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The Pig War

April 10, 2015

I’ve mentioned before on this blog that the boundary between now-Canada and now-Washington State was kind of contested. Nobody knew exactly where to draw that line, even after a treaty was drawn up to settle the whole thing. Problem was, the treaty wasn’t as well-worded as it might have been, because it didn’t answer whether the San Juan Islands, directly between Vancouver Island and Washington, were British or American. Naturally, both countries said the San Juans were theirs and proceeded to settle them accordingly.

This may be the funniest boundary dispute I’ve run across, although I’m sure there are better ones.

On June 15, 1859, an American farmer on San Juan Island shot a pig for the crime of repeatedly eating his crops. The pig was owned by an Irishman running the Hudson’s Bay’s sheep ranch. The farmer offered the Irishman $10 compensation. The Irishman demanded $100. The farmer refused and the British threatened him with arrest. The Americans on the island then called for military protection.

Head in Hands

The Americans sent 66 soldiers to prevent the British from landing and arresting the farmer. The British, worried that the military presence would promote American squatters on their land, sent three warships. The Americans increased their presence. So did the British. By mid-August, there were 461 American soldiers with 14 cannon and five British warships with 70 guns and 2,140 men. Everyone was under orders not to fire first, so naturally they went Monty Python on each other.

Thankfully, when the British and American governments heard about this, they were shocked and did their utmost to calm things down. Mostly I think the shock was that “we’re nearly at war over a dead pig?!” with a side of the American Civil War looming on the horizon. Negotiations lasted twelve years, while British and American troops were stationed on the islands and got along rather nicely, thank you very much. Finally, the dispute went to international arbitration, presided over by Wilhelm I, in 1872, and the Americans got the San Juans. The Canadians got annoyed that Britain hadn’t looked out for them enough. They started demanding more independence from Britain. History progressed accordingly.

And still, nobody fired a single shot at each other the whole time. I’m kind of impressed.

* It was a colony by that point, so I can call them that.

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