The Pig War of 1859 - Seabright Farm Cottages

The Pig War of 1859

The three possible borders, with the American offer & current border (Haro Strait) in blue, the British offer (Rosario Strait) in red, and the proposed compromise in green.

The Canadian-American border is essentially a straight line from Minnesota all the way to us here in Point Roberts. Once it hits the water it runs through the Haro Strait, west of San Juan Island, and south around Vancouver Island into the ocean. This divides the Strait of Georgia into two distinct island groups – the American San Juan Islands, and the Canadian Gulf Islands (the Seabright Farm Cottages house models are named after islands in both groups!). And much like Point Roberts, this seemingly innocuous border has a very interesting history.

The Oregon Treaty, responsible for Point Roberts being cut off in the first place, defined the border as running “…to the middle of the channel which separates the continent from Vancouver Island…” While it seemed clear at the time, there was a problem: there were two straits – the Haro Strait and the Rosario Strait. The British argued for Rosario, and the Americans for Haro, with control over the San Juan Islands the prize for the winner. When a compromised border couldn’t be agreed upon, both sides claimed sovereignty over San Juan Island and began settling there. For 13 years, though no compromise was made, things stayed relatively peaceful for the Americans settlers and British Hudson’s Bay Company employees.

On June 15, 1859, an American farmer named Lyman Cutlar shot and killed a pig he discovered rooting through his garden. The pig belonged to Irish Hudson’s Bay Company employee Charles Griffin. Cutlar offered $10 (close to $300 today) for the pig, while Griffin demanded 10x the amount. Cutlar claimed the pig was on his property and refused to pay. When British authorities threatened to arrest him, the American army stepped in, kicking off what’s now known as the Pig War.

What followed was a “war” that would last 12 years. Local American and British commanders began sending soldiers and warships to the small island, all with the order to not fire the first shot, but be willing to defend themselves. Despite soldiers shouting insults at one another, no shots would be fired, but tensions continued to run high. Once news reached officials in London and Washington, both sides began negotiations to defuse the situation. Two camps, an American and an English camp, were established with forces of no more than 100 men each, and were allowed to jointly occupy the island. This peace lasted until 1871, when the newly-signed Treaty of Washington laid out the decision to solve the border dispute by international arbitration. The following year, the arbitration decided in favor of the American side and the border was drawn through Haro Strait. Even today, the old British Camp on San Juan Island still flies the Union Jack, one of the few non-diplomatic places in the United States that officially flies the flag of another country.

Despite the threats and high tensions, the Pig War ended with a single casualty: Charles Griffin’s pig.


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