The 1859 “Pig War,” between the United States and Britain, is known for being a war in which the only casualty was a pig.
It all started with an unclear boundary determination off the coast of Washington state. An 1846 treaty stated that the channel dividing Vancouver Island from the mainland would split British and American territory—unfortunately, there were two different channels that fit this description, leaving possession of the San Juan Islands in question. The two countries set up a joint commission to determine where the boundaries actually lay, but the countries’ representatives reached separate conclusions. Each group declared that the treaty referred to the channel that would give their country possession of the San Juan Islands, and nothing was settled.
During this time, the British Hudson’s Bay Company started a sheep ranch on San Juan Island, and a couple dozen Americans also settled there. On 15 June 1859, a pig belonging to a member of the Hudson’s Bay Company got into the garden of Lyman Cutlar, an American settler, and ate his potatoes. Annoyed, Cutlar shot the pig. With Cutlar under threat of arrest by British authorities, the settlers asked for American military protection.
In response, around 60 American soldiers were sent to the island; to counter that, the British sent three warships. The situation continued to escalate over the next two months, until there were 460 American troops and 2,140 British. This time of tension was described by British admiral Robert Baynes as “two great nations in a war over a squabble about a pig.” Both sides were commanded to only defend themselves and not to fire first, so as a result, no shots were fired.
When word of the situation finally reached Washington and London, both governments were surprised to hear that things had gotten so out of hand. President Buchanan sent an official to mediate the disagreement. The negotiator got the two sides to agree to a joint occupation of the island, with no more than 100 soldiers each, until the boundary dispute could be settled. The American Civil War postponed the decision for a decade or so, but the troops from the two sides lived amicably during that time.
Finally in 1871, as a side result of a treaty resolving other issues, Britain and the United States decided that their boundary dispute would be solved through international mediation. They picked German Kaiser Wilhelm I—who in turn picked a three-man committee that met for a year. Finally, in 1872, the committee ruled in favor of the United States, giving it possession of the San Juan Islands. Within the month, Britain had withdrawn its troops from the island, peacefully ending the 26-year dispute.
For more information about the Pig War, visit the San Juan Island National Park website.