I don’t often mention a war on this blog, as wars are generally not brilliant. They are awful things that definitely shouldn’t happen. But, I can promise you that the only casualty in this war will be… one pig.
In the middle of the nineteenth century, the Americans and the British were trying to decide exactly where the border between the United States and British Columbia lay. They produced a document saying that the border would be along a narrow strait between the coast of Oregon and Vancouver Island. This might have been fine, but in the middle of the strait there were the San Juan Islands. Which side of them did the border lie? Who did the islands belong to? No one was sure.
In 1853 the Hudson Bay Company, who were mostly interested in fur trading, decided to set up a sheep ranch on one of the islands which was managed by a man called Charles Griffin. Along with the sheep, he brought crop seed and other farm animals including, importantly for this story, some Berkshire pigs. When the Americans found out about it, they were pretty unhappy. They thought the island belonged to them so they demanded import duty for the animals. The Hudson Bay Company refused to pay. Things escalated pretty quickly and the Americans decided to just take the sheep and sell them, as a way of getting the money that they felt was owed to them. This culminated in around fifty breeding rams being rounded up on a beach and sold in an auction which took place shortly after midnight. The scene in which the purchasers tried to force unhappy rams onto tiny boats in the dark can only be imagined. Griffin and several of his herdsman arrived to see thirty eight of his rams sailing away.
Everything was reasonably quiet, until American settlers began to arrive in 1858. They were returning, disappointed, from a short lived gold rush and were looking for something else to do. Then, in the spring of 1859, a former gold miner called Lyman Cutler arrived to stake his claim. His farmstead stretched over 160 acres and was not well fenced. The morning of the 15th June 1859 was not the first time he had woken to find Griffin’s pigs rooting up his potato crop but on this occasion he snapped and shot one of the pigs.
Griffin demanded $100 compensation for the pig. Cutler refused, saying the pig wasn’t even worth $10. Cutler said Griffin should keep his pig under better control. Griffin replied that Cutler should do a better job of keeping potatoes out of his pig. Cutler was threatened with arrest for the murder of the pig, so he called in the American authorities. The American authorities sent sixty-six soldiers. The British responded with three warships. This situation continued to spiral out of control. By August, there were four hundred and sixty-one American soldiers with fourteen cannon and five British warships carrying seventy guns and two thousand, one hundred and forty men. At this point people, thank goodness, began to show some sort of restraint. Both sides were under orders not to fire the first shot. For several days the British and U.S. troops had to content themselves with trading insults, but neither side could be goaded into firing.
Negotiations eventually led to an impasse. The island was occupied amicably by both sides for the following twelve years. While the rest of the United States was fighting their terrible Civil War, the soldiers on San Juan were having a great time. Because no one had decided who owned the island, no taxes were collected and alcohol was freely available. The two sides visited each others camps for parties and sporting events. A lack of civil law on the island attracted more and more settlers. Particularly smugglers, who were looking to avoid paying import duties on their goods. Especially on wool. At that time, you might be surprised to learn that, the sheep of the San Juan Islands were famous for apparently producing up to one hundred and fifty pounds of wool each per season. That’s a lot of wool. If you want to know how much, I can tell you as, because of some stuff you probably don’t know about me, I happen to own a fleece at the moment. I weighed it. It weighs about five pounds. So if a sheep had a hundred and fifty pounds of wool on it, it would have to roll around the field, because it’s little hooves wouldn’t reach the ground…