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Islanders re-enact The Pig War

By ERIC SHACKLE, in Sydney, Australia

Soldiers of Battery D, 3rd Artillery, October 1859
© San Juan Island National Historical Park

Few people other than North Americans have heard of the once-threatened Pig War between Great Britain and the United States, but residents of tiny San Juan Island, where it occurred in 1859, re-enact it every year.

The island, 20 miles long and seven miles wide, is situated between Vancouver Island, in what was then British North America (now Canada) and the northwest corner of the United States, not far from Seattle.

Events leading up to the Pig War are described in the San Juan Island National Historical Park website, which says:

When [park visitors] learn that Great Britain and the United States almost plunged into war over a dead pig, the initial reaction is amusement. After all, 19th century journalists did label the dispute with tongue in cheek.

... Here was one of those rare occasions when two nations chose to avoid war at all costs by opting for diplomacy and eventually binding arbitration; where restraint was demonstrated from the halls of power to the men in the ranks; and a lasting peace was assured along more than 3,000 miles of international border.

The “Pig War”, as the confrontation on San Juan Island came to be called, had its origin in the Anglo-American dispute over possession of the Oregon Country, that vast expanse of land consisting of the present states of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, parts of Montana and Wyoming, and the Province of British Columbia.
An Anglo-American agreement of 1818 had provided for joint occupation of the Oregon Country, but by 1845 both parties had grown discontented with this arrangement.

The British, determined to resist the tide of American migration sweeping across the Rocky Mountains, argued that the Americans were trespassing on land guaranteed to Britain by earlier treaties and explorations and through trading activities of the long-established Hudson's Bay Company.

Americans considered the British presence an affront to their "manifest destiny" and rejected the idea that the great land west of the Rockies should remain under foreign influence. Both nations blustered and threatened, but wiser counsels eventually prevailed and in June 1846 the Oregon question was resolved peacefully.

The Oregon Treaty of 1846 gave the United States undisputed possession of the Pacific Northwest south of the 49th parallel, extending the boundary "to the middle of the channel which separates the continent from Vancouver's Island; and thence southerly through the middle of the said channel, and of Fuca's straits to the Pacific Ocean."

But while the treaty settled the larger boundary question, it created additional problems because its wording left unclear who owned San Juan Island.

On June 15, 1859, Lyman Cutlar, an American settler, shot and killed a pig belonging to Britain's Hudson's Bay Company, because it had uprooted his garden. The disgruntled Brits threatened to arrest Cutlar, so the Yanks sought U.S. military protection.

Brigadier General William S. Harney, "the anti-British commander of the Department of Oregon", sent 66 soldiers of the 9th US Infantry under Captain George E. Pickett to San Juan. Soon afterwards, British Royal Marines landed on the island's northwest coast. The island was under military occupation for the next 10 years.

After much huffing and puffing by politicians from both sides of the Atlantic, Germany's Kaiser I was called in to arbitrate. San Juan eventually became part of Washington state, USA.

Battery D is a group of San Juan Islanders who re-enact the period of the Pig War, 1859-1872.

Its website says "Appearing at several occasions each year such as encampments at San Juan Island National Historical Park and local parades and celebrations, members turn up in period uniforms and clothing to bring the period back to life.

"Members portray individuals from Battery D, 3rd Artillery and Company D, 9th Infantry as well as British Royal Marines and civilians."


Another military encounter

Before publishing this story I emailed the San Juan Island National Historical Park seeking permission to copy material from its website. I received this warm-hearted response:

Hi Eric:

Delighted to hear from you. I haven't been to Sydney since I was a soldier boy on R & R in 1969. I stayed at the Hotel Charles in Bronte, but hung out in King's Cross, as you would imagine. I loved my stay there. Everyone was most kind to us, save for some young Australian men who had to contend with all of us oversexed Yanks casting our dollars to the wind. Who could blame them?

You are welcome, of course, to extract whatever you like from the web site, just give us credit. (San Juan Island National Historical Park). I have written two books on the subject(!), which you will find by clicking on the bookstore link on the website home page.

Many thanks for writing about us. I'll be visiting your site from time to time to see what you're up to.

Very best,

Mike Vouri
Chief of Interpretation
PO Box 429
Friday Harbor, WA 98250
(360) 378-2902


And here's a copy of my reply:

Hi Mike. Thanks for your email. It's so interesting that I'd like to share it with my readers. May I add it as a postscript to the story?

I was one of those young Australians who used to say during WWII that there were three things wrong with the Yanks: they were overpaid, oversexed and over here.

Those feelings were really born of envy. I served in an Australian Army unit in the New Guinea jungle, alongside many US servicemen. We were friendly
allies, but they had smarter uniforms, much more pay, and far better military equipment.

These days we are still thankful to the US for helping us repel the Japanese invaders. It's ironic that we now welcome our former enemies' children and grandchildren as tourists and trading partners!



Story first posted December 2007

Copyright © 2007

Eric Shackle

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