Let me be completely honest, I 100% picked the topic for today’s post on the basis of the name. Other known names for this conflict include:
- the Pig Episode
- the Pig and Potato War
- the San Juan Boundary Dispute
- the Northwestern Boundary Dispute
Essentially, this was a conflict between the United States and the British Empire over where the boundary should be located between the US and the British controlled British Columbia. More specifically, the conflict was centered around which of these nations should have control of the territory known as the San Juan Islands which are placed between Vancouver Island and the western coast of the mainland of North America.
While the incident began (and was named) due to the shooting of a pig, there were no shots exchanged and no human casualties making this was a bloodless conflict – although I think that the pig might disagree.
The Oregon Treaty of 1846 had determined that the US and what would become B.C. were to be divided “along the forty-ninth parallel of north latitude to the middle of the channel which separates the continent from Vancouver Island, and thence southerly through the middle of the said channel, and of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, to the Pacific Ocean.”
Great plan, teeny tiny problem. there are actually two straits which could be considered the ‘middle of said channel’; Haro Strait to the west of the San Juan Islands or Rosario Strait which runs to their east. Naturally, both sides of the agreement felt that the strait giving them the islands was the one identified in the treaty. While this dispute was simmering away, the British Hudson’s Bay Company established operations on San Juan Island (yep, one of the San Juan Islands is named San Juan) by turning the island into a sheep farm. This action was shortly after followed by 25-30 American settlers arriving on the island.
All of this came to a head on June 15, 1859 when an American farmer who had come to live on the San Juan island found a large pig in his garden. Frustrated by this pig eating his tubers he shot the pig, killing it instantly. Unfortunately, this pig ended up belonging to an Irishman who was employed by the HBC to run their sheep ranch. This incident between these two individuals escalated until a point where British authorities threatened to arrest the farmer and the American settlers responded by calling for military protection.
Now you might think, as I do, that this was already an over-dramatic reaction to the situation but just wait. It gets better. By August 1859 there were 461 Americans with 14 cannons facing off against 5 British warships which had a combined 70 guns and 2,140 men. Despite all of this excessive posturing, no shots were fired.
Luckily, when news of this standoff reached London and Washington officials from both nations were understandably shocked and immediately took action to calm the situation. It was determined that both sides would retain a joint military occupation of the island until a final settlement was reached. Just in case you thought this was moving towards rationality, this joint occupation lasted for 12 years while both sides lobbied for supremacy.
The dispute was finally settled through international arbitration, with Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm I acting as arbitrator, in 1872 with the favour going to the United States.
This war is commemorated to this day in San Juan National Historical Park.