Why You’ve Probably Never Heard About the ‘Pig War’ and Never Will Again

by | Nov 27, 2023 | Quick Reads

When we think of border disputes and international conflicts, images of grand battles and political strife often come to mind. However, not all such conflicts fit this mold – some are as peculiar as they are significant.

Among these stands the Pig War of 1859, a curious confrontation between the United States and British Empire over the San Juan Islands, sparked by the death of a pig. It’s a tale that combines elements of humor, diplomacy, and the complex nature of international borders.

The Setting

The San Juan Islands, located in the Salish Sea between Vancouver Island and the mainland of Washington State, were at the heart of this dispute. Following the Oregon Treaty of 1846, the islands became a point of contention, with both British and American settlers laying claim to the land. The treaty had left the boundary ambiguous, and both nations sought control of this strategically significant region.

The Spark

The so-called ‘war’ began under almost comical circumstances. On June 15, 1859, an American farmer named Lyman Cutlar found a large black pig rooting in his garden and eating his tubers. In a fit of frustration, Cutlar shot and killed the pig, which belonged to an Irishman, Charles Griffin, an employee of the British Hudson’s Bay Company. The pig’s death escalated tensions, with both parties asserting their rights and refusing to back down.

The Standoff

What started as a squabble over a pig quickly drew the attention of military forces. The Americans, led by General William S. Harney, dispatched soldiers to the island. In response, the British sent three warships. The situation, teetering on the brink of armed conflict, saw both sides engage in a show of force, albeit with restraint and a sense of the absurdity of potentially going to war over a pig.

Diplomacy Overcomes

Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed. Both governments, realizing the folly of waging war over a minor boundary dispute, engaged in diplomatic negotiations. The Kaiser of Germany, Wilhelm I, was eventually called upon to arbitrate the disagreement. In 1872, it was decided that the islands would be American territory.

Legacy of the Pig War

The Pig War stands out in history due to its unlikely catalyst and peaceful resolution. It is remembered more for its eccentric beginning than for any actual combat, as not a single shot was fired in anger and the only casualty was the pig. The incident underscores the importance of diplomacy over military action and the often-quirky nature of historical events. It also highlights how even the smallest of conflicts can test international relations and the mechanisms by which nations resolve disputes.

Today, the story of the Pig War is a footnote in history, but it offers a valuable lesson in the absurdities and dangers of escalating minor disputes and the perennial need for effective diplomacy in international affairs. The San Juan Islands are a peaceful tourist destination, and few relics of this unusual conflict remain, but the tale of the pig that almost caused a war continues to amuse and enlighten those who stumble upon this quirky historical episode.

NEXT: John Anderson’s 1980 Presidential Campaign: A Third-Party Effort in a Polarized Era

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