One-Shot War With England

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Perhaps the best, if silliest, war this country ever fought was caused by the death of a rooting pig. Though tediously long—it persisted, with extended periods of inactivity, for nearly thirteen years—it had one outstanding virtue: the pig was its only casualty. In addition, when this war (if so it can be called) was finally terminated, the nonbelligerent belligerents settled down to a century of remarkable peace and harmony.

It is difficult to exaggerate the tensions that time and again brought British-American relations to the boiling point in the half century following the War of 1812, or the skill and patience of responsible officials who managed to control the militant popular sentiment on both sides of the Canadian border. The bitterness resulting from a largely unresolved conflict was aggravated by the expansionist tendencies of the United States. Few politicians could withstand the temptation to draw cheers with the promise of annexing everything “from Tierra del Fuego to the Aurora Borealis.” Meanwhile, the annexationists in the United States were successively abetted by malcontents among the Scotch-Canadians, the French-Canadians, and the British-Canadians, who used the issue to further their own political intrigues. Canada could hardly be blamed for feeling it might be swallowed up at any moment by its American neighbor.

The so-called Pig War began, as hostilities often do, over an affair of total insignificance. One day in the spring of 1859, a farmer killed a trespassing black pig with his musket. From this single rifle shot came volumes of diplomatic correspondence, countless threats, and nearly twenty years of anxious marching-up-the-hill-and-down-again.

The battlefield of this bloodless conflict was San Juan, one of a group of ruggedly attractive but economically worthless islands located at the southern end of the Strait of Georgia, between Vancouver Island and the Territory of Washington.

Behind the controversy was a long period of commercial rivalry between the British Hudson’s Bay Company and American pioneers and fur traders in the Pacific Northwest. No violence mars the record, but would-be rivals to the company’s monopoly in the area were quickly driven out by the basic tactics of outbidding, underselling, and pressure on the Indians not to do business with the intruders. At the same time, the antagonism of the Hudson’s Bay Company had its limits. When American settlers caught by the Oregon fever of the 1840’s straggled into Fort Vancouver at the mouth of the Columbia River, starving and destitute after their long trek across the continent, they were not turned away. Company officials tried to prevent them from settling north of the river but did not refuse the desperate travelers food and shelter while they recovered from their ordeal. The English seemed motivated less by the spirit of mercy than by the realization that cold-blooded treatment of the newcomers might incite them to violence.

It was not until 1845 that American settlers penetrated to the shores of Puget Sound. At the time, there were fewer than one thousand of them in the entire area north of the Columbia. This number was sufficient, however, to support the claims of the United States in the negotiations leading to the Treaty of Washington in 1846, which established the Forty-ninth Parallel, from Minnesota to the water’s edge, as the international boundary between this country and Canada.

But the treaty makers, who had been so precise in their delineations thus far, fell victim to abysmal vagueness when they prescribed the disposition of the islands dotting the Strait of Georgia. They agreed that the line along the parallel should be projected “to the middle of the channel which separates the continent from Vancouver’s Island; and thence southerly through the middle of said channel.” Their ignorance of geography led the framers of the treaty to imply the existence of one main channel, recognized by all, when in fact vessels plying the strait had a wide choice of routes. The upshot was a flat dispute as to whether “said channel” lay east or west of the San Juan Island group. The Americans assumed that the line fell to the west; the British just as firmly believed that the boundary brought the disputed islands into the province of British Columbia.

 

It was not a pig but a flock of sheep that first brought this difference of opinion into locus. In 1853 the Hudson’s Bay Company, sensing that the straggling flow of American squatters from the mainland might raise a future question of ownership, had moved to manifest its interest in San Juan by bringing a flock of 1,300 sheep to the island. In this remote outpost the local U.S. Collector of Customs, Isaac N. Ebey, could scarcely overlook the fact that the English had imported the sheep “without paying any attention to our revenue laws.” His resolve to collect the duty was sharpened by the belief (which later proved unfounded) that the British had highhandedly imprisoned one of his inspectors.

At this point Ebey uttered what was perhaps the greatest understatement of the San Juan boundary dispute. In a memorandum to the Secretary of the Treasury, he wrote of maintaining the authority of the United States government “over the Territory which I think is justly ours but which doubtless now will become a matter of Negotiation.”