Camp with its well-preserved blockhouse, climbed the hill to the cemetery and then visited the wind-swept site of American Camp (the National Parks Service maintains the historic sites).

One take-away from the class was admiration for the far-reaching significance of an almost bloodless war — save for the pig. Rather than come to blows, the two nations submitted their claims to an international commission.  And on March 5, 1871, the panel of three arbiters began discussions of unsolved Civil War claims, Canadian fishing rights and the San Juan boundary. The first two issues were quickly settled and then, by a 2-1 vote, the Americans were given full claim to San Juan Island, which sits strategically at the entry to Washington’s Salish Sea. 

German Kaiser Wilhelm I, who oversaw the arbitration process, ratified the commission’s decision on October 21, 1872. The Treaty of Washington followed (signed on May 8), signaling the parties’ formal recognition of the decision.

Although there was grumbling in British newspapers, the British public accepted the decision as being a minor setback to a nation with a vast empire. The British Camp troops left quietly after a friendly send-off and the Americans raised the Stars and Stripes. The difficulties were over; San Juan Island and its waters and nearby islands secured. 

More importantly, the Pig War took an admirable place in world history, signaling that there are ways that nations can resolve competing claims in a peaceful manner.

Bloodshed can be averted through arbitration. It’s easy to see why the Pig War is my favorite war, the war that ended before it started.

(For more details, check out an extraordinary essay by Rebecca Smith, for which she received’s History Day award in 2006.)


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About the Authors & Contributors

Jean Godden

Jean Godden

Jean Godden served 12 years on Seattle City Council.