When America almost went to war over a pig


by J. Mark Powell, Opinion, Washington Examiner 

July 05, 2019


The world shared a sigh of relief last month, when the U.S. stood down from launching military strikes against Iran. That region is so volatile, it wouldn’t take much to spark full-fledged war. And it wouldn’t be the first time we wound up in a conflict no one wanted.


America has gone to war for a variety of reasons over the years. The American Revolution was about winning independence, and World War I was about “making the world safe for democracy.” But never have we fought a war over an animal — yet we almost did in 1859.


This is the bizarre tale of the Pig War.


Several countries eyed the Pacific Northwest in the early 1800s. Fortunes were waiting to be made in fishing, forestry, and the fur trade. Britain claimed the area, while imperial Russia also wanted a piece of the action. America got into the game in 1803 when we bought the Louisiana Territory. Since our border now extended into that neck of the woods, why not push it all the way to the Pacific?


For decades, we bickered with Britain over the precise border with Canada (which the U.K. then controlled) until it was ironed it out in the Treaty of Oregon. Except, it wasn’t.


Diplomats had used a 1789 map that left much to be desired. The Strait of Juan de Fuca separates modern Washington State on one side from Vancouver Island on the other. Smack in the middle sits San Juan Island. With the old map fuzzy on details, the treaty’s wording about who controlled the island was vague. So, Britain and America each claimed it, and both sent settlers. A large sheep ranch was the island’s principal industry and, for the most part, everyone got along well.


Until the day a pig wandered into the story.


Ever had a neighbor who wouldn’t control their pets? Then, you know how annoyed American Lyman Cutler felt. His British neighbor Charles Griffin let his black pigs roam at will. Then on June 15, 1859, Cutler found one eating his potatoes again. He’d had enough. So, he shot the pig. Wanting to be fair, he offered Griffin $10. Griffin demanded $100.


Things quickly turned nasty.


Cutlar: “Your pig was eating my potatoes!”


Griffin: “It’s up to you to keep your potatoes out of my pig!”


(I’m not making this up; they actually shouted that at each other.)


Cutlar then said he wouldn’t pay a dime because the pig had been trespassing.


So Griffin went to the British authorities, who threatened to arrest the American, Cutlar.


The situation was morphing from a farce to an international incident.


Americans on the island turned to the U.S. Army for help. But Brig. Gen. William Harney only helped things go from bad to worse. A well-intentioned, doddering gent whose best days were far behind him, Harney felt obliged to protect the American flag. So, he rushed 66 soldiers to the island commanded by Capt. George Pickett.


Pickett was, in his heart, a perpetual 14-year-old boy. He announced with great bravado when he landed on the island, “We’ll make a Bunker Hill of it!” His allusion to the opening battle of the Revolution (against the same people Pickett now faced), made headlines across the United States … though he apparently forgot the Patriots lost that battle.


Victorian Britons couldn’t let the move go unanswered. So, three English warships were dispatched. Then, the Americans increased their forces.


By August, a dangerous situation was brewing. There were now 461 American soldiers with 14 cannons on the island. Five British warships carrying 70 cannons and 2,140 men were anchored offshore. Tensions mounted...