Oregon was contested territory. The United States and Britain laid claim to the land. In 1836, the US and Britain sign a treaty to settle the long running border dispute, which put the border at the 49th parallel. Things got a bit trickier as the 49th parallel divided islands southwest of Vancouver. The Treaty stated the border as “the middle of the channel separating the continent from Vancouver’s Island.” This left San Juan Island in dispute and citizens from both countries settled there.
Things were peaceful until a pig wandered into the potato field of American farmer, Lynman Cutlar. The pig was feasting on Cutlar’s potato crop and in a fit of pique, he shot and killed the pig. The problem? The pig was the prize winning pig of Charles Griffin, a British employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company. The two met and tried to resolve the dispute peaceably, with Cultar offering to bay $10 for the loss of the pig. However, Griffin refused and the two ended up in an argument. Witnesses said the exchange went as follows:
Cultar: “…but it was eating my potatoes!”
Griffin: “Rubbish. It’s up to you to keep your potatoes out of my pig”.
Griffin turned in Cultar to the British authorities, who threatened to arrest him. Cultar and the other American citizens on the island were outraged and drew up a petition for protection and sent it to General William S. Harney, the commander of the Department of Oregon. General Harney was a known Anglophobe, and did not waste time mustering troops to come to the aid of the American islanders. He sent a 66-man company of the US 9th infantry to San Juan on July 27th 1859.
Things escalated when the governor of British Columbia, James Douglas, sent three warships to the island as a show of force. So there was the American military dug in with cannon pointed at three British warships with guns pointed back at them. Governor Douglas commanded Admiral Robert L. Baynes to fire on the Americans. However, the Admiral refused famously saying, he would not “involve two great nations in a war over a squabble about a pig”
By this time, word had trickled back to both Washington and London and no one wanted to go to war over a pig. They hastily decided that no more than 100 men from each country could be on the island until the formal border was decided. San Juan Island remained in limbo until 1972, when it was decided the island should be under American control. It is now a national park, however, the British flag flies there as a token of friendship between the nation. As far as I know, no additional pigs were harmed in this story.
Sources available on request