Friday, June 7, 2019

Who Would You Root For? The Pig War, Part 1

One of my favorite bits of Washington State history involves a pig that brought the U.S. and England to the brink of war. The Pig War was "fought" on San Juan Island from 1859 to 1872.

You see, America and England had long argued over where the boundary would rest between the British Territories in North America (aka Canada) and the U.S. Territories. The decision was made to place the border along the 49th parallel north. But there was a problem when the line reached the West Coast. It would cut Vancouver Island about in half. The British didn’t want that. They had major trading posts and the burgeoning town of Victoria on that island. So, they negotiated that the boundary would run “in the middle of the channel” through the San Juan Islands and down the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the Pacific.

Whoever wrote that line didn’t have a map handy. There are two major channels through the San Juan Islands: one lying to the east of archipelago, one lying to the west. The British thought islands were theirs. The Americans were determined the islands belonged to them. San Juan Island in particular became a kind of no-man’s land, hiding outlaws and smugglers who thought they would be free from any law there.

The Hudson’s Bay Company started a sheep farm on the island to further British claims. A handful of Americans started farms of their own. Then, one day, a pig belonging to the Hudson’s Bay Company went rooting in the garden of an American settler. The American shot it. Hudson’s Bay threatened arrest and eviction. The Americans banded together and appealed to their government for support.

The Army sent George Pickett (before he became famous for his Civil War charge) and 64 infantrymen to protect the citizens. They landed on July 27, 1959. The British sent three warships totaling 62 guns, 400 Royal Marines, and 15 Royal Engineers to roust them out. The Americans refused to budge. A military leader on both sides negotiated a draw down of troops, so that the Americans agreed to no more than 100 soldiers, while the British made do with a single warship. The British commander was given strict orders not to fire unless he was fired upon first.

The Americans set up camp at the southeast end of the island on grassy fields that had belonged to the Hudson’s Bay Company. 

The British built a fort on the northwest corner along a sheltered cove.

And there they stayed for 12 years while the two governments wrangled.

I’ll share more about American Camp and British Camp in the coming weeks. For now, who would you root for?

Besides the pig.

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