As a fan of odd, needless conflicts it brings me great delight to read about any war that has an animal in the name. There are several wars named after animals, including three so-called “pig wars” according to Wikipedia including the topic of this week’s discussion, the Pig War of 1859. A conflict between the British and US forces in the San Juan Islands caused by the shooting of a pig.
In “The Pig War: Standoff at Griffin Bay” Mike Vouri thoughtfully utilizes various accounts of the events leading up to the conflict, the geopolitical relationship between the United States and the British Government/Hudsons Bay Company, and the personalities of the individuals involved to analyze what may be one of the oddest chapters in North American history.
At the core of the conflict was working out which country properly claimed legal rights to the San Juan Islands. The 1846 Oregon Treaty which established the border between Canada and what is now Washington State had a few oversights:
The seemingly endless diplomatic juggling that went on before a settlement was reached left both nations so desperate to get on with business that they were willing to overlook niggling details—such as the ownership of a relatively insignificant archipelago thousands of miles from the seats of powerVouri
The wording of the treaty could be (and was) interpreted by both governments to place the San Juans on their side of the border. The issue was minor to the governments however the Hudson Bay Company which controlled Vancouver Island viewed the San Juans as an extension of their territory and this would cause clashes with the US settlers who began to move to the area.
The Hudson Bay Company began to use San Juan Island as a grazing ground for sheep and other farm animals. This caused tension with the US which was then only deepened when settlers began staking claims to the island and establishing homes for themselves. Coming to a near boiling point in June of 1859 when Lyman Cutlar, an American settler claimed a pig owned by the HBC was tearing up his vegetable garden and so he shot it.
Vouri highlights the disparages between the American and British accounts of what followed when Cutlar approached the owner of the pig to inform him of what had occurred. Charles Griffin, the HBC employee who owned the pig claimed that Cutlar came and offered him a small payment for the pig, but left after threatening to shoot any cattle or even Griffin as well if they came onto his property. Cutlar claimed that Griffin demanded $100 for the pig before insulting Cutlar and threatening to have him arrested and taken to Fort Vancouver. Of course, both men disputed the claims of the other.
It is after this point that various military figures begin to get involved in the situation. I personally appreciate the time Vouri took to write about the background and experiences of these men as well as his analysis of their personalities. In highlighting these attributes it makes many aspects of the conflict apparent. For one, few of those involved once the military came had any sort of common sense, often trying to intimidate the opposition and issuing sometimes contradictory orders. There was a distinct unwillingness to back down, while both sides attempted to get their preferred outcome all whilst toeing the line to starting a war. This makes occasions such as Michael de Courcy captain of the HMS Pylades outright voicing concerns over potentially starting a war due to unclear orders seem like an odd voice of reason in a comedy sketch.
While the incident was ultimately resolved peacefully it still presents an outrageous scenario in demonstrating issues of poorly planned diplomacy, a military full of men who want little more than to gain glory and manhood in battle, a company operating as a quasi-government, and the limitations of communications at the time. Vouri does a masterful job incorporating all of these different elements into the historic narrative in some form or another.
It’s rare for a reading about a territorial conflict to make me want to see the area that was being fought over, yet I was fairly interested in seeing the islands. The largest islands are only a little over 50 square miles so I found myself curious regarding how the two forces were set up. In viewing the video below to get a sense of the English camp it was clear that there are plenty of stories that could be told using place-based utilities such as Island Histories.
The blockhouse and flag pole, in particular, caught my imagination since the blockhouse could be used to write about the attempts to justify bringing in military force by suggesting that the HBC had encouraged “Indian attacks” which was one of the many reasons more forces were sent to the island. It could also be used to discuss the desertion rates among the soldiers at the time if there are any notable deserters or desertion attempts that a minor but fun story to tell. The flag pole reminded me of the American flag raising that was held to show solidarity amongst the fourteen settlers living on San Juan Island at the start of the conflict.