Oct 21, 2013
Before 1846, the Oregon Country was a hotly contested piece of real estate located between California, Russian Alaska, British Canada, and the chunk of the United States Where the Louisiana Territory ended. In 1846, Britain and the U.S. signed a treaty making the border between Canada and the U.S.
‘. . . the 49th Parallel of North Latitude to the middle of the channel which separates the continent from Vancouver Island, and then Southerly through the middle of the channel. . . ‘
Unfortunately ‘middle of the channel’ was a bit vague. There were actually two channels running through the strait separating Canada from the States, and in this strait was a clutch of three sizable islands. Ten years later, an Anglo-American Boundary Commission met. Both sides debated the actual meaning of the treaty. Because both sides wanted control of the islands, the two sides couldn’t come to an agreement. The Commission met for almost two years before giving up on the issue.
San Juan Island, the Westernmost island and also the island closest to Vancouver, was by far the most contentious of the islands. A year before the treaty, the Hudson Bay Company had claimed the island, and in 1851, had built salmon-curing stations along the West coast of the island. Two years later, the United States claimed the islands as part of the freshly-established Washington Territory. Well, the Hudson Bay Company wasn’t going to have any of that and built a sheep farm on the South side of the island.
Sheep didn’t frighten the American settlers off, however. By the Spring of 1859, 18 Americans had staked claims across Hudson Bay Company grazing areas. As far as they were concerned, these were legitimate U.S. claims. The British, on the other hand, considered them trespassers.
On 15 June 1859, Lyman Cutlar, an American settler, found a Large Black pig rooting through his vegetables and eating his potatoes. . . and this wasn’t the first time, either! Enough was enough for Farmer Cutlar. He got his rifle, took aim, and shot the pig.
The pig was owned by an Irish gentleman, Charles Griffin, whom the Hudson Bay Company had hired to work at the sheep farm. Cutlar offered Griffin $10 to make up for the pig, but Griffin wouldn’t have any of that. His pig was worth at least $100, he claimed. Cutlar was incensed. Why should he have to pay for a trespassing pig? ‘It was eating my potatoes!’ Cutlar exclaimed. ‘It’s up to you to keep your potatoes out of my pig!’ Griffin retorted. The British threatened to arrest Cutlar, and when they did, the Americans called on the U.S. Army for help.
Captain George Pickett and 66 soldiers of the U.S. 9th Infantry Regiment were sent to San Juan Island. The British, thinking that the Americans were going to occupy the island, sent three warships to defend against the Americans. By August, there were 461 Americans with 14 cannons staring down five British warships with 70 guns and carrying 2,140 troops.
James Douglas, governor of Vancouver ordered the British Commander, Admiral Robert Baynes, to land Marines and attack the Americans. Baynes thought it was stupid to go to war over a pig, and refused. For days, the Americans & British soldiers hurled insults at each other to try to push the other side into firing the first shot, but neither side did.
Of course, at this time no one in Washington, D.C. or London had any idea that a dead pig was about to start another war between the United States and Great Britain. As soon as the news reached Washington, President Buchanan sent War of 1812 veteran and experienced negotiator Winfield Scott to sort things out.
Since this was in the days before the Panama Canal, Scott had to make a six-week trek from New York, across the Isthmus of Panama, and back up to the Gulf of Georgia. When he finally got there in October, he proposed that the island be jointly occupied until a final decision could be made.
The island stayed under joint military occupation for 12 more years, during which each side kept only about 100 men there. The British camp was erected on the North side of the island where they could easily receive supplies via ship, and the American camp was built on the high ground on the Southern side of the island where they could easily fire cannon barrages against ships. Though there was a large population of troops on the island, both sides were generally friendly, visiting each other’s camps, celebrating each other’s holidays, and participating in different competitions.
In 1871, both the U.S. and Great Britain agreed to have German Kaiser Wilhelm I arbitrate a resolution. He decided in favour of the U.S., and the new border was set between the U.S. and British Canada. The next year, the British Royal Marines were withdrawn, followed by the American troops two years later. After ~95 years, peace had finally come to the American-Canadian border.
The British flag still flies above the ‘British Camp,’ where it is raised and lowered daily by rangers at the San Juan Island National Historical Park, making it one of the few places without diplomatic status where US government employees regularly hoist the flag of another country.
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