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

Data Visualization Brings BDE (Big Data Energy)

To be honest, I considered data visualization more of a visual communication design project that probably made the creator cry at some point and question existence. A very “I see a red door and I want to paint it black” moment. But the digital humanitarians and historians who pioneered data visualization did so to “helped a new imagination emerge, wired to navigate a reality much bigger than any single person’s lived experience.” (Data Visualization and the Modern Imagination) For example, I tweeted about the BDE visualization of Florence Nightengale, Ben and Jerry’s and Truffaut’s film Jules et Jim. All different and yet the data provided a deeper understanding and some jealousy.

Micki Kaufman stated in her Everything on Paper Will Be Used Against Me how information for historians can be scarce or overwhelming but for students of twentieth- and twenty-first century history they can experience an information overload. This Big Data Energy or BDE required a method to present the large data subset and data visualization offered a means for presentation of the historical patterns to refute, document or prove. The computational techniques have advanced and are now utilized by historians to go beyond data collection but into a deeper interpretation of the materials available. A concern about giving credit to the source material is valid but historians and nerds alike love to go deep on footnotes and with digital humanities a link can be inserted with hopefully no 404 error at some point. Just the whisper of this possibility drains the E from BDE.

Josh McFayden demonstrated how effective and evolved mapping is in The Fir Trade in Canada by his use of timemapping or temporal GIS. With this software visualization can offer insight in environmental issues, historical events and anything that can be imagined. He described the four different types of temporal GIS features: Moving, Discrete, Stationary and change/growth which he used for the railways documentation. McFayden noted the lack of exact dates and will only require a “sample of the historical data” for their research. Visualization benefits the digital humanities by allowing more accessibility but the technology will require training and a budget to pay for the cost of courses for staff and software updates to keep BDE up to date.

(Photo: Rihanna’s Fenty X Savage limited edition BDE shirt for historians and digital humanities expers)