the 15th of June, 1859 a small war broke out between America and the British Empire on San Juan island over a dead pig. You would think that the two nations had better things to do but besides colonizing other parts of the world their stubbornness would lead to the two nations fighting even over a dead pig.
But before we get into how the pig’s death caused this war, we shall have a look at where it all started.
The Oregon treaty
During the 19th century, the British Empire and the United States sort of came to a consortium in order to maintain good relations with other nations and provide trade that would be profitable to both parties. The dispute over the colonization of American land and separation was mostly over except for a set of remote islands.
In 1846 the British Empire and the United States signed the Oregon Treaty in which the borders between the two nations were decided. The British Empire was held at the time North America (later on becoming Canada) and the United States held central America. between the two nations, there were a set of Islands (San Juan, Lopez, and Orcas) which were designated in the treaty as common land to be used by both the British Empire and the United States.
Having a piece of land controlled by two governments can be problematic and lead to things like even war, just like it happened.
San Juan was very special as it was located in a very strategic position between the end of the canal and Vancouver Island. Nevertheless, citizens of both nations had migrated to the island. They were mainly farmers looking for new land to grow their crops.
Some potatoes and a pig
There were no major disputes on the island until 1859 when a lot of British immigrants came to the island and a company named Hudson Bay created a new pig farm on the island. Before their arrival, around 30 American settlers came to the island who were living mainly from what they were growing.
Charles Griffin was an employee at the Hudson Bay Company who had some pigs of his own. As the island was still quite primitive he let the pigs wander around knowing that there was no wildlife to harm them. The natural instinct of the pigs was to go look for some food which they did find in the gardens of American farmers.
On the 15th of June, 1859, American farmer Lyman Cultar noticed a pig eating his potato crops so he decided to shoot the pig. When Griffin found out about his dead pig he went to confront Cultar about the matter. Cultar tried to justify himself by saying that the animal was eating his crops and that the pig should be kept on a farm. Griffin counter-argued that he was stupid and it was his duty to keep the crops away from his pig.
Cultar tried to be the bigger person in this conflict and offer Griffin $10 (if we calculate for inflation that is almost $300 today) for the pig he had killed, much more than what the pig was actually worth. Griffin refused the money and went to the local British authorities who wanted to arrest Cultar.
The American settlers on the island got very angry and signed a petition which brought the American Army to protect Cultar from being arrested. The commander of the American Army was General William S. Harney who was well known for being Anti-British. The General sent over 66 soldiers onto the island to sort things out.
In response to that, the British Empire sent over three warships and 2,600 soldiers to the San Juan island. Things kept escalating as both nations sent more and more reinforcements to the island that was waiting to become a warzone.
Things were about to take a turn for the worst upon the arrival of Admiral Robert L. Bayens, the commander of the British Navi within the Pacific. He was sent by the governor of British Columbia James Douglas who ordered him to take all the British troops available on the island and attack the Americans.
Admiral Baynes refused as he stated that he would not be the one to start a war between the world’s two biggest empires over a pig. Soon enough the incident on San Juan island reached both the officials of Washington and London who were shocked at how things escalated from just a dead pig.
The end of another cold war
In order to stop a war from starting, both nations sent over diplomats to negotiate things and avoid war at all costs. The diplomats came to the conclusion that until both nations settled who would control the island, there should be no more than 100 inhabitants on the island. This event officially ended in 1872 when an international commission governed by Kaiser Wilhelm decided that the island should be under the control of the United States.
This is the example of another Cold War that focused very much on intimidation and high tensions with a lot of negotiations, thankfully the only victim from the war was the dead pig that caused it.
During this period both the British and the Americans built military bases on the island which are still intact and can be visited today. Interestingly enough, this is the only place within the United States where a foreign flag had been hoisted under regular circumstances. The flag was offered by the British as a peace treaty for the whole event.
This is how easily wars can start, and do not think that today’s society or governments are any different.