On June 15, 1846, the British and U.S. governments signed The Oregon Treaty, establishing the border between Oregon Country and the Columbia District in Canada. The border would reside from the 49th parallel, down through the middle of the channel that separates Vancouver Island from the mainland, and then out to the Pacific Ocean. The only maps available at the time were a little fuzzy on details, though, so neither government knew there were actually two channels that separated Vancouver Island from the mainland—the Haro Strait to the west and the Rosario Strait to the east. Stuck in the middle of those two straits were the San Juan Islands.
Both Britain and the United States claimed the islands, but the dispute was dormant for many years. Then, on June 15, 1859—exactly 13 years after the Oregon Treaty was signed—Lyman Cutlar, an American farmer, noticed a large, black boar rooting in his garden. On the other side of Cutlar’s fence was Charles Griffin, an Irishman, who sat laughing as the pig destroyed Cutlar’s crops. Annoyed, Cutlar took out his rifle and shot the boar dead.
After cooling down, Cutlar offered to pay $10 for the pig, but Griffin refused, demanding $100 instead. Cutlar countered by saying he shouldn’t have to pay anything since the animal was trespassing on his land. Tensions mounted and British authorities threatened to arrest the American, who then called the United States for protection. Both governments responded to the situation by sending troops to the San Juan Islands.
The dispute escalated for the next two years. At its peak, Britain had amassed five warships carrying 167 guns and manned with 2,140 soldiers. The Americans had a still-respectable 461 troops with 14 cannons in reinforced positions. Wisely, the commanding officers saw how silly the whole thing was and demanded that neither side fire unless fired upon; they knew it wasn’t worth dying over a pig.
Eventually it was agreed the armies should leave 100 men each and send the rest home. This small military occupation lasted for another 12 years without a single shot being fired. In fact, the occupying troops became friendly with one another, celebrating holidays and even playing games during their stay.
The dispute was finally resolved in October of 1872. Canada suggested a compromise boundary running through the islands, but the final border ran through the Haro Strait to the west, making all the islands part of the United States. In November, the British pulled their troops; in July, the Americans left as well. The only casualty of this “war” was a hungry farm animal.
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