In terms of conflict between Britain and the United States, everyone has some knowledge of the revolutionary war of the late 1700s (a British defeat), and some may have heard of the “War of 1812” in which the White House was burned down (a draw between both nations); but hardly anyone will have heard of the Pig War of 1859.
Yes, you read that right: Pig War. This was a small, brief confrontation between the two states over a territory dispute on the American-Canadian border, specifically over the San Juan Islands. The context of this dispute is traced back to the 1840s, by which point the young United States nation had spread itself across the North American continent toward the western seaboard. There was tension over the extent of this American spread, because although the British had been booted from the thirteen original American colonies, the empire itself retained significant holdings in the north of the border in the Canadian provinces. A treaty was signed in the 1840s in an attempt to resolve the land dispute, but differences remained.
In June 1859, an American farmer – who had moved onto San Juan Island – found a pig eating his vegetables (particularly tubers) in his garden. The farmer shot the pig and killed it, which led to shouts for compensation from the pig’s owner (an Irishman employed by the British Hudson Bay Company). Neither could agree on a suitable fee for compensation and the British threatened to arrest the American farmer, which in turn led to calls from other American settlers to seek American protection.
By August, the British and American had sent in troops to the area: the British had five warships and 2,000 men, whereas the Americans had amassed just under 500 men with 14 cannons on San Juan Island. The British governor of Vancouver Island ordered the British admiral to land men on the island in order to push back the Americans, however, the admiral refused. The admiral stated that seeing ‘two great nations in a war over a squabble about a pig’ was rather silly. So, rather than engage one another, the two forces waited out the tension over the following days, with no shots being fired.
The governments of both states heard about the escalation in the region and quickly moved to ensure that the matter was resolved before it went any further. The settlement saw a small military presence of both Britain and American (100 men a piece), until over a decade later the Treaty of Washington ironed out the lingering problems between both countries. After this point, the British left San Juan Island.
Other than the shooting of the pig, this conflict was a bloodless war. But it is interesting to consider just how close both nations came to creating an outright conflict over this one issue. It highlights the continuing suspicion between both nations, particularly with the British still looking down their noses at the young, upstart Americans. This unstable relationship would remain until the 20th century, when both countries would ally – with great success – in the two world wars of that period.