As clear as that may have sounded to diplomats on both sides of the Atlantic, the treaty contained a loophole big enough to drive a warship through. At least two navigable channels run south through that region, with a sprinkling of forested islands—chief among them San Juan—strategically situated in the middle. To which country did these islands, with their cedar and fir forests, rich topsoil, deep ponds and mountaintop-lookouts, belong? The chief negotiators for the Crown and the president eventually dismissed such questions as details to be worked out later.
In December 1853, to help strengthen Britain’s claim on the territory, Hudson’s sent Charles Griffin to San JuanIsland to run a sheep ranch. Griffin named his place Belle Vue for its vistas of soaring eagles, whale-filled bays and snowcapped peaks. For a while, Griffin and his staff and livestock enjoyed the run of the entire 55-square-mile island.
But by the mid-1850s, Americans were beginning to stake their own claims on the island. In March 1855, a brazen sheriff and his posse from WhatcomCounty on the Washington mainland confiscated some of Griffin’s sheep in the middle of the night, calling the animals back taxes. The raid was deliberately provocative. “The issue was less about tax collection and more about sovereignty,” says University of New Mexico historian Durwood Ball. “Americans believed that the U.S. expansion all the way to the PacificCoast was the will of God, and success in the Mexican War had only fired up that conviction. They figured they could take the British.” By 1859, drawn to the island in the aftermath of a gold rush along the nearby FraserRiver, more than a dozen Americans had set up camps there. One of them was Lyman Cutlar, a failed gold prospector from Kentucky who in April of that year staked out a claim with a small cabin and potato patch right in the middle of Griffin’s sheep-run.
Cutlar said that the governor of Washington himself had assured him—erroneously, as it turned out—that the island was part of the United States. Therefore, Cutlar claimed that as a white male citizen over 21 years of age, he was entitled, under the Donation Land Claim Act of 1850, to 160 free acres. (He was wrong, again; “preemption” land acts that provided free or discounted property to Western homesteaders did not apply to the disputed territory.)
As it happened, Cutlar’s potato patch was poorly fenced (“three-sided,” according to official complaints), and Griffin’s animals soon took to wandering through it. According to Cutlar’s subsequent statements to U.S. officials, on the morning of June 15, 1859, he awoke to hear derisive tittering from outside his window.
Rushing from his house with a rifle in hand, Cutlar reached the potato patch to see one of Griffin’s hired hands laughing as one of Griffin’s black boars rooted through Cutlar’s tubers. An incensed Cutlar took aim and fired, killing the boar with a single shot.
Thus was fired the opening and only shot of the Pig War, setting off a chain of events that almost brought two great nations to blows. (“Kids always want to know who ate the pig,” Vouri says. “No one knows.”) Cutlar offered to replace the pig, or, failing that, to have Griffin choose three men to determine a fair price for it. Griffin demanded $100. Cutlar sputtered: “Better chance for lightning to strike you than for you to get a hundred dollars for that hog.”
Cutlar stomped off, and Griffin alerted his superiors at the Hudson’s Bay Company. They, in turn, called on the American’s cabin, demanded restitution and, depending on whose story you believe, threatened him with arrest. Cutlar refused to pay and refused to go with them, and the British, not wanting to force the issue, left empty-handed.
A few weeks later, in early July, Gen. William S. Harney, the commander of the U.S. Army’s Oregon Department, toured his northern posts. Noticing an American flag that Cutlar’s compatriots had raised on the island to celebrate July 4, he decided to investigate. The American settlers complained bitterly to him about their vulnerability to Indian attacks and their treatment by the British, and asked for military protection. It wasn’t long before they brought up the incident with the pig.
Although Harney had just days before paid a cordial call on British territorial governor James Douglas to thank him for his protection of American settlers against Indian attacks, the general—a protégé of Andrew Jackson’s who had absorbed his mentor’s hatred of the British—saw a chance to settle old scores with an aggressive stroke. (Harney, who would be court-martialed four times in his career, was “excitable, aggressive, and quick to react to any affront, insult, or attack, whether real or imagined, personal or professional,” writes his biographer, George Rollie Adams.)