San Juan Island Pig War -- Part 1

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 9/15/2004
  • Essay 5724
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The "Pig War" is the name commonly given to the 13-year standoff between the American Army and British Royal Navy on San Juan Island that began in the summer of 1859 after an American settler shot a British pig on the island that both nations claimed. The "war" is celebrated because it was ultimately resolved by negotiation and compromise instead of by guns and force, and there were no casualties except the pig. The confrontation and its resolution are also significant in Washington history because the award of the San Juans (San Juan, Orcas, Lopez, Shaw, and many smaller islands) to the United States instead of Great Britain led to the creation of Washington's San Juan County and finalized the borders of the state that exist today. Part I of this two-part essay proceeds from conflicting claims and tension between the British Hudson's Bay Company and American settlers to the shooting of the pig to the landing of a U.S. Army infantry company commanded by Captain George Pickett (1825-1875) and the crucial decision by Royal Navy Captain Geoffrey Phipps Hornby (1825-1895) not to confront Pickett.

Claims of Discovery

The San Juan dispute was the last remnant of conflicting claims to the Pacific Northwest that dated back to the early years of European exploration in the region. By the late 1700s, Russian, Spanish, and British navigators were all exploring the area. (The Spanish were the first Europeans to map the San Juan Islands, bestowing the archipelago’s name, as well as the names of many individual islands, channels, and other features). Soon after gaining independence, the United States joined the competition through journeys by Captain Robert Gray (1755-1806), the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and others.

The European and American explorers claimed areas that they "discovered" for their governments, despite the obvious fact that the Northwest was already populated by diverse Indian peoples. Under the "Doctrine of Discovery," which originated in medieval papal pronouncements, a claim of discovery by a European or European-settled nation theoretically recognized the native inhabitants as the owners of the land, but gave the discovering nation the sole right to acquire the land from its inhabitants and the right to exclude other European powers.

By the early 1800s, neither Spain nor Russia was pursuing claims to the region between the northern border of California (the 42nd parallel) and the southern extension of "Russian America" -- now Alaska -- (latitude 54 degrees, 40 minutes). This left the United States and Britain to contend, along with the region’s existing inhabitants, for the vast area known as the Oregon Country: all the territory west of the Rocky Mountains between California and Alaska. In 1818, the two countries agreed to the Treaty of Joint Occupation of Oregon, which provided for peaceful occupation by citizens of both nations while postponing a final division of the region.

Fur Traders vs. Settlers

Despite America’s claims and early explorations, at the time of the Joint Occupation Treaty and for the next several decades, the only significant non-Indian presence in the Oregon Country was British, in the form of the Hudson’s Bay Company. The giant fur trading monopoly maintained an extensive network of trading outposts along the region’s rivers. Although it eventually established some large-scale company farms, the Company’s goal was trade, not settlement. It encouraged good relations with area Indians, who were valuable fur-trading partners, and discouraged independent settlement, which led to declines in fur-bearing animals.

Americans, in contrast, saw the vast Oregon Country as land to be settled. A small trickle of American settlers in the 1830s became a growing tide in the early 1840s, concentrated in the Willamette Valley in what is now the state of Oregon. Although few Americans had yet ventured north of the Columbia River, expansionist politicians demanded that Britain cede the entire Oregon Country to the United States, using the slogan "Fifty-Four Forty or Fight!"

The Treaty of Oregon

However, the two countries resolved their differences peacefully in the 1846 Treaty of Oregon, which divided the mainland Oregon Country at the 49th Parallel and granted all of Vancouver Island, which extends south of the 49th Parallel, to Britain. At least the Treaty resolved most of the differences -- it did not make clear which country would get the San Juan Islands, which lie south of the 49th Parallel between Vancouver Island and the mainland.

The Treaty of Oregon stated:

"[T]he line of boundary between the territories of the United States and those of Her Britannic Majesty shall be continued westward along the said forty-ninth parallel of north latitude 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" (Vouri, 19).

But although one channel, the Strait of Georgia, separates the mainland from Vancouver Island for much of the island’s length, the presence of the San Juans means that there is no single channel leading south to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Rosario Strait lies between the San Juans and the mainland, Haro Strait separates them from Vancouver Island, and various smaller channels divide the individual islands.

Some accounts suggest that the treaty makers were unaware of the San Juan Islands and their multiple channels, but the islands had been known since the Spanish explorations and surveyed by both British and American naval expeditions (Vancouver in 1792 and Wilkes in 1841). It appears more likely that the diplomats were aware of the Treaty’s ambiguity but considered that prompt and agreeable resolution of the major boundary dispute outweighed any lingering uncertainty over an apparently insignificant group of islands with no British or American presence at the time.

In any event, the ambiguous language allowed each side to assume that the San Juans were rightfully theirs. To Americans, the channel referred to in the Treaty was clearly Haro Strait; to the British it was equally clear that "said channel" meant Rosario Strait. However, for more than five years after the Treaty of Oregon was ratified, neither country made any move to use or occupy the islands that each claimed.

Belle Vue Farm

The first moves were made by the Hudson’s Bay Company, which set up a seasonal salmon curing station on San Juan Island in 1851. Many Company officials were unhappy that England had given up so much of the Oregon Country, especially north of the Columbia River where in 1846 their forts and farms were still practically the only non-Indian settlements. James Douglas (1803-1877), who was both Governor of the Crown Colony of British Columbia and the chief factor in charge of the Hudson’s Bay Company post at Fort Victoria, was particularly determined that England and the Company not be pushed from the San Juans as he felt they had been from the Columbia River and Puget Sound.

Douglas was the longtime assistant to Dr. John McLoughlin (1784-1857) at Fort Vancouver (on the Columbia River where Vancouver, Washington, is now located), which had been the headquarters of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Northwest operations since 1825. He founded Fort Victoria on the southern tip of Vancouver Island in 1843, when the Company directors decided to establish a new primary base farther from the growing American presence. After he succeeded McLoughlin and the Treaty of Oregon was signed in 1846, Douglas moved the headquarters to Fort Victoria, leaving only a small crew at Fort Vancouver. In September 1851, he was appointed Governor of the Crown Colony.

Two years later in December 1853, at Douglas’s direction, the Hudson’s Bay Company set up a sheep ranch and farm on San Juan Island. Charles John Griffin, the Company agent appointed to manage the new farm, selected a headquarters site on the southern shore of the narrow peninsula leading to Cattle Point (the island’s southeastern tip). The sweeping views inspired him to name the operation Belle Vue Farm. Along with the sheep, Griffin brought crop seed and farm animals, including some Berkshire boars.

Shouts and Threats

The Hudson’s Bay Company presence on San Juan Island soon brought a response from U.S. and local officials in the new Washington Territory. In the spring of 1854, Isaac Ebey (1818-1857), the U.S. Customs Collector collector stationed at Port Townsend, made several trips across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to demand that the Hudson’s Bay Company pay custom duties on the animals and other property it had, in Ebey’s view, smuggled into U.S. territory. A series of verbal confrontations followed as Ebey and his deputy threatened to seize Company sheep for the uncollected duties, and Belle Vue Farm manager Griffin threatened to have them arrested. None of the threats were carried out.

Local Whatcom County officials were more combative. The San Juans were included in Whatcom County in March 1854, when Whatcom became the first county created by the new legislature of Washington Territory, which Congress had established a year earlier. Starting in the fall of 1854, Whatcom County Sheriff Ellis Barnes repeatedly visited Belle Vue Farm to demand that Griffin pay taxes claimed by the County. When Griffin refused Barnes announced he would sell Belle Vue Farm sheep at auction to collect the tax bill. One night Sheriff Barnes landed with a party of prospective bidders from Whatcom County, who rounded up 50 or so breeding rams and held a post-midnight auction on the beach. A farcical scene ensued as the bidders struggled to force their new "purchases" into boats too small for the purpose. By dawn, when the Americans had managed to force 34 rams aboard, Griffin and several herdsman arrived on the chaotic scene. The Americans flourished guns and departed with the rams while Griffin reported the "theft" to Douglas in Victoria.

When news of the ruckus reached Washington, D.C., Secretary of State William Marcy wrote a sternly worded letter to Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens (1819-1862) instructing local officials to stop confronting the British until the boundary dispute was resolved. The next year Congress finally appropriated money for a boundary commission, which the British had first proposed back in 1848 to settle the dispute.

American Settlers Arrive

American boundary commissioner Archibald Campbell and his British counterpart, Royal Navy Captain James Prevost, met repeatedly beginning in 1857, but made no progress in settling the issue. Of all the islands in the archipelago, San Juan, closest to Victoria and overlooking the approaches to the harbor there, was the one the British viewed as strategically essential. However, even when Prevost proposed a boundary along President and San Juan Channels (dividing San Juan from Orcas and Lopez Islands), which would have given the U.S. all the major islands except San Juan, Campbell refused.

Another ingredient was added to the already-volatile mix when American settlers first began appearing on San Juan Island between the summer of 1858 and early 1859. Most of the 20 or so settlers were frustrated miners seeking farmsites on the island after returning from the short-lived Fraser River gold rush in British Columbia. As such they despised Governor Douglas as much as he detested American settlers. The governor had angered Americans in the Fraser gold fields by strictly enforcing British law (which unlike American law precluded individual mining claims), charging miners a monthly fee, and excluding American merchants and ship owners from operating in British territory.

Griffin and Douglas feared that Belle Vue Farm and the entire island would soon be overrun by these American "squatters." Douglas complained to the British Foreign Ministry and was authorized to "warn off" the squatters and to maintain British "civil power" on the island. Of course the American settlers had no intention of recognizing British civil authority on an island they considered part of America.

Cutlar Shoots the Pig

It was this conflict over whose law applied that turned Lyman Cutlar's shooting of Charles Griffin’s pig from a minor incident into an international controversy and nearly a shooting war. Cutlar, one of the former gold miners, had arrived on the island in April 1859, intending to claim a 160-acre homestead. The crude farm that he scratched out a mile or so north of the Belle Vue Farm headquarters occupied far less ground and his small garden was not fully fenced. One of Griffin’s Berkshire boars took to rooting in Cutlar’s unprotected potato patch, returning despite his efforts to drive it away and despite his complaints to Hudson’s Bay Company employees. When the boar returned again on June 15, 1859, Cutlar, goaded by the laughter of a Company herdsman watching the boar rooting in his potatoes, shot the pig.

Cutlar quickly informed Griffin what he had done and offered to replace the animal, but the situation deteriorated when Griffin insisted the boar was worth $100 and Cutlar angrily countered that it was not worth $10. A pair of high level Hudson’s Bay Company Officials -- Dr. William Tolmie (1812-1886), founder of the subsidiary Puget Sound Agricultural Company, and Alexander Grant Dallas, governor of Hudson’s Bay Company operations west of the Rockies (and Douglas’s son-in-law) -- were visiting Belle Vue Farm along with a Vancouver Councilmember, and the three men soon confronted Cutlar. What happened at this meeting was later sharply disputed, but Cutlar claimed that the British officials threatened to arrest him and take him to Victoria for trial if he did not pay $100 for the boar.

The Flag and General Harney

Though no attempt was actually made to arrest Cutlar, his fellow settlers reacted defiantly. The Fourth of July provided an ideal occasion for them to assert American sovereignty. Fourteen men, almost the entire American population of the island, gathered at the cabin of deputy customs collector Paul Hubbs, strategically located up the hill from Belle Vue Farm headquarters, for a raucous flag-raising ceremony. After a speech by each of the 14, and no doubt at least that many patriotic toasts, the stars and stripes were raised on a newly erected 55-foot flagpole. Hubbs recalled years later that the flag rose amid "showers of bullets, and notwithstanding its ducking and dodging was struck in its starry night, but ‘got there all the same’ " (Vouri, 51).

The flag was left flying, and according to tradition a few days later it drew the attention of General William S. Harney (1800-1889) to the pig controversy. A veteran of anti-Indian campaigns and the Mexican War (where his repeated disregard of orders angered commanding general Winfield Scott), Harney headed the Army’s Department of Oregon. In July 1859, he was aboard the U.S.S. Massachusetts, visiting Department outposts in Washington Territory. He spent the evening of July 8 in Victoria, paying a courtesy call on Governor Douglas, during which visit the two men apparently did not discuss the boundary dispute or the pig shooting.

On the afternoon of July 9, steaming past San Juan Island on his way to Port Townsend, Gen. Harney saw the American flag flying on the disputed island and came ashore to investigate. The settlers took the opportunity to vent their complaints about perceived threats from the Hudson’s Bay Company and to ask for military assistance. They had a receptive audience. Harney was well-known for his anti-British feelings and had been using his position to harass the remaining Hudson’s Bay Company operations at Fort Vancouver (which was now also Harney’s headquarters). Harney apparently advised the settlers to send him a written petition for military protection.

The petition was drawn up by Hubbs on July 11 and signed by Hubbs, Cutlar, and 20 others. Ironically, perhaps as a result of political advice from Harney, the petition did not mention the pig or threats from the Hudson’s Bay Company, but instead asked for troops as protection from raids by "Northern Indians." (Until decimated by smallpox in the early 1860s, Haida, Tsimshian, Tlingit, Bella Bella (Heiltsuk), and other nations from the northern British Columbia coast and Queen Charlotte Islands continued a tradition of sending raiding parties to the San Juans and Puget Sound, occasionally targeting settlers in addition to local Indians. Isaac Ebey was killed in such a raid in 1857). However, Harney’s after-the-fact explanation to his superiors for dispatching troops to the San Juans made much of the threats against Cutlar and the need to protect Americans from "oppressive interference of the authorities of the Hudson’s Bay Company at Victoria" (Vouri, 81).

Pickett Lands

Harney responded promptly to the petition he had suggested. On July 18, 1859, he ordered Captain George Pickett to abandon Fort Bellingham (near the present city of Bellingham, Whatcom County, some 20 miles from San Juan Island) and move his infantry company to the island. Pickett, who graduated last in his class from West Point in 1846 and fought in the Mexican War (and would later win fame as a Confederate general in the Civil War), had established the fort on Bellingham Bay in 1856.

Pickett and his men, aboard the Massachusetts, arrived in San Juan Harbor (now called Griffin Bay), the sheltered harbor on the north side of the Cattle Point peninsula where the Hudson’s Bay Company dock was located, on the evening of July 26. They disembarked and began setting up camp on the hillside directly above the dock the next morning. Pickett also posted a proclamation that included the following statement:

"This being United States territory, no laws, other than those of the United States, nor courts, except such as are held by virtue of said laws, will be recognized or allowed on this island" (Meany, 245).

Pickett’s claim of exclusive American jurisdiction, even more than the presence of American troops, outraged Governor Douglas. In addition to his other posts, Douglas was acting vice admiral, in temporary command of the Royal Navy fleet at Victoria while Rear Admiral Lambert Baynes was away. He immediately dispatched HMS Tribune, a 31-gun steam frigate commanded by Captain Geoffrey Hornby, to the scene with orders to prevent the Americans from building fortifications or landing more troops. The Tribune reached San Juan Harbor on the evening of July 29, but Hornby quickly concluded that more than one ship would be needed to carry out Douglas’s orders.

Hornby Decides Against Escalation

Unlike Douglas, the Royal Navy had little desire for a confrontation; indeed, at that period official British naval policy was one of restraint and "minimum intervention." The Navy captains at Victoria were well aware that their commander, Admiral Baynes, was a firm believer in this policy, and they were reluctant to follow orders from Douglas that risked violating it. Under pressure from the officers, Douglas revised his orders. He commanded Hornby to land a contingent of Royal Marines to balance the American forces.

In the end Hornby did not carry out even this order, angering Douglas but taking a crucial first step toward the peaceful resolution of the San Juan standoff. The marines arrived in San Juan Harbor by August 2 aboard HMS Plumper, a 12-gun survey ship. A third British gunship, the 21-gun steam corvette HMS Satellite, captained by boundary commissioner Prevost, was also present. On the afternoon of August 3, 1859, the captains of the three British ships met Pickett in his camp at South Beach. (On July 31, the American had moved his troops over the hill crest to the opposite side of the peninsula, a move that mystified the British, who easily could have sailed around the point to train their guns on that location). Hornby questioned the authority for Pickett’s action and urged the American troops to leave; if they did not, he was under orders to land Royal Marines to jointly occupy the island with the Americans. Pickett insisted (inaccurately) that Harney’s orders came from Washington, D.C., and announced that he would fight any British troops that landed.

Hornby was convinced that Pickett, whose understanding of the politics of the situation seemed to Hornby as limited as did his grasp of military tactics, was not bluffing. Although telling Pickett he would land troops if necessary to protect British rights, Hornby decided, despite Douglas’s orders, to take no further action until Admiral Baynes returned.

For the first time since the pig was shot, a key participant chose not to escalate things. Although (as described in Part 2) the conflict was far from over, Hornby’s decision may have been the pivot that turned the San Juan controversy from actual warfare to a "war" commemorated for having the pig as its only casualty.

To go to Part 2, click "Next Feature"


Edmond S. Meany, History of the State of Washington (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1909), 218, 240-54; William Farrand Prosser, History of the Puget Sound Country (New York: The Lewis Publishing Company, 1903); Mike Vouri, The Pig War: Standoff at Griffin Bay (Friday Harbor: Griffin Bay Bookstore, 1999), revised and expanded edition (Seattle: Discover Your Northwest/University of Washington Press, 2013); Vouri, English Camp: A Guided Historical Walk (National Park Service, 2004); National Park Service, San Juan Island National Historical Park Official Map and Guide (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1997); "The Pig War," San Juan Island National Historical Park Website accessed June 12, 2013 (; "American Camp," Ibid.; "English Camp," Ibid.; "Civil War Connections," Ibid.
Note: This essay was corrected on October 15, 2005, and sources were updated on June 12, 2013.

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