The US and the UK Almost Went to War Over a Pig

The Retro Bliss
US Vs The UKImage edited by the author

You may be aware of the time that the UK went to war with what would become known as the United States in what we call the Revolutionary War. But did you know the US and the UK almost went to war again, due to a series of ridiculous events that began in 1859, on an island called San Juan Island? San Juan Island has nothing to do with Puerto Rico at all. It is a chunk of land located between the US and Vancouver Island. At the time, this place was home to settlers from the US and to British employees of the Hudson Bay Company.

By the way, you may have also heard of the Hudson Bay Company, they occupy some kind of rarefied space in the business world, in that they were around in the 1800s and continued to be around today. They started as a fair trading company. And then in 2006, was acquired by the well-known entrepreneur, American businessman Jerry Zucker for $1.1 billion. It originally was a Canadian-owned company.

Taking a closer look at the San Juan Islands before the arrival of Europeans, San Juan Island had its thriving community and culture. It had a temperate climate, the soil was great that tons of resources marine and timber especially, and this bountiful land appealed to Spain, Great Britain, and the US. Each of these empires, each of these forces, explored and charted and mapped and named the islands while they were staking overlapping claims to Oregon County. Today, you will recognize Oregon County as the present states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and then parts of Montana, Wyoming, and British Columbia as well.

Now, you might be saying, wait, Spain's in the mix, well, Spain was in the mix, in terms of the name of the islands, but they had abandoned their claims by 1818. That's right, they took off and left it to the English and the Americans who formed a joint agreement in 1818, which seemed nice enough at the time, but to me, the idea of joint occupation between former bitter rivals does seem to not necessarily have the longest of term prospects.
In my opinion, seems like somebody should have red-flagged that but you know, I guess it was a lucrative enough deal that it made sense for both of them to play nice. And apparently, they were able to do that because they lived in relative harmony with citizens of the US and subjects of the British Empire, jointly occupying this land for farming and grazing.

If you look at a map in this area, you'll see that San Juan Island, in particular, has a lot of strategic value. So of course you want it if you're in the UK or the US at this time, you want to control that spot, you know, resources aside, you want to be able to be a gatekeeper there for transport. So tensions start to build.
There's a heavy investment between both of these nations over an Oregon County, the US forces feet, the British presence is offensive. So because they're laboring under the concept of Manifest Destiny. The US claims rights to the land.

So, Manifest Destiny is a kind of American exceptionalism. It was this widely held belief in the 1800s to the 19th century that there was some sort of predestination like it was the fate of the American people to expand across the continent because they were inherently special, inherently different, and somehow exceptional in comparison to the rest of the world. British people included. Sorry, Your Majesty. The British did not agree, as you might imagine, they believed that they had a legal right to these lands, because of earlier treaties, and earlier established activity of the Hudson's Bay Company which was a Canadian company, which was under the oversight of the British crown.

There are these internal differences and feelings of superiority. The Treaty of Oregon sets the boundary on the 49th parallel, so from the Rocky Mountains, to the middle of the channel, which separates the continent from Vancouver’s islands, then south through the channel, to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and west to the Pacific Ocean.
The San Juan Islands were in between Vancouver Island and the mainland, meaning that because of this geographical situation, there was a channel on either side. And the treaty didn’t say which side was the actual border.

The first claims from the Hudson's Bay Company come back in 1845. They're based at Fort Victoria. And they claimed San Juan Island, which was only seven miles across the harrows straight. By 1851, They had established some pretty strong industries. The USA claimed these as possessions that were part of what they called the Washington territory. So then what follows is a back and forth and people tried to get more diplomatic street credit for their claim to the islands.

Hudson Bay companies establish sheep farms or a sheep farm rather than the Belle Vue sheep farm that’s along the island’s southern shore. And this weirdly, I’ve never really thought of sheep as being a tool of political machinations. But this was just so it was a politically motivated move because of the island’s climate and like we said the soil and the conditions were ripe for grazing. And the flock expanded from 1369 individual sheepies to more than 4500 that were scattered across the islands.

And while this was happening, people in the US who were looking to migrate and settle elsewhere on the coast were hearing about this great review of the San Juan Islands by something called the Northwest boundary survey. These naturalists were saying, 'if you’re looking for a new place to live, hey, this land is your land, right? Come over to this awesome Island, you got all the fish you want, the soil is great, and the climate is surprisingly awesome.'

And we should backtrack ever so slightly, you know when I mentioned that the sheep farm move was politically motivated. A lot of this stuff was politically motivated. It was like making the case for their claim by saying, well, we established this sheep farm, this time, and it’s profitable, or whatever. Or even if it wasn’t profitable, just the establishment of all of these various little stations, in their minds, at least, you know, kind of upped the validity of their claim. So by the spring of 1859, we had 18 Americans settling on claims that stated on some of these top sheep grazing lands. And they believed that because of the US involvement and their kind of bullish handling of the situation, they would be supported by the US government. But the British not only didn’t recognize their claim, they believe them to be illegal, and considered the claimants to be trespassers on their prime sheep grazing land, even referred to them as 'Squatters’. And this started to escalate this simmering resentment.

From the British perspective, these folks are illegal immigrants. Now, of course, we have to point out the tremendous hypocrisy of the British and the US forces, saying that people are illegally occupying land, especially when you consider the native population that was living in North America for 1000s of years. So, both the US and Britain in the islands and their settlers from both countries have been living and working on these islands in this area.
The tension rises, and it reaches ahead exactly 13 years after the signing of the Oregon Treaty on June 15, 1859.

There’s a man called Lyman Cutler. He is a farmer, and he sees a large black pig a boar rooting in his garden. His neighbor on the other side of his fence is an Irishman named Charles Griffin. Charles Griffin is watching this pig route through Cutler’s crops and he’s laughing about it. So, Cutler takes out his rifle, and he shoots the pig. Problem is, that his neighbor, Charles Griffin is not a US immigrant. He’s a British subject and he is an employee of Hudson’s Bay.
The Royal Marines in the 1870s. NATIONAL PARK SERVICE

But he was known for letting his pigs roam around the land. Whether that was a kind of middle finger flex to the other inhabitants who were not British subjects, I have to imagine that this affected other neighbors of his that were British subjects. So he doesn’t sound like the most considerate neighbor to be sharing this plot of land with.
Tempers cooled down and Cutler offered in what he clearly thought was a very magnanimous gesture, $10 for the life of the pig after the fact post-mortem but Griffin, for one reason or another wasn’t having it. And instead, he demanded $100.

So, doubling down this $100 seems designed to cause a problem and it did because Cutler doubled down and returned by saying the pig was the aggressor and he shouldn't have to pay anything.

This disagreement spreads around the very small community on the island and the HBC. Hudson's Bay Company employees go full in supporting Griffin and the family's from the US on San Juan. They're about 25 at this time. They of course have Cutler's back 100%. So, British forces threatened to arrest Cutler, and tension rises. So both governments end up sending their militaries to the San Juan Islands.

The US forces dispatch 66 soldiers from the ninth Infantry Regiment to San Juan, this detachment is under the command of a man by the name of George Pickett, hailing from Virginia. Just four years after this, it would be a while before he helps lead a disastrous infantry charge from the rebel forces into the center of union lines at the infamous Battle of Gettysburg. But, four years before Gettysburg, Pickens unit lands on July 27, 1859, and they set up camp near the wharf that is occupied by Hudson’s Bay Company, Griffin Bay. It’s just north of that sheep farm. And the regional British authorities are freaked out, understandably because nobody figured out the problem with those two straights and the problem of that 49th parallel so British authorities call in three warships.

Not only is there this disagreement that has turned into a low-key military occupation. You have these US troops that are moving in and a 31-gun steam frigate. And that frigate, in question is the HMS Tribune to avoid a war because a war between the US and the UK at that time could quickly have become a global event. And it would certainly be something that would consume the entire continent of North America. So, in a euphemistic way you can say the HMS tribune was sent there to just flex some maritime muscle and inspire Pickett to move somewhere else. The Tribune is backed up by these other two ships; they are the HMS satellite and the HMS plumper, which is on Regulus naval ship. They also have 46 Royal Marines in the mix of 15 Royal Engineers. Pickett is unmoved. He is uninspired to continue the euphemism. So instead of withdrawing, he writes to his superiors for help. And during this time, for the rest of July, and then into August as well, both groups are acquiring more support. The British are requiring more Royal Marines, many of whom are battle-hardened. We’re talking about people who stormed beaches in China not too long ago. And now on the US side. Pickett is kind of concerned with just putting more feathers in his cap. He’s threatening the British on their ships. He’s antagonizing them.

So this profoundly offends the British. There’s a guy named James Douglas. He’s a governor of the Vancouver Island colony. And he orders the British naval commander Rear Admiral Robert Baynes to land Marines on the island. And huge credit huge shout out to Rear Admiral Baynes because he diplomatically refuses. And he cites his reason as trying to prevent a war. Something is amazing about people who can possess that clarity of thought when everything is going south and getting into this, you know, this vortex of bad decisions and reactionary thought, this guy, the admiral is one of the first people in the story who asks should we start a world war? should we start another revolutionary war over this guy’s pig?

The idea or the fact that many huge-scale wars are caused by some little minute tipping point event, some larger than others, obviously, like the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and all of that. I think you would agree that huge-scale conflicts often result from small-scale events. And that's the straw that breaks the camel's back.

Lieutenant Colonel Casey goes to meet with Baynes, who, by the way, is another battle-hardened veteran. He had been in the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. Casey looks at his huge ship. So he goes back to San Juan and requests reinforcements.

The officers from both sides, both the British and the US. They go to church together. While these tensions are mounting, they go to church aboard the HMS satellite.

These moments are lost to history. We don’t know how chill these folks were when they were hanging out or if they were just checking the cultural boxes of going to church while holding parlay. But we do know for the rest of that summer, the officers and forces on both sides were playing chicken. They were trying to get the other side to fire the first shot because then anything they did would be an active defense right so they would not be "the bad guys".

Luckily, news of the crisis reaches Washington in late August. The officials, both from Britain and the US had no idea what was happening in San Juan. Because the whole time the forces in Oregon county had been asking their regional superiors. No one was talking to the British monarchy. No one was talking to the US presidency.

The President of the US, James Buchanan, finds out about this and sends a general named Winfield Scott to investigate. So, Buchanan was already up to his neck in trying to prevent a war on another front between the northern and southern states of the United States and saw this whole kerfuffle on the island as an absolute waste of time but he sailed down through Panama, took him six weeks, he got there in October, and started chatting with Douglas to arrange for each representative of each nation to withdraw their troops leaving a single company of troops from each side there and one British warship anchored in the bay.

So, peace is restored in the San Juan Islands, this joint military occupation lasts another 12 years. During that 12 years, there is no shot fired. Overtime. Of course, these occupying troops were taking about 100 men on each side, they become buddies, and co-workers at this point, they got together, and they celebrate the holidays. They even played some sporting games. After 13 years of stilted negotiations held up in part by the Civil War, the US and Britain agreed to allow a third party to help solve the dispute over San Juan Island. And that third party they chose was Germany.

Germany formed a commission on October 21, 1872. They announced their ruling and ruled in favor of the US, which is why the San Juan Islands are part of us today. This is the final boundary between Canada and the US. It was finally set on November 25, 1872.

And Fun fact; it is the only United States National Park where a foreign flag is regularly hoisted over United States soil. And that is because both the flag and the flag pole were a gift from the British government as a sign of friendship.




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I tell conversational style stories of some of the most ridiculous events that have occurred in the past.

Atlanta, GA

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