The Pig War Standoff: Boarish Behavior on San Juan Island

A pig played a role in the political standoff of 1859 over the northwest boundary between Great Britain and the United States. Well, let’s exonerate the pig of some responsibility. Tensions were already taunt due to the “it’s complicated” relationship status between the two countries. Both claimed sovereignty over San Juan Island but which country claimed the navigable channels was not determined and contested; Britain’s Hudson Bay Company established a sheep operation on the island in 1853 in response to the U.S. claiming the islands in the Washington Territory; and Americans settled on the island but were referred to as “Yankee squatters” by the Brits. (Shocker: Americans do not take kindly to their hegemony being questioned.) The island invited lawlessness since residents were not paying taxes or customs duties which attracted elements with little interest in establishing communities with prosperous farms, churches and schools. Indeed on the American side, San Juan Village floated on a sea of bad whiskey and prostitution. (The Pig War, Kindle 3657)

San Juan Island (highlighted in the map above), was of notable significance due to its strategic position at the mouth of the channel.

The pig in question was owned by HBC and was shot and killed by Lyman Cutlar. It should be noted his fence only had three sides and historian Boyd Pratt tried to place this on Cutlar’s Salish wife (Ibid, 1088), he shot the pig after chasing it away from his property into the woods, and threatened to shoot Hudson Bay agent Charles Griffin if he trespassed on his claim when Griffin requested payment for the pig. (Ibid, 1114) Griffin in turn threatened to have all the Americans removed which escalated the incident further. Things went from zero to a hundred real quick – an enormous American flag was raised (they rowed one in from Whatcom!), sheep were hilariously stolen from Griffin and sold by the Americans, the British frigates were posted along the island, U.S. forces brought cannons and back up and a 12-year standoff ensued. But the gossip and and lack of awareness perpetuated by self-important men the real dangers of a near war. The pig just wanted potatoes but the men wanted to remain in powerful positions even if they created them from a much ado about nothing.

Throughout Michael Vouri’s The Pig War: Standoff at Griffin Bay one man exhibited unparalleled swine-like behavior: Captain George E. Pickett. Author Granville Owen Haller proposed Captain Pickett and General William S. Harney schemed to start a war with the darker motive of distracting the North so the South could achieve independence. No records exist to substantiate this theory. (Ibid, 1468) Throughout the bluster and confrontation, Pickett continuously proved deceitful, antagonistic and unwilling to see peace prevail. Pickett’s ignorance of the Treaty of Oregon, Marcy agreement, and his outright wrongness about San Juan Islands’ designation as U.S. territory. Captain Geoffrey Phipps Hornby’s upholding of Britain’s non-confrontational policy held the line against Pickett’s disregard of the situation’s possible implications.


Michael Vouri, The Pig War: Stand Off at Griffin Bay (Ibid, 121)

After reading about The Pig War, there are a few San Juan Island stories that I am interested in adding to a Curatescape for the area.

  1. Kanaka workforce before and after the white settlers
  2. Mrs. Pickett’s story with reference to the Peace Weavers book Dr. Cebula recommended
  3. Salmon salt drying racks | HBC & Coast Salish systems
  4. How the Cowiche Indians built the Military Road
  5. San Juan Island laundress life
  6. Operation Sea Wall from the 1950s
  7. Block houses and their usage

2 Replies to “The Pig War Standoff: Boarish Behavior on San Juan Island”

  1. I’d be interested to see your work for the San Juan Islands history we have been assigned. I found it interesting that you pointed out Cutlers Salish wife and the blame she received. Your focus seems to be towards the woman in this historical narrative. I think historical women often get overlooked and you unintentionally point that out in this piece. As I’ve mentioned previously I’d be interested to hear your perspective on the San Juan Islands.

    1. Hello Dawn,

      It seemed like the men were a bunch of gossips and instigators who were trying to hang on to their military glory. When I read how Cultar’s Salish wife was blamed on the construction of the fence that popped the top of my head off. “San Juan Island historian Boyd Pratt theorizes that the “enclosure” amounted to lines of stacked rocks fashioned by Cutlar’s Indian wife, because that is how the Coast Salish women delineated their family camas root plots.” (Kindle, 1094) Cutlar placed his garden in the path of the HBC sheep run and he never bothered to secure his potatoes? That’s on him and his ineptitude. I read the statement itself as a jab at her culture and intelligence because there’s just no way a male member of the “master race” could be inept. I hope she lured the pig into the garden just to mess with him – now that would be awesome.

      Your question on Twitter about trying to distinguish Native American history from the settler narrative is one that needs to always be present in all discussions. In many of these historical accounts the concern is over land, animals and political power but the erasure of Native Peoples is met with silence or microaggressions about their intelligence. Again, my eyes just rolled thinking about the fence business.

      I look forward to seeing your stories for the San Juan Islands history too!

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