The War of the Pig: The Pig Incident
June 15, 1859.
American Farmer Lyman Cutlar finds a pig rooting through his potato patch. This pig he thinks is one he’s seen before and is tired of dealing with the damage. He raises his rifle, aims at the burrowing swine and fires. The shot sets of a chain of events that he probably didn’t anticipate.
The pig belonged to a British neighbor and the two quarreled over the shooting. The Brits threated to arrest Cutlar for the incident and the American settlers pleaded to Washington to send in Military protection. The British settlers requested to the Hudson Bay Company to request more troops from the crown as well.
The War of the Pig was beginning.
The War of the Pig: The Dispute
So why were the Brits and the Americans here on San Juan Island, and who really did have jurisdiction. Well that’s where much of this dispute lies.
The Hudson Bay Company, under the protection of the Crown had set up shop in nearby Victoria Island and had also laid claim to the San Juan Islands. The Americans also believed the San Juan Islands belonged to them as well.
Years before the border between Canada and the United States was settled on the 49th parallel which to this day still makes up the border between the two countries. However the Islands by present day Washington were under dispute and part of Victoria Island dips below this line. Given, the British were already there, the Island was given to Canada and the border was decided between the straits on the Islands. However, there were two straits, which is where the dispute lied.
The British had set settlers to occupy the island as well as Americans who also believed the Island belonged to the US and had settled the Island as well. For years, they were fairly peaceful albeit distrustful of the other side. The shot just set of a dispute that was a long time coming.
The War of the Pig: Troop Movement
Both the British and Americans heard the pleas of their settlers and sent troops to the Island. The British, arriving from nearby Vancouver Island began to set up a camp on the northside of San Juan Islands and the Americans on the South.
Neither side really wanted war. The British stretched thin from other parts of the world and a war would be difficult to fund. The Americans worrying about Southern secession and a war with Britain could be the catalyst the South needed to finally leave; and then the Americans would be fighting a war on two fronts. The Brits and Americans agreed to arbitration and occupation of the island, as part of the agreement the British requested that General Pickett be replaced as the American commander (as he was a known hot-head) and the Americans agreed. Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany was chosen to arbitrate.
Visiting the National Historic Site
These days the site is owned and operated by the National Park Service as the San Juan Islands National Historical Park. The park consists of two different sites, the American camp (on the South Side of the Island) and the British Camp (northside).
You can actually visit both of these camps during your time here, and you really should! They are both pretty different. The main visitor center is by the American Camp, and the new visitor center is actually really nice. There is a visitor center in the British camp in one of the camp buildings, but less staffed and sporadically closed. I had to wait for the person running it to come back from his rounds. Although, he was dressed in period clothes and gave a way better history lesson!
San Juan Island NHP: British Camp
If you can only visit one of the sites, I would highly recommend the British Camp. It is the bigger and more well built of the sites. There is a noticeable difference in construction and effort put into the camps. The British camp is on a lovely little harbor and the well constructed buildings gave the Brits a pretty good life on the Island. Many of the folks who served spoke fondly of their time on San Juan Island and missed it after leaving.
You can visit several of the houses and buildings in the land as well as some remains of the English Gardens. There are several hiking trails you can wander down and up to get some lovely views and see the area. I do recommend trying to get higher and getting a view over the camp and the bay.
San Juan Island NHP: American Camp
By contrast, the American Camp was a harsh place to live. Built on an unprotected side of the south, it felt so much more of the harsh weather of the island. The Americans, expected it to be temporary, never really invested in construction and it showed; the shoddy condition of the houses, and the exhausted conditions of the troops.
It was much harder to keep morale up on the south, and the Americans often got frustrated with their conditions and longed more for home. There are a few trails to wander through this camp as well, but they are shorter as the camp is smaller. But the area and the nature is lovely to see as well. From my photos you can see the weather was also strangely different between the camps that day.
Some of the buildings are open to exploring, but many are unstable and closed to the public. Still walking the grounds and exploring the history is worth seeing.
War of the Pig: Camp and Life
The Arbitration was taking a long time, and as such life would go on the camps. The British commander wife spent much of her time chatting with the other officer wives and working on the Garden (described above). As years went on the troops and families between the two sides spent much time communicating and spending time together. They celebrated holidays together and many of the folks on the American and British side became friends. Marriages even spanned each of the sides and new family borne from the conflict. Life continued peacefully and amicably while they waited for arbitration
War of the Pig: Arbitration
One of the things I could not find was why arbitration lasted so long. Wilhelm the first was tasked with this important decision and he weighed the sides carefully with the panel he commissioned.
As stated there are two straits (Rosario and Haro) along the islands.
As you can see the two straits will significantly impact on the state of two countries. And Wilhelm needed to weigh the options well. After 12 years of the Americans and British staring each other down from the opposite sides of San Juan Island, the decision came down. The border, between the two countries would sit at Haro strait. The decision was cast and the two sides agreed to abide, soon after the British parted from San Juan Island back to Vancouver. The decision and the border exists to this day.
San Juan Island NHP: Visitor Information
San Juan National Historical Park is open year round with varying times for the visitor and other centers.
Entrance Fee: Free
American Camp: 4668 Cattle Point Rd. Friday Harbor, WA 98250
Wednesday – Sunday: 10am – 3pm Daily; Friday – Sunday (Labor Day to December 20, 2021)
British Camp: Thursday -Sunday: 9am – 4pm; Closed: Labor Day to December 20, 2021
Staying there: Despite the names, both sites are for day-use only. There is not camping at either of the sites. However you can probably find camping elsewhere on the Island and there are hotels to stay at in Friday Harbor.
San Juan Island NHP: Getting There
The National Historic Site is located on San Juan Island off the Western Coast of Washington State. Getting here requires you to take a ferry from the mainland to Friday Harbor on the Island
Washington State Ferries has ferries that service the Island from Anacortes and you can even bring your car across. It takes about 1hr to 90 minutes to get to the Island depending on which ferry you choose. Many of them stop at other nearby islands as well.
If you are planning to Visit the Camps while on San Juan Island, it is highly recommended you bring a car with you as public transportation is barely existent. Regardless even if you could get transportation without a car it will be tough to get between camps.
You can visit the San Juan Island NHS as a day trip from the coast by you need to really plan to get there early. I would recommend spending the night in Anacortes or nearby so you can be sure to catch one of the early ferries to get over to the island. You’ll need to be ready to go by the afternoon. I found there to be plenty of time to see both sites, explore Friday Harbor and get to the ferry in time to return to the mainland.