Politics & Government

Standoff over a dead pig nearly led U.S., Britain to war

The placid waters of San Juan Harbor, at the mouth of the San Juan River.
The placid waters of San Juan Harbor, at the mouth of the San Juan River. Barbara Cantwell / Seattle Times

WASHINGTON — Sometimes, pork on Capitol Hill has to do with, well, pork.

Or in this case a pig, a dead pig.

With bipartisan support, a resolution has been introduced in the House of Representatives to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Pig War.

The name, age, sex, and size of the pig has long been forgotten but the dispute its death triggered is the reason the border is where it is today between Washington state and Canada.

The pig was part of a herd owned by the Hudson's Bay Co., a British outfit. An American farmer shot it in the summer of 1859.

Killing livestock on the frontier was a serious offense. The farmer offered to pay restitution. Hudson's Bay wanted $100, an exorbitant sum back then. The farmer balked. Both countries sent in troops, with weapons were locked and loaded.

Nearly 500 U.S. Army regulars were commanded by Capt. George Pickett, who four years later would lead the charge almost 3,000 miles away at Gettysburg. The British had 400 battle-tested Royal Marines who had fought in conflicts such as the Opium Wars. They were supported by three Royal Navy warships with 62 total guns.

Word of the showdown took weeks to reach Washington and London.

"This was a territorial dispute between a world power and a rising world power," said Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., whose congressional district includes the San Juan Islands, now part of Washington state. "Who knew where it would end. It's somewhat fortunate only a pig got shot."

Cooler heads in both countries' capitals. Neither side wanted to disrupt the lucrative trade between the two countries, said Mike Vouri, the historian at the San Juan National Historic Park who's written three books on the Pig War.

The U.S. dispatched Army Commander Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott to negotiate a stand down, and the two sides peacefully coexisted on San Juan Island for 12 years while an arbitration commission appointed by German Kaiser Wilhelm I discussed the dispute. The commission eventually ruled in favor of the U.S., finally bringing a lasting peace along the 49th parallel between the U.S., Britain and what's now Canada.

"It's nice the pig didn't die for nothing," said Martin Longden, a spokesman for the British Embassy in Washington.

The 33-word resolution, introduced by Larsen, notes the peaceful resolution of the Pig War and praises the close ties between the U.S. and Britain. Larsen said he consulted with the British Embassy before introducing the resolution.

Vouri said the Pig War is a classic example of how to defuse an armed confrontation.

"We focus on the fact nations can resolve differences without going to war," Vouri said.

San Juan Island residents will note the anniversary of the Pig War this weekend with a reenactment. The British are sending a naval commander and the deputy counsel general from the British Consulate in San Francisco. A letter from Britain's ambassador to the U.S. will be read.

For the most part, however, the British have pretty much forgotten that chapter in their nation's history.

"It's fair to say the Pig War no longer registers in the consciousnesses of the British people," Longden said.

Larsen said he's not sure when the House will deal with his resolution, though it's been assigned to the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He's convinced of one thing, however.

"I'm sure the pig's last words were 'That's all folks,'" he said.

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