It seems there is fighting and discontent all over the world: Ukraine, Venezuela, Syria, and the Sociology Department. While the fighting seems far away and among people we may not care about (this certainly applies to the Sociology Department) we need to be careful: it is amazing how often small incidents threaten to boil over into actual wars. Take for example, the Pig War.
The United States and Great Britain committed thousands of men and great warships to an almost-but-not-quite war that had international repercussions. Luckily, the conflict ended with only one casualty.
The story begins in the northwest territory of the United States. England and the US had squabbled for decades on exactly where to draw the boundary between Washington Territory and Canada. After intense negotiations, a treaty was signed in 1846 that said the boundary should run down the middle of the channel separating Vancouver Island from the mainland. Unfortunately, there were two channels, Haro Strait and Rosario Strait.
Depending on which strait was believed to be the main channel, San Juan Island could go to either one country or the other. San Juan is about 8 miles wide and 24 miles long. Though it was a beautiful island, its real value lay in its strategic location: whoever owned the island, would control the important waterway.
The United States claimed that since only the Haro Strait was navigable, it was the true boundary. The British however, could claim prior possession--the Hudson Bay Company had maintained a farm on the island since the 1840’s. The isolated farm had several thousand sheep and a dozen or so people.
This was probably a peaceful island—frequent rains meant lots of grass, and with no predators on the island, the inhabitants probably didn’t have to spend too much time herding the sheep. It was a peaceful, idyllic world.
Until, that is, the Americans arrived in 1859. Eighteen Americans had come up empty-handed in the gold fields and had decided to homestead on the “free” land of San Juan Island. The upshot was that within weeks, they had transformed the peaceful island into a battlefield.
On June 15, 1859, Lyman Cutlar (an American), discovered a large black pig destroying his garden and eating his potatoes. Cutlar, of course, shot the pig. He tried to do the right thing, offering to pay the owner, Charles Griffin (a Canadian), $10 for the porker. However, the owner was a hot-headed Irishman who demanded the outrageous price of $100.
“It was eating my potatoes!” cried Cutlar.
“It is up to you to keep your potatoes out of my pig.” replied Griffin.
Cutlar refused to pay, and Griffin asked the British authorities to arrest Cutlar, who immediately screamed for protection from the US Army.
This happened to coincide with the arrival in Oregon of General William Selby Harney. Harney was known to be profane, brave, and independent—not at all the qualities of a diplomat. Harney quickly ordered Captain George Pickett (Yes--the same man who would lead the disastrous Confederate charge at the battle of Gettysburg!) to set up a defensive position on the island. Pickett took 66 soldiers and three small artillery pieces to the island.
The sudden militarization of what had been an island principally occupied by sheep and pigs, upset the British who sent three warships to the island. Outnumbered, Pickett asked for reinforcements, and General Harney increased the garrison to 461 men and 14 cannon. The British responded with two more warships, bringing their force up to 167 cannon and slightly more than 2000 troops.
Meanwhile, President James Buchannan was relaxing in the White House, reading an English newspaper, when he suddenly learned that the two Anglo countries were about to have a war over a sheep-laden island that he had never heard of. The president ordered the highest ranking general in the army, 73-year-old Winfield Scott, to go to San Juan Island and defuse the situation.
Poor Scott was in ill-health, and the trip was hard on him. After a month at sea, he arrived in San Juan to find that both Pickett and Harney were quite proud of how they had handled the situation. Scott--evidently the only adult on the island--managed to convince both local military commanders to jointly (and hopefully, peacefully) occupy the island until a diplomatic solution could be reached. The British built a small fort on the north end of the island, while the Americans occupied the south end.
For the next 12 years, the two almost-enemies lived in harmony, visiting each other’s camps frequently to celebrate holidays or hold athletic contests. According to one visitor, the only threat to the peace was the unusually large amount of alcohol on the island.
Eventually, the two countries submitted their claims to Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany for binding arbitration. After a year of contemplation, the Kaiser sided with the American claim. The British departed in November, 1872, followed 18 months later by the US Army. Today, the island is maintained by the US Park Service, who respectfully still raise and lower the British flag on “their” end of the island every day.
The only casualty? The pig, of course.
There is one small part of the story still left untold: One of the young officers stationed on the island during the hostilities was Henry Martyn Robert. This young engineer designed the fortifications on the island, and was undoubtedly disturbed at the inability of the two angry groups to politely discuss this problem and reach an amicable settlement. In 1876, he published a book titled Pocket Manual of Rules of Order for Deliberative Assemblies. Today, it is more commonly called Robert’s Rules of Order.