Islanders re-enact The Pig War
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
... 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
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
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
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.
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
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:
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.
Chief of Interpretation
PO Box 429
Friday Harbor, WA 98250
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?
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
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
Copyright © 2007