The Boar War?

It was on 15 June 1859 that Lyman Cutlar shot and killed a male pig belonging Charles Griffin on San Juan Island, and started a chain of events that nearly ignited a third war between the United States of America and Great Britain. The locals around San Juan Island, located in the waterway between what is now Washington State and British Columbia, know the event as “The Pig War.” Though it started off as a rather touchy and fraught situation, cool heads prevailed and war was avoided through diplomacy and negotiation.

Both the United States and Great Britains claimed sovereignty over San Juan Island in the wake of the 1846 Anglo-American treaty which settled most of the questions about the Oregon Territory (which included Oregon, Washington, and part of Idaho.) The Hudson’s Bay Company started to move in settlers in the early 1850’s. Considering the island to belong to the U.S., American pioneers began staking claims on the island about the same time. Tensions grew.

Charles Griffin, originally from Yorkshire, England, claimed land for sheep pasturage; Lyman Cutlar, who hailed from Kentucky, planted a potato patch there. When Griffith’s boar uprooted Cutlar’s potatoes, Cutlar killed the hapless swine with a single shot. But the incident caused festering resentments to flare into open dispute. Griffin called upon Hudson’s Bay Company officials to arrest Cutlar. The British officials did confront Cutlar, however they decided that to effect an arrest would be too provocative and left empty handed.

The matter might have ended in a stalemate then and there but for the fact that American General William Harney, commander of the U.S. Army’s Department of Oregon, shortly thereafter paid a courtesy call upon the British Territorial Governor and noted an American flag flying over San Juan Island. Upon investigating, he learned of the American settlers there, and of their grievances against the British. Griffin’s pig was prominently discussed. It is likely that most military men would have deferred the matter as an issue for courts of law, but Harney had an almost irrational hatred of the British. And he clearly enjoyed the prospect of a fight or even a war. The British Governor, it should be noted, was also pleased with the prospect of finally settling the matter of the disputed territory, even by force of arms.

Harney ordered Captain George Pickett — who would later have his name irrevocably linked with Lee’s disastrous charge on the third day of the battle of Gettysburg — to take a detachment of 66 troops from Fort Bellingham up to San Juan Island. Upon landing, Pickett issued a proclamation that the island was U.S. territory, which distressed the British residents, understandably. The British responded by sending a 21-gun warship to train its cannon on Pickett’s small encampment. By the end of August, there were nearly 500 U.S. troops on San Juan Island, and there were almost 2,000 British troops in a small flotilla of warships surrounding the Island. The Americans were outmanned and outgunned, but the British could not readily obtain more troops, while the Americans could draw several thousand from California if needed. Thus the situation remained a stalemate.

After several months of this tense and uncomfortable state of affairs, aging General Winfield Scott, hero of the War of 1812 and of the Mexican War, was sent to negotiate a resolution to the matter. Scott eventually agreed to a joint military occupation of the island with roughly 100 U.S. and 100 British troops remaining on the island. This was how things stayed for the next dozen years or so until at last, in 1872, Kaiser Wilhelm arbitrated the dispute, deciding in favor of the United States. The British quietly withdrew from San Juan Island, thus ending “The Pig War.”

It is nearly amazing, considering the men, the firepower, and the tensions at the start of the affair, that hot war never broke out. Negotiations were allowed to succeed, in part because the senior military men then involved – Scott for the United States and Admiral Baynes for Great Britain – both knew the horrors of battle first-hand, and were unwilling to enter into war lightly. And, unlike the fiery Pickett or the hostile Harney, General Winfield Scott did not feel willingness to negotiate to be a sign of weakness.

Today the United States National Park Service maintains the sites of the British and American camps on the island. The American camp was constructed and fortified by Liuetentant Henry Martyn Robert, later famous as the author of Robert’s Rules of Order. The rangers tell visitors of the amiable joint occupation years, when both British and American troops would jointly celebrate the holidays of their respective nations. And indeed, the rangers note, during that period, the greatest threat to peace and stability was whiskey! To this day the rangers hoist a period Stars and Stripes over the American Camp, and, unusually, these U.S. Government employees also hoist the flag of a foreign power every day when they raise the “Union Jack” over the British Camp.

So cooler heads prevailed, war with Great Britain was averted, Germany’s Kaiser — jealous of Great Britain’s Empire — gave The United States what it wanted after all, and no one died. (Except the pig.)


Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

There was never a good war, or a bad peace. — Franklin

Further Reading:

Smithsonian Magazine, June 2005: “The Boar War” by Deborah Franklin.

The Pig War: Standoff at Griffin Bay, Michael Vouri; Griffin Bay, 1999: ISBN: 0963456253

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