The Pig War of 1859 scarcely deserves to be called a “war” at all. Only one shot was fired, which accounted for the aforementioned pig, but the rest of the affair was a matter of threats and gestures, although it was not fully resolved for another thirteen years.
A border dispute
This dispute between the United States and Great Britain arose from the uncertainty over where the border should run between the US and Canada, which was then under British control. The decision to set the border at the 49th parallel, arrived at in 1818, only applied as far west as the Rocky Mountains, with anything west of there, which was largely unexplored, being jointly assigned to both nations although it was still largely in the hands of various Native American tribes.
However, by 1844 settlers both north and south had pushed west to the Pacific coast into what was then known as the Oregon Territory. With absolutely no regard for the wishes of the Native Americans who, as usual, were disregarded in any territorial claims by the immigrant settlers, the Americans sought to set the border in the Rockies at 54.40 degrees north which, had that happened, would have meant that the United States would today have occupied the whole Pacific coastline from Mexico northwards, because the modern state of Alaska extends south of that line.
However, after much negotiation, it was agreed that the 49th parallel should be extended as the international border all the way to the coast, thus granting all the territory north of that line, to the originally desired 54.40 line and beyond, to what is still known as British Columbia.
There was still a problem, though, because the 49th parallel, being a line on a map, did not accord well with the ins and outs of the western coastline. There was the little matter, for example, of a small peninsula that juts across the line to the south of the city of Vancouver, and the much larger issue of Vancouver Island, quite a considerable portion of which is south of the line.
In 1846 a treaty was agreed under which the whole of Vancouver Island would belong to British Columbia but the small peninsula of Point Roberts, covering no more than five square miles, would be American territory. To this day, Point Roberts is part of the State of Washington but can only be reached by sea unless one travels through part of Canada to get there by road.
However, this was not the whole story, because there are a number of smaller islands that lie between Vancouver Island and the mainland south of the 49th parallel, and the ownership of these was not made clear in the 1846 treaty. One of these is San Juan Island, and this was the site of the Pig War.
A pig makes a fatal mistake
The island had been settled by people of both British and American origin. When an American settler shot a pig that had strayed into his garden and which belonged to a neighbour, who was British, both men sought the support of their respective governments. As might have been expected, both sides over-reacted to an alarming degree. The British sent a fleet of five warships and the Americans landed a force of more than 450 soldiers on the island. Things could have turned very nasty indeed.
Fortunately, sanity prevailed and no shots were fired. The sides agreed that San Juan Island should, for the time being, be jointly administered with troops from both sides providing security for the settlers. However, this state of affairs could not last for ever and in 1872 the matter was referred, in what sounds today like an extremely bizarre decision, to the Emperor of Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm I. It was thought that he was neutral enough to provide an unbiased opinion on who should be the owner of San Juan Island. He came down on the side of the United States, which has remained in charge of the island ever since.
It could well be argued that all wars are stupid, but some are more stupid than others. Had the United States and Great Britain engaged in a shooting war over a straying pig, the 1859 Pig War would have been a strong candidate for the title of most ridiculous war of all time.
© John Welford