One-Shot War With England


Ebey’s principal antagonist was James Douglas, governor of Vancouver Island and an official of the Hudson’s Bay Company. “By letters from Nisqually,” Douglas told his London office, “I was informed yesterday that Mr. Ebey had left Nisqually on the 21st inst, with two Boat Crews to seize the British property on the Island of San Juan, and I immediately despatched a force of Whites & Indians.”

Ebey pulled in his horns in the face of superior forces. He had, however, succeeded in calling the attention of his government to the existence of the territorial dispute. As winter loomed, virtually all the pioneers who had attempted to homestead on the island retreated to the mainland, leaving the British sheep, their attendants, and a few uncommitted Indians in possession.

But Governor Douglas noted in January of the following year, 1854, that the war of nerves persisted. San Juan, he wrote, “has never been free from alarms.” He blamed the constant tension, in part, on the American press. “The most atrocious calumnies were printed in the newspapers,” he complained.

Two months later the sheep on San Juan suffered a hit-and-run attack. The formal incorporation of Whatcom County (on the American mainland to the east) held San Juan and its neighboring islands to be an integral part of the newly created political entity; the sheriff of Whatcom County was empowered to collect eighty dollars from the Hudson’s Bay Company in property taxes.

The sheriff did not duplicate Ebey’s mistake of telegraphing his punches. Organizing a posse, he descended on San Juan Island without warning. Each of his men was armed with a brace of revolvers, and when the eighty dollars was not forthcoming, the sheriff directed them to seize enough sheep to satisfy the levy. Thirty-four violently struggling breeding rams were bundled aboard the boat, while Hudson’s Bay Company employees stood by protesting.

Governor Douglas was doubly chagrined. Not only did he resent the loss of the sheep, but he was ashamed of his servants’ mild behavior. “This,” he observed, “is an exceedingly annoying affair.”

Douglas, however, did not permit his irritation to overcome his judgment and his anxiety to maintain peace. Hc endeavored to obtain a settlement, and arranged with the American authorities in the Territory of Washington for a temporary joint civil occupation. Under Douglas’ uigings, London and Washington named their respective boundary commissioners, who examined the physical and documentary evidence, consulted and negotiated, and finally turned in totally conflicting reports.

The incident that lit the fuse to the powder keg and gave the Pig War its name occurred on June 15, 1859. Contradictory versions of it were supplied by Charles Griffin, owner of the pig, and Lyman A. Cutler, who shot the beast.

In his report to Governor Douglas, Griffin, who was the company agent on San Juan, hotly and somewhat incoherently described “an outrage committed here today by a man by the name of Cutler, an American, who has very recently established himself on a prairie occupied by me and close to my establishment, he has dug up about one third of an acre in which he planted potatoes and partly and very imperfectly enclosed, my cattle & pigs had free access to the patch.”

Griffin then went on to relate with equal emphasis how his valuable pig had been wantonly slain while peacefully rooting some distance from Cutler’s potatoes. Subsequently, Cutler had appeared at Griffin’s door and offered “remuneration which was so insignificant it only added insult to injury, and likewise used the most insulting & threatening language.”

Cutler, with comparable reluctance to bring a sentence to an end, saw the incident somewhat differently:

For some time passed I have been greatly anoyed by one of the Hudson Bay Co. hogs (black Boar) entering my potatoe patch and destroying the crop, he was repeatedly driven off by myself back to the Hudson Bay Co (a distance of one and a half mile) and the Hudson Bay Co was aware of this fact. In the morning of the 15th Inst I was aroused by some person riding by on horseback and upon going out the door found it to be Jacob, a colard man one of the Hudson Bay Co servants, I immediately glanced toward the potatoe patch (which is directly along side the road) and seen the Hudson Bay Co hog at his old game. I immediately became enraged at the independance of the negro knowing as he did my previous loss and upon the impulse of the moment seazed my rifle and shot the hog.

Far from using “the most insulting & threatening language,” Cutler stated in his affidavit, he had then proceeded to Griffin’s house eager to apologize for his burst of temper, only to be met by “supercilious manners,” a threat of arrest, and a demand for a staggering one hundred dollars in damages, which he flatly rejected.