Pig War

In 1859 a dispute over a single pig led to a military standoff between the United States and the United Kingdom. The conflict would eventually draw in George Pickett (of Pickett’s Charge), Henry Robert (of Robert’s Rules of Order) and Kaiser Wilhelm I.

National Park Service, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The 19th century saw many border disputes and entanglements between the United States and what is now Canada. The Pig War of 1859 has to rank near the top of those in my esteem, thanks to the wonderful combination of many famous participants, some potatoes, and a single pig.

At issue in this border dispute were the San Juan islands, which sit in the strait between the American mainland and the Canadian island of Vancouver. An 1846 treaty between the US and the UK established the border between the two countries as running down the middle of this strait. Just one problem there: the treaty did not say which side of the San Juan Islands constituted the middle of that strait.

The islands were claimed by both countries, and both American farmers and British sheep ranchers set up shop on the disputed land. They were pretty friendly right up until 1859. In June of that year, a pig owned by an Irish rancher got loose and started rooting around in an American farmer’s potato crop. The American shot the pig dead. The rancher demanded compensation. The American refused. The British authorities threatened to arrest the American. The American farmer did not accept the British jurisdiction over the island. The Pig War had begun!

George Pickett was one of the first military officials to arrive. Pickett was later a famous Confederate general in the American Civil War – he led the suicidal “Pickett’s Charge” in the Battle of Gettysburg which may have been the turning point for the whole war. The conflicts that would lead to the Civil War were already heating up, and some people have theorised that Pickett wanted to start a war with Britain in order to either reduce tensions in the south or distract attention from the south’s imminent bid for independence.

Also stationed on the island was Henry Martyn Robert, an officer who would later go on to be a general in the Union army during the Civil War… and also the author of Robert’s Rules of Order, a textbook of parliamentary procedure still used to direct American meetings today (“point of order!”). He built a fortification on the island known as Robert’s Redoubt – pictured rather romantically above.

Anyway, the American and British militaries faced off against each other for several days. No-one wanted to fire the first shot because of the absurdity of the inciting incident, but everyone was ready to turn this micro-cold war hot if the other side took a shot at them first. Fortunately this war ended with no shots fired (except for the one that killed the pig, of course). Cooler heads prevailed and the two sides entered into negotiations over the disputed island.

Those negotiations took twelve more years, ending only when both sides agreed to international arbitration from the German Emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm I. (His grandson, of course, would go on to be a key player in World War I.) Wilhelm sided with the Americans; today the San Juan Islands are part of Washington State.

[Thanks to Ian J. for suggesting this topic.]

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